What Should We Make Of The Islamic State’s Ramadan Wave Of Violence?

The Islamic State has taken the final week of Ramadan to make a big statement: “We will not go quietly.” In the last seven days the terror group has shown that a “wounded Islamic State is a dangerous Islamic State” lashing out in an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings and other attacks around the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia.


The Islamic State’s gradual decline in Syria and Iraq has finally brought a long expected shift in the group’s tactics from conventional military operations back towards insurgencies paired with regional and international terror attacks. The Islamic State overtook al Qaeda by declaring a caliphate and has since surpassed their forefathers as a terror group by executing a daily string of directed and networked attacks in six countries while narrowly missing in a seventh.

Here’s a quick recap of the Islamic State’s Ramadan Campaign. (For an explanation of the directed versus networked taxonomy see “Directed, Networked and Inspired: The Muddled Jihad of ISIS and al Qaeda Post Hebdo.” I’m estimating whether these attacks are directed or networked based upon available open source information. These classifications may change as further information arises.)

June 27 to July 5: The Islamic State’s Cascading Terrorism

Success breeds success for the Islamic State and their directed suicide assaults seek to amplify their image, rally their base during a down time, and inspire their supporters to undertake further violence in their name. Here’s what the Islamic State has perpetrated in short order.

Interestingly, only two of the above attacks do not involve a suicide operation – Bangladesh and Malaysia. Jama’at ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a group connected with the Islamic State, but not a formal wilayat, had until recently only perpetrated targeted sectarian assassinations and this attack appears to not only be a major, violent step forward for the group but also seems more reminiscent of the Paris attacks and other international hostage seizures. Association of the Malaysian grenade attack with the Islamic State would also be a new trend regionally. In both cases, these peripheral attacks in South and Southeast Asia show the lesser capability of these distant Islamic State associates. It’s difficult to tell at this point whether they don’t have the capability to perpetrate suicide bombings or the personnel willing to execute such attacks.

Ultimately, the Islamic State has cascaded its terror attacks striking one target in a different country each day. Will it inspire attacks globally? Only time will tell, but possibly not. Western media has paid short attention to these attacks with the exception of the Istanbul airport. As al Murabitoon and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb learned with its Western African terror campaign post Paris, Western media coverage endures when Westerners are killed in the West, all other attacks have less value.

Here are some other items of note from this past week’s terror campaign.

The Islamic State against all enemies – Muslim, Christian, Shi’a, Sunni, Arab, Western

Some have incorrectly suggested that the Islamic State nimbly focuses its attacks predominately against Westerners or certain audiences. This week’s Islamic State attacks and resulting deaths point to the opposite conclusion: all enemies of the Islamic State are targets and Muslims have suffered the worst. In Saudi Arabia alone, the Islamic State hit near a Western consulate, a Shi’a mosque and a Sunni holy site. Lebanon saw targeting of Christians. Bangladesh brought a focus on Westerners. The Istanbul attack killed mostly Muslims. Yemen and Saudi Arabia saw the Islamic State concentrating on security forces. Each Islamic State affiliate may pick and choose certain targets for local reasons but as an aggregate, no one faith or ethnicity is spared from the Islamic State’s wanton violence.

Islamic State’s Remaining Fighters: Die In Place Or Go Out With A Bang?

The Islamic State lost Fallujah last week and some of its members that tried to escape were pulverized in massive airstrikes. Many Islamic State foreign fighters can’t return home or have no Islamic State affiliate to drift back to. For those homeless foreign fighters, the choice is simple: they can either die in place fighting for a crumbling caliphate or they can go out as martyrs striking their homelands or a regional or international targets. The Islamic State owns the largest number of homeless foreign fighters in history. As the group loses turf, they’ll likely become part of the largest human missile arsenal in history and be directed against any and all soft targets they can reach. This campaign is likely not the end of the Islamic State’s suicide campaign, but only the beginning.

 Foreign Fighters Go As Far As Their Passports Will Take Them

 Last winter, the West suffered from the Islamic State’s decision to allegedly dispatch hundreds of European foreign fighters back to their homelands. Paris and Brussels burned and operatives across a host of European countries were arrested. Western passport holders and those hidden in refugee flows pushed as far as they could to hit high profile soft targets. Turkey struggled for years with foreign fighters passing easily through their borders into Syria and fighters from the Caucasus and Central Asia found the country quite permissible, likely facilitating this past week’s Russian-speaking suicide bombers. Richard Engel reported that as many as 35 operatives were recently dispatched into Turkey alone. The Yemeni and Saudi attacks focused more heavily on security forces and were likely perpetrated by Islamic State pledges from their respective countries and possibly a Pakistani. The bottom line: the Islamic State is sending its bombers to the locations where they can achieve the biggest results. They are not in short supply of Western, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, or Russian operatives – expect more suicide attacks in places that al Qaeda only dreamed of reaching.

Strong Counterterrorism Matters: The Islamic State Preys On The Weak

Those countries with stronger counterterrorism and security apparatuses have fared the best this past week. The Saudis, long known for squelching terrorists in their midst, sustained far fewer deaths than other countries hit this week. Iraq, despite years of investment, seems unable to protect itself from suicide attacks with yet another massive suicide bombing. Lebanon and Bangladesh, two locations of rising promise for the Islamic State (see Figure 1), have weaker security environments and local conditions ripe for extremism. The Islamic State will likely learn from this past week and exploit those places where they got the greatest return on their investment.

Is The Islamic State Looking For An Exit Strategy?

In conclusion, the Islamic State’s rapid pace of violence may come at a time when they need to find a new home for the brand. Their caliphate revenues and oil production continue to dry up. They will need to shift to illicit schemes and donations to survive. Successful attacks attract investors: will this latest string of violence bring money? Probably not, but what this rampant violence can do is signal to Islamic State’s central leadership which affiliates are still committed to the Islamic State brand. Affiliates, existing or emerging, may want to carry on the Islamic State’s vision outside of Syria and Iraq. Much like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was for the al Qaeda Central during their downturn, Islamic State Central will need an affiliate to carry the black banner forward or their caliphate experiment will crumble as fast as it was created.

ISIS affiliates Figure 1

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Who attacked Charlie Hebdo in Paris? Assessing a Jihadi Attack in The West, ISIS vs al Qaeda

Today’s terrorist attack in Paris killed 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine; presumably for their perceived insults to Islam and/or ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  As expected, media outlets, governments and their citizens want to know who is responsible for the attack.  In years past, arriving at a conclusion regarding culpability occurred rather quickly.  Attacks were either command directed by al Qaeda or perpetrated by an inspired adherent to al Qaeda’s ideology and justifications for violence.  Today, in an era where ISIS has grown to overtake al Qaeda in stature globally, the perpetrator of today’s attack at Charlie Hebdo appears far murkier.  Analysts and journalists should assess four different potential perpetrators and scenarios:

  1. An Al Qaeda Central (AQC) or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) directed plot from Yemen or potentially Pakistan (AQAP is AQC at this point)
  2. An ISIS directed plot from Syria and Iraq
  3. An al Qaeda inspired plot by supporters in the West
  4. An ISIS inspired plot by supporters in the West, of which there have been several in recent months. 

There could always be a fifth scenario, a completely unaffiliated different ideological movement that wants to attack Charlie Hebdo (I call this the Andres Brevik scenario), but I think its not sufficiently likely to warrant analytical effort at this point. 

While it remains too early to assess responsibility and events continue to transpire in Paris surrounding the attack, there are some factors and supporting evidence coming in to begin distinguishing between different scenarios.  While I DO NOT know who perpetrated the attack, I am building my own chart to track the possible scenarios and evidence that is leading me to one perpetrator over another.  When assessing jihadi attacks in the West these days, I look at several factors to begin distinguishing perpetrators, which I’ll discuss here.  In government, this might be called a quick and dirty Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH for short). The scenario with the most supporting evidence tends to be the most likely. NOTE: This will evolve throughout the day as more evidence comes in; I have not settled on one perpetrator over the others and I’m still compiling information.  Also, a good ACH takes time and the evidence is weighted and assessed for being confirmed or suspected.  I don’t have time to do that this morning so am just doing an initial draft here

Here are the factors I’m looking for:

  • Reconnaissance: Based on the success of the attack, killing 12 people and the Editor possibly during a morning meeting, I assume a significant reconnaissance was conducted which suggests a well-planned operation more consistent with a directed plot.
  • Targeting Mass/Random vs. Specific: The attackers went after specific people in a specific location, and this is more indicative of a directed plot.
  • Attack Locations – Single vs. Multiple: As of now, there appears to be only one attack location but this might change, or lead to a deliberate standoff. 
  • Weaponry – Advanced vs. Self Provided: The automatic weaponry used suggests access to a sponsor and a deliberate directed plot.  Inspired plots more often involve attackers providing and using their own lower capability weapons.
  • Sponsored Organized Media Release: This will be important in the coming hours. Both ISIS and AQ might try to take credit for the attack, but the timing of responsibility matters.  And, this could be an inspired attack, so maybe a media release will never come. 
  • Propaganda Citing Motive For Attack: While Charlie Hebdo did insult Islam which would be offensive to both groups, they directly insulted ISIS leader Bagdadi, although this may have been too soon before the attack.
  • Suicide Mission/Fight To The Death (FTD) vs. Planned Withdrawal: Generally, inspired attackers seek media attention and want to drag out the incident.  These guys withdrew professionally suggesting a command directed plot. 
  • Size of Attacking Element – Lone Wolf vs Small Cell: Inspired attacks are more often lone wolf plots.  This attack involved at least three perpetrators which suggests an ISIS or AQ directed action.
  • Symbols Present at Scene or Statements of Perpetrators: Little is known at this point, however, some news has trickled out that one of the perpetrators said that “al Qaeda in Yemen” was responsible.  I’m uncertain about the credibility of that claim.
  • Professional vs. Amateur: These guys look professional.  From the video, they handled their weapons well and look experienced, possibly suggesting the presence of a former foreign fighter being involved and leaning towards a directed plot rather than one that was inspired.
  • Foreign Fighter Origin: Very recent reports suggest one of the attackers was speaking Russian!  I am not sure of the credibility of the report, but with the vast number of foreign fighters in ISIS ranks, and the presence of so many Chechens and Caucasuses fighters in ISIS, this leans towards an ISIS command directed attack.

Here is my quick and dirty ACH chart as of 1030.  Note, I provide my assessment of each scenario and what I would expect in black text.  My assessment should definitely be challenged and debated.  I then, in red, pasted #JeSuisCharlie where I’ve seen evidence or potential evidence supporting each assessed factor in the scenario.  I thought this might be a useful tool for those to debate who the perpetrators might be.  More to follow…….

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In Syria, an al Qaeda group falls victim to other Islamists and jihadists

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (a.k.a. ISIS) for many months dominated the jihadi landscape in Syria.  Originally known as al Qaeda in Iraq and then the Islamic State of Iraq, ISIS led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi undertook an aggressive rebranding in April 2013 seeking to expand its influence from Western Iraq into Syria, capturing a share of the voluminous foreign fighter migration to Syria.  Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, ISIS also became the first al Qaeda affiliate to publicly rebuff al Qaeda’s global leader Ayman al-Zawahiri demonstrating that al Qaeda affiliates around the world have varying levels of commitment to the organization and its leadership.  ISIS expanded its control on the ground through a brutal campaign of violence and institution of a harsh version of Sharia law, which quickly alienated local communities. As noted in this BBC interview anecdote from a man named Mohammed who fled ISIS controlled Raqqa, Syria:

Mohammed also says a heating oil merchant, Abu Wael, was tortured after refusing to sell any at a discounted rate to members of ISIS. He apparently told them that he had agreed a price with their emir, but they demanded it be halved.

At its zenith last week, ISIS occupied and controlled several major cities in Iraq and large swaths of Syria. By this weekend, in the east, the Iraqi army undertook a campaign to retake Fallujah from ISIS control likely inflicting a good number of casualties on the group as they have fled the city.  In Syria, ISIS advances have been aggressively countered, not by the Asad regime, but instead by the Syrian Islamic Front, a compilation of Islamist and Salafist groups.  As seen in this map from Cedric Labousse at the Arab Chronicle, ISIS gains have been challenged by several groups collectively referred to as “The Rebels” in this map.


The inevitable push back of ISIS in Syria (west) and their checking by the Iraqi military (east) will hurt the group’s foreign fighter flow and may push them into remission.  However, ISIS has suffered setbacks before.  During the U.S. surge of 2007 – 2009, U.S. Special Operations forces decimated the then Islamic State of Iraq (aka ISI, al Qaeda in Iraq).  With time, space and insufficient governance, ISI regenerated and built a significant jihadist threat to the world.  ISIS’s fall raises several points and questions about the future direction of jihadist groups. 

  • ISIS foreign fighters were killed by other Muslims including jihadists – For the second time in less than a year, al Qaeda members have been killed by other Muslims; likely including other al Qaeda members.  Last year, internal fractures in al Shabaab in Somalia saw jihadists (al Qaeda members) killing each other (see here and here).  This week, Islamists, Salafists and Jihadists took to killing each other in Syria.   Foreign fighters enmeshed in these groups thought they were arriving in Syria to pursue a jihad fighting Asad.  Instead they are killing fellow foreign fighters that may have come from their old neighborhoods. As I’ve noted in the past, jihadists are more likely to be killed by a fellow jihadist than the West.

  • Temporary but important curb on foreign fighter flow to Syria – Social media discussion already signals that this infighting will have a negative effect on future foreign fighters.  Foreign fighter recruits gaze on these recent events and wonder what group they should join or whether to go to Syria at all.  I imagine foreign fighter flow to Syria might temporarily slow in the near-term which may undermine influence of jihadist groups in Syria.  However, should the fight against Asad continue indefinitely and order emerges amongst Islamist & Jihadist groups, foreign fighter flow will likely resume again over the longer-term.  As long as there is global demand to participate in the Syrian jihad, some group in Syria will ultimately help facilitate newcomers.   

  • Another stain on al Qaeda’s global brand, but does it matter? – News stories and opinion pieces about al Qaeda pave a winding, dramatic track.  Al Qaeda is either near defeat or at its greatest height.  Debates hinge on what different prognosticators define as “al Qaeda” with some seeing every Sunni militant group as part of an all-encompassing organization.  Others pursue a more nuanced approach examining each group independently with al Qaeda connections representing one element of their analysis rather than the dominating factor.

For Ayman al-Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central based in Pakistan and co-led by Nasi al-Wuhayshi, leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, Syria’s infighting and the attacks on ISIS should signify another dark chapter in al Qaeda’s history.  In the West, ISIS losses will likely be perceived as a pseudo victory against al Qaeda.  But, Syria is complex and al Qaeda is no longer one thing.  Off the top of my head, I can count almost a dozen different groups either named or connected to al Qaeda each sporting their own degree of loyalty to the brand.  So will the current ISIS rebuffing truly impact “al Qaeda” globally? I would assume yes, but the effects will unevenly be felt by al Qaeda affiliates and “linked” groups.  Today, jihadists groups have niche audiences and popular support based on country of origin, diaspora connections and relative success.  A stain on “al Qaeda” won’t necessarily transcend negatively to an affiliate or regionally linked group. 

  • As ISIS wanes, focus on al Nusra – ISIS warnings have filled the headlines recently.  However, as seen by this past weekend’s battles, I’ve always thought that ISIS would bring about its own demise through its sectarianism and extreme violence.  In my opinion, the West should be focusing on Jabhat al-Nusra.  Led by Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, al-Nusra represents the smarter and stronger connected al Qaeda affiliate in Syria – a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” – open to a coalition and governance in the near-term, but likely set on dominating the country and instituting Sharia governance in the long-term. If Ayman al-Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central have any influence in Syria, its with al-Nusra.  Nusra and ISIS fought each other on occasion in Syria and the ISIS push into Syria from Iraq sapped Nusra’s foreign fighter supplies.  With ISIS in retreat, Nusra has pushed forward seizing ISIS strongpoints and reclaiming foreign fighters.  The Daily Star reports:

Another activist, Abdallah al-Sheikh, said that some Syrian ISIS fighters had stayed in place but switched allegiance to the Nusra Front. Nusra’s commanders are mostly Syrian rather than foreign and it coordinates with the Islamic Front, but both ISIS and Nusra have their roots in Al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

The West should focus now on non-military levers to undermine Nusra such as working vigorously to cutoff Persian Gulf donations to these groups and using information campaigns to communicate that Nusra and ISIS are both al Qaeda groups sharing the same vision for the future. 

  • Could this strengthen al Qaeda Central and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s hand in Syria? – Presumably, ISIS members being killed by other Muslim groups represents a net loss for al Qaeda Central globally.  But ISIS leader al-Baghdadi publicly rebuked Zawahiri and seemed to follow his own agenda in Iraq and Syria forcing Zawahiri to openly disseminate his guidance and attempt to regain his influence amongst jihadists in Syria.  With ISIS in retreat and Nusra, a likely more loyal affiliate, gaining ground and personnel, could recent events actually increase al Qaeda Central’s influence within Syria?  This ISIS setback also comes after accusations of al Qaeda Central influence in Ahrar al Sham.  The Long War Journal reports

“A senior al Qaeda operative known as Abu Khalid al Suri is a leading figure in Ahrar al Sham….One official noted that while Bahaiah is not the emir or overall head of Ahrar al Sham, he is considered a central figure within in its ranks and plays a significant role in guiding the group…US officials say that he is part of a secretive al Qaeda cadre that has sought to influence or co-opt parts of the Syrian insurgency that are not official al Qaeda branches.”

In aggregate, while ISIS losses look bad, they may have been a necessary evil for al Qaeda Central if they seek to keep their influence in what may become the largest jihadist fight in history. 



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Zawahiri’s Latest Message: Please Listen To Me Jihadis, Stop Bickering

While it’s not uncommon to see Ayman al-Zawahiri wagging his finger in a quarterly or semi-annual propaganda video spewing the usual anti-American rhetoric, it is unusual to see al Qaeda leaders issuing guidance and directives to subordinates in publicly available guidelines.  As-Sahab Media, an al Qaeda media outlet, recently released Zawahiri’s “General Guidelines for Jihad” in both Arabic and English. Zawahiri has issued public edicts to followers before, but this latest installment feels quite different and its delivery and content suggests several changes and tensions that may be afoot inside al Qaeda global organization. 

First, let’s explore why Zawahiri would issue public rather than private guidance to the global jihadi community. Normally, al Qaeda might broadcast strategic vision publicly, but reserve directives and corrective guidance via secure communications.  The most famous intercept of these private communications comes from Zawahiri’s 2006 scolding of abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi for counterproductive violence against Shia in Iraq.  In addition, the Harmony documents provide countless other examples of al Qaeda’s internal directives and squabbles.  More recently some private communications to jihadi groups in Syria have allegedly surfaced showing dissatisfaction between Zawahiri and al Qaeda in Iraq’s emir abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  Al Qaeda, like most any terrorist organization, normally delivers these messages in private for several reasons:

  1. Airing internal squabbles publicly hurts the organization’s popular support and certain leader’s authority,
  2. Public messaging can reveal strategy and orders to adversaries (counterterrorists) enabling their efforts to defeat the terrorist organization, and
  3. Such messaging can, at times, severely reduce the security and success of al Qaeda affiliates.

In short, this message went public because Zawahiri’s guidance isn’t being followed. Al Qaeda Central messages and directives either can’t get to affiliates or they are being ignored.  Both scenarios are problematic for the terror group.

Second, the content of Zawahiri’s guidelines goes beyond grand vision instructing individual jihadis on what exactly to avoid.  Previous messages, whether from Bin Laden, Zawahiri or even Anwar al-Awlaki, have given rather broad suggestions to jihadis such as go to “Jihad in country fill in the blank” or “Do-Jihad-At-Home”. But Zawahiri’s latest guidelines suggest something more specific.  Today, he doesn’t seem to be speaking to the global jihadi movement as a whole but instead communicating directly to jihadis enmeshed in affiliates engaged in battles across North Africa and the Middle East.  Zawahiri writes, 

We call upon the heads of all groups and organizations that work under Qaidatul Jihad Organization (al Qaida) and all our supporters and sympathizers to spread these guidelines amongst their followers, whether in positions of responsibility or ordinary individuals; for this document contains no hidden secrets, rather it is a general policy guideline.

I can’t recall one paragraph in any al Qaeda document that reveals as much as this one.  Zawahiri claims this “is a general policy guideline” yet the instructions provide targeting guidance down to the individual country and unlike in other public al Qaeda guidance spends far more time telling jihadis what not to do rather than what to do.  Strategic vision documents usually discuss what to do broadly rather than what not to do specifically.  These guidelines in general represent a public scolding of al Qaeda affiliate leaders and tries to redirect the energies of affiliates and their followers to focus on attacking the far enemy (the U.S. and the West) while in the near-term avoiding local near enemies to include Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Ismailis, Sufis and most importantly Sunnis.  Zawahiri seems to suggest that after killing off far enemies, jihadi’s can then return to killing local adversaries.

So why would Zawahiri publicly begin mixing strategic vision with actual guidelines for executing action?  For this, Dr. Jacob Shapiro’s new book The Terrorist’s Dilemma provides some excellent perspective and suggests that Zawahiri and al Qaeda globally is suffering yet again from agency problems. More simply, al Qaeda affiliates can’t get along.  Shapiro notes that agency problems arise when three conditions exist:

  1. A principal needs to delegate certain actions or decisions to an agent
  2. The principal can neither perfectly monitor the action’s, nor punish him with certainty when a transgression is identified, and
  3. The agent’s preferences are not aligned with those of the principal.

Since 9/11, al Qaeda Central under Bin Laden and now Zawahiri has spent so much energy to maintain their security that they’ve sacrificed their operational control over affiliates.  With each passing year holed up in Pakistan, al Qaeda Central has delegated nearly all actions to their agents located in affiliates around the world.  However, with Bin Laden’s death and al Qaeda Central’s loss of grip on resource distribution, al Qaeda Central’s delegation has been accompanied by a loss of an ability to monitor the actions of affiliates and punish those that get out of line – namely al Qaeda in Iraq, now the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), and its leader abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The most prescient example being Qaeda affiliates in Syria fighting with each other as well as other Sunni groups, thus undermining efforts to overthrow the Assad regime.  Local al Qaeda affiliates have their own interests in Syria, have their own resource streams separate from al Qaeda, and Zawahiri remains separated from them by great distance.  Hence preference divergence and agency problems for Zawahiri.

So if you are Zawahiri, what do you do to rein in your global terror organization at a time of great opportunity in Syria and Egypt? First, Zawahiri empowered another affiliate, AQAP in Yemen, and its leader, Nasir al-Wuhaysi, elevating him to second-in-command of al Qaeda strengthening a subordinate more proximate to Syria and Egypt and increasing Wuyashi’s authority vis-à-vis other al Qaeda affiliates. Second, maybe Zawahiri pushes jihad in Egypt aggressively.  By expanding al Qaeda operations in the Sinai, a campaign of personal preference, Zawahiri won’t directly pull from Syrian al Qaeda affiliates, but will increase the options of foreign fighters and donors diluting the Syrian share of support.  Third, maybe Zawahiri executes a spectacular attack outside of Syria to restore interest and support in al Qaeda globally.  The initially thought to be Shabaab attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya was most certainly al Qaeda inspired. But as more evidence mounts this attack may ultimately turn out to be more AQAP/AQC directed.  If true, this could help Zawahiri re-assert al Qaeda’s prominence for doing the big and spectacular.  Fourth, Zawahiri in his latest guidelines skips over his subordinate leaders and speaks directly to his followers in local affiliates.  Zawahiri writes,

We call upon the heads of all groups and organizations that work under Qaidatul Jihad Organization (al Qaida) and all our supporters and sympathizers to spread these guidelines amongst their followers, whether in positions of responsibility or ordinary individuals.

Essentially, he says, “if you are not hearing my guidance from your leaders, take it directly from me.”  By going public and speaking to the individual member in Syrian affiliates, Zawahiri now forces subordinate leaders with divergent preferences (Baghdadi) to adhere to his guidance or reveal themselves publicly to their members as being defiant of al Qaeda’s global leader. 

Some have suggested the rifts amongst al Qaeda groups in Syria (ISIS and al Nusra) are overblown, but I can’t believe Zawahiri would issue such public guidance unless he was concerned.  Not only has he expressed his concerns in his guidelines, he has followed up with audio messages this past weekend noting:

fighters must “rise above organizational loyalties and party partisanship” and unite behind the goal of setting up an Islamic state.”

In Syria, locals overtaken by ISIS swear bay’a, the oath of allegiance to al Qaeda in Iraq’s emir, abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, and not to al Qaeda’s global leader Zawahiri. Likewise, al Qaeda in Iraq (aka the Islamic State of Iraq [ISI/ISIS]) was the only al Qaeda affiliate not to affirm its allegiance to Zawahiri after Bin Laden’s death. There must be dissension in the ranks.

For those countering al Qaeda, I continue to advocate that we keep affiliates competing rather than cooperating. Zawahiri is publicly telling us this is a problem for al Qaeda, let’s help keep this a problem for Zawahiri. 

Effective counterterrorism analysis should identify when these terror groups compete and when they cooperate. Knowing when terror groups compete will help the West construct an environment around threat groups replicating the conditions most prone for destructive interference. In contrast, understanding when disparate terror groups cooperate will help analysts detect the emergence of larger groups able to execute global terror attacks on a routine basis. – “What If There Is No Al Qaeda?” – 2012

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