Russia returns as al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s ‘Far Enemy’

The Soviet defeat and subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 left victorious Arab mujahideen adrift.  Many retired from their jihadi adventures returning home to North Africa and the Middle East. Others remained in Pakistan, committed to fighting jihads in other theaters, establishing a network that in 1991 would officially become known as al Qaeda.  With time, Osama Bin Laden aimed al Qaeda’s ideology at the United States whom he believed to be the ‘Far Enemy’ who propped up the ‘Near Enemy’–local apostate Muslim dictators and their regimes.  This strategic logic, annotated in al Qaeda’s 1996 declaration of war on the United States, has powered nearly two decades of terrorist attacks on Americans. 

Al Qaeda’s ‘Far Enemy’ logic for singularly focusing on the United States has proven both wrong over the long-term and counterproductive to the terrorist group.  In the months before and after Bin Laden’s death, the U.S. let North African and Middle Eastern dictators fall to Arab Spring uprisings.  Until the rise of the Islamic State (IS), al Qaeda’s jihadi spawn, the U.S. refused to intervene in Syria–one of the bloodiest and most protracted civil wars in recent history.  U.S. inaction in Syria, rather than meddling, has provided what little lifeblood al Qaeda clings to in its most important affiliate Jabhat al Nusra.  

Jihad’s real ‘Far Enemy’ in Syria for many years has been Iran and now Russia.  For several years, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces have helped Syria hold the line against a band of rebel groups to include Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State.  Last month, Russia moved from the shadows and into the forefront with their military build up.  The Russians talk of targeting terrorists, but the pattern of their airstrikes speaks otherwise.  Most sorties have aimed their missiles at Syrian rebel groups including Jabhat al Nusra leaving the Islamic State mostly to the American-led coalition.  Today, Russia, far more than the U.S., has returned to be jihad’s ‘Far Enemy.’

More than a year and a half ago, in anticipation of the Islamic State’s rise over al Qaeda and witnessing the U.S. desire to extract itself from the Middle East post-Iraq, I proposed that, ”U.S. information campaigns in counterterrorism should consider redirecting al Qaeda’s ‘far enemy’ narrative. Today, the real far enemies of jihadis in Syria are Russia and Iran.”  I still believe this to be a wise strategy for the U.S.  First, for more than ten years, the U.S. has failed to successfully counter jihadi ideology and supporting propaganda.  Lacking any demonstrated success winning the hearts and minds of militant Muslims, why continue to waste time and money funding counternarrative efforts?  Second, it’s almost always easier to shift a message (alternative narrative) than to counter it (counter narrative).  If the goal is simply to protect Americans from jihadi violence, then it will likely be easier to shift jihadi violence to another target, such as Russia, than to convince jihadis to abandon their ideology and violence entirely. Third, the Russians have used social media driven information campaigns to discredit the U.S. for years.  Facebook and Twitter remain littered with pro-Russian, Western looking accounts and supporting automated bots designed to undermine the credibility of the U.S. government.  Why not return the favor back to the Russians and restore their place as the ‘Far Enemy’?

Unfortunately, the U.S. will likely be unable to execute such an information strategy to redirect jihadi angst onto a Russian adversary.  Current calls for countering the Islamic State’s ideology echo those of ten years ago to counter al Qaeda.  Americans appear permanently fixed on this failed tact.  U.S. messaging efforts also remain painfully slow to program.  Americans haven’t even figured out how to respond to the Russian invasion of Crimea, therefore it’s doubtful they’d be effective at redirecting jihadi angst prior to the end of the Syrian conflict.  Lastly, the U.S. seems a bit scared of Russia in the information space in part because Russian cyber attacks on the U.S., whether by organized crime or the Russian state, have become a huge vulnerability.  Don’t anger the bear if you can’t keep it in its cage. 

Luckily for the U.S., jihadi propaganda appears to be spinning away from the U.S. and toward Russia.  Months ago, the leader of al Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, said he was instructed by al Qaeda’s top leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to avoid targeting the U.S.  Shortly after Russian airstrikes, Julani released an audio message calling Russia the “Eastern Crusaders” and calling for attacks inside Russia and on Shiite villages.  The U.S. at a minimum, through covert or semi-covert platforms, should take advantage and amplify these free alternative narratives to provide Russia some payback for recent years’ aggression.  Russia would assuredly do that to the U.S.

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The Islamic State Online: Countering the Symptom Rather Than The Disease May Only Make Them Stronger

The 2016 Presidential campaigns have swung into full gear and tough talk about countering the Islamic State grows by the day.  All of the candidates seem to embrace calls for kicking the Islamic State off of social media.  Hillary Clinton was one of the first to endorse this tactic back in July noting, “we have got to shut down their Internet presence, which is posing the principal threat to us.”  And who wouldn’t want to kick the Islamic State off the Internet?  Here are a couple things to consider.

First, fighting the Islamic State online will be the easiest policy for candidates to get behind–a position with almost no costs and some marginal benefits.  Fighting jihadists online is far more preferable to fighting jihadists on the ground and allows a candidate to call for action without actually having to put any Americans in harm’s way. Battling extremists on social media plays well with American audiences, too. Most Americans understand Facebook and Twitter far better than they do the geopolitics of the Middle East.  Lastly, American policy makers can actually create action on this policy since Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other social media companies predominately reside in the U.S. and can feel discomfort from government tough talk.  As a policy position, “Kicking The Islamic State Of Twitter!” sells.

A second point to consider, however, is fighting the Islamic State online but not on the ground represents nothing more than contending with a symptom while ignoring the disease. Long before the rise of the Islamic State, al Shabaab in Somalia became the first prolific and successful jihadi group to leverage social media.  As J.M. Berger noted, repeated Twitter shutdowns of Al Shabaab did diminish the group’s online prowess.  But these shutdowns occurred concurrently with Shabaab’s decline in Somalia.  Shabaab supporters not only lost access to Shabaab’s propaganda, they lost interest in a group clearly on the wane. 

Undermining access to the Islamic State without eroding affinity for the group’s successes will lead online supporters to innovate and evolve online rather than recede–a dangerous consequence of a tactic that seems so straight forward on the surface.  The Islamic State’s innovation online has been a critical component of their success and a large reason for their overtaking an al Qaeda who failed to adapt to and harness mainstream social media. The Islamic State’s persistent incorporation of new media methods has attracted a band of tech savvy followers.  Resistance from the West on social media has likely led these Islamic State fanboys with computer skills to innovate even further to get out the message and retaliate on the cyber battlefield. 

Today, Islamic State supporters often employ automated bots on Twitter to sidestep attempts to curb their reach.  As they’ve been pushed from mainstream social media sites, the Islamic State has developed and deployed their own apps that provide downloads to their supporters as a way to avoid Twitter’s spam detection algorithms.  Growing support online has also led to the emergence of Islamic State affiliated hackers who during last week’s September 11 Anniversary threatened attacks on the financial system and government websites. Islamic State affiliated hackers have allegedly posted personal information of U.S. military members as well.

Countering the Islamic State’s presence online rather than undermining affinity for the group’s success and resulting message may ultimately lead to policies that make the group temporarily weaker and yet ultimately more resilient.  Kicking extremists off Twitter is fine, but it should not be the first, nor will it be the most essential part of the U.S. strategy to counter the Islamic State.  We should be asking for a lot more from our Presidential candidates who will likely continue to put forth the easiest and least controversial counterterrorism proposals. 



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Can the Islamic State hijack September 11 from Zawahiri’s al Qaeda?

September 9, 2015

The increasingly reclusive Aymen al-Zawahiri sprung up his ugly head this week with a new lecture series entitled the “Islamic Spring”, seeking to remind the West and what few remaining admirers of al Qaeda that the group is not dead on the 14th anniversary of  September 11, 2001.  Along with revoking the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate, al-Zawahiri, via the title of his series, seeks to remind people of the democratic failings of the Arab Spring and how al Qaeda represents the true vanguard for jihad and a caliphate.

The 9/11 anniversary beckons an al Qaeda broadcast, but the group clings to anything that will provide it with any real relevance. Al Qaeda’s remaining hope lies in its tenuous relationship with its Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra whom likely would stand to benefit from disavowing any connections with its global jihadi overlord Zawahiri.  The Islamic State continues to grow in popularity amongst jihad’s next generation and affiliates around the globe seek out allegiance with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, not Zawahiri. 

The Islamic State has also successfully taken ownership in many ways of al Qaeda’s greatest leaders.  Islamic State propaganda commonly heaps respect on al Qaeda’s first leader Osama Bin Laden.  References to Bin Laden and pictures of Bin Laden often drape Islamic State propaganda.  A demonstration of such respect can be seen in the Islamic State’s naming of the “Osama Bin Laden School” in Raqqa, Syria – the stronghold of the Shari`a governed state. 

The Islamic State has also claimed at times another of Al Qaeda’s greatest heroes–American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The Islamic State’s spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani indirectly honored al-Awlaki’s legend by adopting the clerics call for lone wolf attacks in the West–a staple of Awlaki’s preaching and resulting contributions to Inspire magazine.   In January, the Islamic State named their English-speaking foreign fighter contingent designed for targeting the West the “Anwar al Alwaki” Brigade paying homage to the al Qaeda online recruiter’s ability to inspire attacks in the West.

Having laid claim to al Qaeda’s top heroes Bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Awlaki, there remains only one piece of al Qaeda history left for the taking: the legacy of al Qaeda’s crowning achievement: the attacks of September 11, 2001.  What better way to snub Zawahiri than to hijack ownership of the group’s most celebrated attack?  The Islamic State might do this in two ways. 

The least demanding and least effective way for the Islamic State to take ownership of the September 11 attacks would be online.  Through smoking Twin Towers laden motifs and pushed hashtags, the Islamic State could pay homage to 9/11, positioning themselves as the preferred successors of Bin Laden’s al Qaeda rather than al-Zawahiri’s current contingent.  A social media campaign might be accompanied by Islamic State hacking activity as their online supporters and hacker volunteers have recently professed to future online targeting of U.S. government sites and the financial system. 

The more effective method for the Islamic State to hijack the memory of 9/11 from al-Zawahiri would be to do what al Qaeda has repeatedly failed to do: perpetrate an anniversary attack on September 11, 2015.  Bin Laden after 9/11 and al-Zawahiri since Bin Laden’s death have failed to commemorate their glory of 2001.  Al Qaeda needs an attack, but the Islamic State likely has more capability to execute one at this stage.  Using their foreign fighter resources and international supporters, the Islamic State could easily execute a suicide bombing in a neighboring country like Turkey or Saudi Arabia or go even further by coordinating lone wolf and small cell attacks in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.  Achieving notoriety on 9/11 would be a final snub to al-Zawahiri and send him further into oblivion. 

The best forecasts are probabilistic, thus I provide my off the cuff speculation here regarding whether there will be an attack on this September 11, 2015.  Note, I have no direct knowledge of a potential attack, just some thoughts if I were actually doing a forecast. The most likely scenario remains that there will be no anniversary attack this September 11.  As predictions go, there hasn’t been a successful anniversary attack in the last thirteen years so the safer bet is always that tomorrow will look like yesterday, this year like the last. 

The next most likely scenario, I believe, is that the Islamic State and/or its international community of supporters execute one or more low scale attacks.  This would rob al Qaeda of its precious anniversary and further establish the Islamic State as the global leader of jihad.  If I were one of the Islamic State’s leaders, this is what I would do if I already intended to execute an external operation outside Syria and Iraq. 

The third and least likely scenario, I imagine, is that al Qaeda finally launches the long expected anniversary attack with devastating consequences.  Al-Zawahiri’s pre-release of the inappropriately seasoned “Islamic Spring” series, al Qaeda’s diminishing capability globally, and al-Zawahiri’s guidance to Nusra’s Abu Muhammed al-Jowlani to avoid attacking the West suggests, at least to me, that al Qaeda either can’t execute such an attack or doesn’t want to.  Thus for the Islamic State, the anniversary of 9/11 may very well be available for the taking. 

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Are We Our Own Worst Enemy? The Problems in Countering Jihadi Narratives and How to Fix Them

Two weeks back, the Washington Post published the most insightful article to date on the challenges the U.S. government has encountered battling al Qaeda, the Islamic State and jihadis writ large in social media.  The U.S. State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) has been charged with a mission impossible: countering jihadi sympathies online while also pleasing all critics inside the U.S. government and in the mainstream media. 

Ten years ago, countering al Qaeda’s narrative largely rested in the hands of the Department of Defense (DoD).  Gobs of money were thrown at efforts to discredit Bin Laden and crew.  Having supported a few of these programs, I can attest firsthand that they were largely a giant waste of time; their focus was more about pleasing military commanders than actually undermining al Qaeda’s message.  The CSCC on the other hand, in concept, remains the correct approach.  What more could the U.S. ask for than culturally-informed counterterrorism experts armed with social media, building from lessons learned gained in more than a decade of observing jihadi propaganda? Apparently the system must have zero defects as well. 

The Washington Post article illustrates the strange position the CSCC remains in.  The article discusses how one of the CSCC’s videos gathered more than 800,000 views.  This should have been seen as a major success, simply gaining an audience in jihadi online circles is a major first step, but instead those inside government prone to fearful bureaucratic survival immediately started undermining the effort. The CSCC played by the enemy’s rules and lost, not to the enemy, but to their own team. 

As we approach the fourteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. should ask itself whether it seriously has the stomach to counter jihadis on the Internet.  For the CSCC or any government effort to be successful in the online space, they must have initiative, flexibility, capacity, autonomy and space for experimentation.  Bureaucrats, media critics, and counterterrorism pundits are unlikely to provide these things to an operation like the CSCC. 

Two months ago, I questioned the renewed White House calls for countering violent extremism (CVE) against jihadis.  The U.S. government sends out these calls every few years when jihadis do bad things and little really happens afterwards beyond some conferences with nice photo ops.  My three essential questions two months back for conducting CVE were:

  1. Where do you want to counter violent extremism? There are three fronts in countering jihadis flowing into ISIS: 1) The Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (MENASA) 2) Europe 3) North America.  These three fronts, in order, provide different percentages of fighters into ISIS ranks and depending on where they are located, are brought into ISIS through differing combinations of on-the-ground and online recruitment efforts. 
  2. Who do we want to counter? Which extremists do you want to counter? Extremists supporting ISIS come in many different shapes and sizes.  Will McCants provides the best spectrum for identifying where to focus CVE efforts.  I would recommend focusing on those already “radicalizing” to join ISIS. 
  3. How do you want to counter extremists? As I argued at length in past Geopoliticus posts, the U.S. has largely used the wrong messages, messengers, medium, and method to counter the bulk of those radicalizing to join ISIS (i.e., moderate voices and community engagement).  Instead, I proposed using a different message more effective for the radicalizing target audience and in particular a more effective messenger: defectors from ISIS ranks.

Having read about the struggles of the CSCC, I would like to take these questions a step further today and describe how I would recommend doing a more effective counternarrative program. As I discussed previously, CVE efforts should start online rather than on-the-ground.  Online efforts cut across all three theaters of foreign fighters being recruited to ISIS (MENASA, Europe & North America) and when done properly will illuminate the hotspots where on-the-ground CVE efforts such as community engagement and promoting moderate voices can be applied more effectively. 

Engaging videos, mirroring the production format and quality of ISIS and describing the horrors experienced by ISIS defectors provide the ideal vector for engaging those in the ‘Radicalizing’ stage of ISIS recruitment.  I’d call the program “Make Villains, Not Martyrs” with the goal of exposing ISIS members for the power hungry, political criminals they are rather than the devout martyrs they claim to be.  The effort would move through four phases:

  • Pinpoint Vulnerable Audiences: Identify those radicalizing online communities of ISIS enthusiasts most attracted to ISIS content.  Folks like J.M. Berger have already done the lion share of this work (just watch his Twitter feed and read his book). Social media companies who’ve finally conducted waves of shut-downs on ISIS accounts should be able to provide even greater fidelity on where those ISIS digital enclaves reside and further describe the proclivity that these accounts have for ISIS material.  This refined data would further enable the crafting of a precise counter narrative.
  • Develop engaging “telenovela” style defector video content: Defector accounts, I believe, remain the most effective counter narrative, but simply filming a defector interview and then broadcasting it won’t work.  Instead, the ISIS defector content must be able to engage the radicalizing individual and sustain their attention.  I would alternatively propose the development of three dramatic retellings of actual defectors and foreign fighters lost amongst different jihadi conflicts, illuminating ISIS and al Qaeda’s betrayal of their own principles and troops.  I would script out three, “telenovela” style videos that would initially stand-alone but would later be networked together.  It’s important to note, these videos would not be fiction, but instead dramatic retellings of actual debacles involving foreign fighters.  I’d recommend the three movies, as seen in Figure 1, describe the treachery of three fratricidal jihadi campaigns:
    • Tentative Title: “Fitna” – Jabhat al Nusra & ISIS foreign fighters killing each other in Syria
    • Tentative Title: “Bandit” – AQIM’s fracturing, infighting and criminality as they are overrun by French forces in Mali.
    • Tentative Title: “Ansaris & Muhajirs” – al Shabaab’s killing off of their own foreign fighters and clan based infighting inside the group. 

Each of these movies would be provided in different languages to more directly appeal to specific radicalizing audiences and they would illuminate several themes of folly and despair encountered by actual foreign fighters embroiled in these jihads. 

The scripts for these three videos would not be propaganda as the content is already written by jihadis who’ve spilled their betrayals online (Omar Hammami’s biography writes its own screenplay).  Each movie would be roughly 60 – 80 minutes in length, but told in chapters of  5 – 10 minutes suitable for dissemination in a serial trough YouTube and other video hosting sites. 

Each of the videos would follow a similar build up as well (See Figure 2).  The videos would need to appear, in at least the first three episodes, to be somewhat sympathetic to joining a jihad – tracing the introduction, immersion and initial reception of a foreign fighter.  After three episodes, dreams of jihad glory would fade as softer themes undermining ISIS enter the storyline–foreign fighters participating in criminal activity for example.  As the story continues, the video would shift to real stories of horrid ISIS behavior–barbaric torture, sexual enslavement, killing of innocent women and children.  The video series would conclude with a foreign fighter watching the fratricidal killing of a fellow foreign fighter at the hands of a corrupt jihadi leader.  The foreign fighter would manage to defect from ISIS to return home, finding he had shamed his family.

  • Host and disseminate the videos: The video chapters would be released one per week.  After release of the tenth episode, the entire movie would be hosted in multiple locations in the jihadi online environment (i.e. YouTube, etc.).  The videos would then also link to the actual documentary interviews of real foreign fighters that have traveled the journey of the foreign fighters described in the telenovela serial.  The internal documents of al Qaeda, ISIS, AQIM and other terror groups detailing internal conflict and deceit (i.e., Harmony Documents, Bin Laden’s Bookshelf, etc.) would also be linked to these videos so that those on the radicalization path can see for themselves the disingenuous nature of all these jihadi campaigns.  The hosting locations would allow for comments and debate, further refining the application of other CVE programs.  These online debates along with standard social media viewer metrics would provide the basis for true measurement of online CVE efforts.
  • Follow up with on-the-ground CVE efforts: Effectively engaging in the online space with these videos would reveal hot spots where other CVE efforts can be employed more effectively.  Those jihadi digital enclaves most engaged on ideological issues would be ideal for a “Moderate Voices” CVE efforts and some physical communities might also surface appropriate for the application of CVE community outreach programs.  Essentially, the videos will act as blood in the water for jihadi sharks. Engagement, regardless of whether its positive or negative, will illuminate what we currently cannot see–the fault lines in ISIS popular support that we need to exploit. 

Ultimately, this type of a program will likely not make it out of the concept phase.  It will be plagued by interagency infighting and will take so long to produce through the U.S. bureaucracy it will be available right about the time ISIS collapses. 

In actuality, an online defector video series like this would not take that much time or resources to execute.  The scripts are practically written and the production will be more effective and efficient if done in the Middle East or North Africa. (Off the cuff, I’d recommend looking first at Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon for video production–they’ve got some good capacity.) The online analytics, hosting, and dissemination can all be done from a few laptops armed with a couple credit cards.  So again I ask, do we really want to do online CVE?  It seems the CSCC can do it, but will we let them? 

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Why the U.S. Raid On Abu Sayyaf and ISIS in Eastern Syria May Be A Game Changer

This morning, reports confirmed that U.S. Special Operations Forces conducted a daring raid deep into Eastern Syria killing a key ISIS leader, Abu Sayyaf, along with several other ISIS members.  The raid occurred near Der Ouzzer amidst the critical Syrian oil fields that provide the key lifeblood to ISIS. This daring U.S. raid and its great success likely signal a turning point in the fight against ISIS.  Here are a few points worth considering.

Why risk so much to go after Abu Sayyaf?

For those outside of military and intelligence circles, Abu Sayyaf is an unknown, mid-level leader in ISIS.  However, the best way to target the top leaders in a terrorist organization is to first go after those people in charge of finance and communications.  These deputies hold the links between the foot soldiers and the leadership and provide essential coordination amongst the top commanders.

In well-run organizations, elimination of the top leaders may only result in a rapid succession of command with little resulting impact on the organization as a whole.  Targeting those individuals in charge of finance and command and control will disrupt how an entire organization operates; sub-elements won’t receive needed funds, junior leaders will be unsure of what to do, military operations will slow and/or become disjointed, and throughout the entire terror group doubt will creep in as communication lessens.  The effects of this strategy on terror groups can be observed retrospectively by looking at how al Qaeda was targeted through Abu Zubaydah, a key financial figure, not long after 9/11 and a targeted drone strike against Atiyah Abd al Rahman, al Qaeda’s key communications interlocutor.

ISIS has succeeded in pursuing an Islamic State where other al Qaeda affiliates have failed for one reason above all others: they have funded themselves.  This self-funding has come in large part from oil.  For the U.S. led coalition to make significant, sustained gains against ISIS, this revenue must be cut off and removing Abu Sayyaf from the network could definitely slow if not stop oil production and resulting revenues.  

Why a raid rather than an air strike? 

The U.S. mission more than anything suggests a perceived intelligence coup by targeting Abu Sayyaf.  Early reports suggest they wanted to take Abu Sayaaf captive, suggesting his knowledge on ISIS could likely map out the entire organization.  Taking Sayyaf alive would have allowed for interrogation and the yielding of unmatched intelligence from other sources.  Even if a captive like Sayyaf doesn’t talk, his detention would instill fear amongst the rest of ISIS leaders who would be concerned about what their comrade has revealed.  

A preference for raids as compared to airstrikes always signals the priority may be intelligence first and degrading ISIS operations second.  Along with capturing Abu Sayyaf’s wife and freeing some prisoners, computers and communications between many nodes inside ISIS were gained and this intelligence will likely identify where key ISIS leaders may reside, their role in the organization, and illuminate previously unknown weaknesses inside the group. 

What will be the effect of this raid on ISIS?

This highly successful raid will go much further to erode ISIS than the past many months of airstrikes and partner ground operations. 

First, the raid will be a huge blow to the confidence of ISIS members.  After taunting the U.S. to conduct ground operations, Special Forces have gone into the heart of ISIS’s caliphate, eliminated a key target and left without a scratch.  ISIS growth has hinged for more than two years on their success in building an Islamic state through military victories.  This raid represents an overwhelming defeat harming both ISIS ground operations as well as its online advertising which has up till now drawn an unprecedented number of foreign fighters.

Second, the raid will likely disrupt both financial and military operations.  ISIS units will increase their security by communicating less.  This will result in weakened command and control and a slow in military operations.  This increased security posture may also impede ISIS’s ability to operate a state: a point of great pride for the group and an essential element of their attractiveness to their members. 

Third, a successful raid of this caliber likely signals the start of a campaign rather than the conclusion. The raid and its resulting intelligence will ideally yield further elimination of key leaders in the coming weeks and months.

Fourth, we should look to see how this raid affects ISIS’s manpower: will foreign fighter flow slow after such a public ISIS loss?  Will ISIS members who’ve begun retreating under coalition strikes and ground campaigns now see this raid as the time to abandon ship? 

What does the raid signal for U.S. strategy against ISIS?

President Obama has stated and continues to imply the U.S. will not deploy ground troops on a large-scale to Iraq and Syria.  Today’s mission suggests the U.S. is now entering a fourth phase after initiating airstrikes, deploying advisors and implementing the equip and train mission of selected militias.  How much further will the U.S. go?  Does the Special Operations raid approach represent a substitute plan for eroding ISIS over time as opposed to bloody campaigns to re-take cities like Mosul?

The raid also suggests a major increase in U.S. intelligence on Syria and Iraq.  Last summer, news stories indicated the intelligence community was caught off guard by ISIS bold advance due to insufficient insight on ISIS movements.  This raid likely took a while to prepare indicating significant intelligence collection and planning..  Finally, the raid demonstrates the lengths the U.S. is willing to take against ISIS.  Airstrikes represent a safer strategy; few if any American lives are being put at risk.  A failed raid deep into Syria resulting in significant U.S. casualties would truly test the resolve of the American public to sustain a campaign against ISIS. 

Over the past year, no incident may represent a bigger game changer in the U.S. strategy to counter ISIS.  The pace and type of American actions in the coming months will be key for understanding both the U.S. strategy and ISIS resiliency. 

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One year later, ISIS overtakes al Qaeda: What’s next?

A year ago, the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) was on the rise but few expected them to travel such a rapid trajectory to the top of the global jihadi community.  The fighting (fitnato kick off 2014 between Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s arm in Syria, and ISIS seemed, at first, to be undermining the greatest jihadi foreign fighter mobilization in history.  But in June 2014, ISIS swept into northern Iraq simultaneously seizing Mosul and the minds of jihadi supporters worldwide by doing what al-Qaeda always discussed but never delivered–an Islamic State.  Through audacity, violence against Assad, Shia, the West, and slick social media packaging, ISIS now dominates the global jihadi scene.  Foreign fighters have flocked to ISIS ranks and when unable to travel, have sworn allegiance to ISIS (bayat) in groups across North Africa to Southeast Asia.

Building from the estimates and scenarios created last March 2014 (ISIS Rise From al Qaeda’s House of Cards), I’ve generated a new estimate of the fractures between ISIS and al-Qaeda seen here in Figure 9.  I’ve also pasted below this post the estimate of these fractures one year ago for comparison (Figure 4). 

A few notes on the ISIS versus as al-Qaeda chart in Figure 9. I generally don’t like organizational charts for describing jihadi terrorist groups because I’ve been to too many military briefings where these are misinterpreted as command and control diagrams. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates and now ISIS and its new pledges more represent swarming, informal relationships rather than a directed, top-down hierarchy.  Circle size represents an imperfect estimate of a group’s relative size compared to other groups.  Larger circles equal larger groups.  More overlap between circles represents my estimate of communication and coordination between the groups.  For emerging groups that have pledged bayat to ISIS, but ISIS has not officially recognized the pledge, I categorized them as “Lean ISIS.” For what I anticipate to be new ISIS affiliates that are emerging I’ve inserted dashed circles.  Thanks again this year to J.M Berger, Aaron Zelin and Will McCants for their feedback and insight on the graphics.  I’ve also included J.M. Berger’s latest link chart showing the same splits between ISIS and al Qaeda, which can be found in Figure 10 and downloaded at this link. 

ISIS has clearly dominated al-Qaeda over the past year. Al-Qaeda couldn’t even release a confirmation video in a timely fashion when handed a success as the Kouachi brothers announced al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was responsible for the Hebdo assassination.  Al-Qaeda is most certainly a distant number two in jihadi circles. A few observations of this year’s assessment (Figure 9) of the ISIS versus al Qaeda split as compared to last year’s evaluation (Figure 4). 

  • Proliferation, More circles, More groups: ISIS’s rise has created a break up of groups around the world into smaller clusters.  Some see this as a more dangerous world of terrorists, but more small groups can also lead to problems for both al-Qaeda and ISIS leading to a general jihadi burnout. A separate post will discuss this.
  • Diffusion: A year ago, the overlap between al-Qaeda affiliates was significant, but communication has broken down even further.  We’ve learned just a couple of weeks ago that al-Shabaab in Somalia hasn’t heard from al-Qaeda in a long time.  When there have been communiqués, they have come more from AQAP who appears to be the critical link with remaining al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb members and the remaining core of al-Qaeda globally.
  • Syria Shift: ISIS is the dominant player now in Syria, whereas last year, ISIS and Nusra were on a similar footing, and Ahrar al Sham was being courted by al-Qaeda.  This year, Ahrar al-Sham hardly exists. 
  • Reigniting the periphery: After 9/11, terrorism analysts went to great lengths to link all extremist groups from Southeast Asia to North Africa under al-Qaeda’s orbit.  Al-Qaeda’s connections to these peripheral groups faded with each passing year.  Today, ISIS receives pledges from groups of unknown guys around the world in all regions, and has ignited peripheral jihadi factions globally. 

Will al-Qaeda even make it the end of 2015?

Those who assessed that bin Laden’s death would be of no consequence for al-Qaeda have been proven wrong.  Bin Laden, along with a select few of his top lieutenants and protégés who’ve been eliminated by drones, provided the last bits of glue that held a declining al-Qaeda network together. As discussed in the 2012 post “What if there is no al-Qaeda?”, al-Qaeda for many years has provided little incentive in money or personnel for its affiliates and little inspiration for its global fan base.  Things have gotten so bad that rumors suggest Ayman al-Zawahiri may dissolve al-Qaeda entirely, that’s right, al-Qaeda might QUIT! I’ll address these rumors in a separate post next week.  Until then, here is what I see as the good and bad for al-Qaeda and ISIS this year. 

The Good News for al-Qaeda

  • Jabhat al-Nusra is rebounding in Syria: Pressure on ISIS from the international coalition combined with the failings of Western backed militias to seize the initiative in Syria have allowed the still well-funded and cohesive al-Qaeda arm Jabhat al-Nusra to resurge in Syria taking Idlib in the last couple of weeks.  To survive, al Qaeda needs its place in the Syrian jihad – Nusra remains its greatest hope. 
  • Yemen’s Turmoil Creates Operational Space for AQAP: Just when an emerging younger ISIS affiliate may have started to challenge AQAP in Yemen, the Houthi coup and ensuing Saudi response has ignited a sectarian war where AQAP has already regained ground once lost to the Yemeni government.  AQAP, since bin Laden’s death, has become al-Qaeda Central and with time, space and maybe the death or resignation of Zawahiri in Pakistan, they may be able charge forward and challenge ISIS. 

The Bad News for al-Qaeda

  • Jihadis don’t care about al-Qaeda:  More than any other factor, global jihadi members and supporters don’t talk much about al-Qaeda.  ISIS has coopted al-Qaeda’s most notable characters showcasing bin Laden, Zarqawi and even Anwar al-Awlaki in their propaganda and rhetoric. Even the youngest ISIS supporters are openly challenging Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda needs their own success to rally the troops. They haven’t really had that in years and should even a big attack occur it’s doubtful it would eclipse ISIS’s success. 
  • Jabhat al-Nusra might want to quit al-Qaeda: Nusra’s connections with al-Qaeda and loyalty to Zawahiri have hurt the group more than helped it.  Al-Qaeda’s Khorasan Group embedded in Nusra has brought U.S. airstrikes.  Al-Qaeda’s global focus distracts from Nusra’s local focus and doesn’t offer a viable alternative to the ISIS state which provides the only form of governance in parts of Sunni Iraq and Syria.  Why would Nusra stick with al-Qaeda at this point?
  • Al-Qaeda’s resources are limited: Compared to ISIS, al-Qaeda relies heavily on donations, which allowed it to survive while being hunted over the past decade.  Today, donor reliance is a liability for al-Qaeda.  ISIS coffers are full from oil money, licit and illicit schemes, and their successes have allowed them to push into al-Qaeda’s donor stream.  Al-Qaeda provides little incentive for donors to cough up their cash, and has no population to prey on for resources. 
  • Al-Qaeda has lost membership across all affiliates: Zawahiri’s creation of al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent signals his vulnerability to the Taliban’s shifting allegiance to ISIS.  He feels threatened and all al-Qaeda affiliates globally are either shifting their allegiance or are finding splinters that support ISIS form in their ranks. 

The Good News for ISIS

  • Everyone wants to be ISIS: The pace of pledges coming into ISIS is unprecedented and unexpected.  When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the Islamic State and named himself as the new caliph, one might have expected more backlash for his arrogance.  Instead, jihadis have seen ISIS’s success and generally gone with his pronouncements and fallen in line.  ISIS ranks have swollen in Iraq and Syria over the past year with the pace of foreign fighter recruitment likely peaking in the late summer and fall of 2014 before the push of the international coalition. ISIS, until the loss of Tikrit, is winning, and jihadis love them for it. 
  • Affiliates (Emirates) are popping up all over: Just as pressure mounts on ISIS in Iraq and Syria and they begin to lose ground, other new affiliates continue to pop up in safe havens of promise.  Libya and Yemen provide two new genuine opportunities for ISIS to anchor and homes for foreign fighters to nest in as they are pushed from the Levant.  ISIS affiliated attacks in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen show the potential of this new global jihadi network.
  • Resources still in tact: Despite a sustained aerial campaign, ISIS remains able to sustain itself logistically. 

The Bad News for ISIS

  • Everyone wants to be ISIS:  A letter from Zawahiri to bin Laden, found amidst the Abbottabad documents, described al- Qaeda’s concerns about the growing number of inspired members claiming to be al-Qaeda that had no actual connection to the group.  ISIS’s rapid growth faces a similar challenge.  How might the misplaced violence of inspired supporters hurt the group’s global appeal?  Baghdadi has affirmed the pledge of some affiliates but also ignored the pledge of other upstart groups signaling he may not even know of these emerging groups, or he doesn’t trust that they are committed and in-line with ISIS goals.  ISIS’s rapid rise and growth while being under pressure from an international coalition suggests that there will be emerging command and control problems as young boys execute their violence with limited or no guidance. 
  • Taking losses in Iraq and Syria: As opposed to al-Qaeda, which has existed as a stateless, cellular network, ISIS’s unity of command and cohesiveness depends on the centralization provided in their pursuit of a state. They are now taking losses and fractures appear to be emerging as defections increase and ISIS has allegedly killed off doubters in their own ranks.  Pressure on ISIS continues to mount, on-the-ground, in-the-air and online, Baghdadi and his inner circle face a substantial challenge in 2015. 
  • Declining foreign fighter flow: Thousands of fighters have been killed in recent months and these losses will be difficult to regenerate as it becomes more difficult for fighters to get to the battlefields in Syria and Iraq. 

The next year for both al-Qaeda and ISIS will likely be as dynamic as this past year.  Both groups remain under pressure. Arab countries have joined in the fight against ISIS in ways they never did against al-Qaeda and the growing sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunnis across the Middle East will likely grow and impact ISIS and al-Qaeda in unexpected ways. This growing sectarian battle has also, ironically, removed some pressure on the U.S.  ISIS and al-Qaeda have so much to pursue locally from North Africa to South Asia, the U.S. has really become a peripheral issue to both groups.  Both groups will likely take almost any opportunity to attack the West, but in reality, the opportunities and challenges in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, and other places likely don’t allow either group to expend sufficient time to conduct an external operations attack on par with 9/11.  As for future scenarios for both groups, I’ll follow up in separate posts over the next couple of weeks. 

Here is J.M. Berger’s link chart showing al Qaeda versus ISIS splits and for a better understanding of ISIS, check out his new book with Jessica Stern here: “ISIS: The State of Terror.” 



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Al Qaeda versus ISIS: In the campaign for jihad’s top slot, Yemen is a swing state.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) rise began in the summer of 2013 but became fully evident this past spring.  Ayman al-Zawahiri’s retaliatory plan to punish an indignant and unruly affiliate backfired. Open conflict between ISIS and al Qaeda’s lead arm in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, and their associated partners in the Islamic Front not only empowered ISIS in the eyes of global jihadi supporters but further diminished the allure of jihad’s original vanguard al Qaeda (AQ).  In March 2013, I posed three scenarios for what a future terrorism landscape might look like after a period of enduring jihadi civil war.  These scenarios, outlined in the article “ISIS Rise After al Qaeda’s House of Cards” from March 20, 2014, were the following:

Scenario #1: ISIS Replaces al Qaeda as the Global Leader of Jihad

  • Summary: ISIS overtakes al Qaeda as the leader of global jihad

Scenario #2: Sustained Competition – ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda vs. Team ISIS

  • Jihadi civil war in Syria spreading to Iraq and Lebanon

Scenario #3: Dissolving Into Regional Nodes

  • Regional jihadi groups, unsure of whether to side with ISIS or AQ, diverge maintaining loose connections but operating independently

Six months after developing these scenarios, jihadi support for ISIS across all regions has surged dramatically. See Figure 1 for my unscientific, estimated breakdown for each region of jihadi popular support between al Qaeda, ISIS, or independent/undeclared groups and supporters. 

  • North Africa & Sahel – As discussed this past spring, Tunisia and Libya were key audiences for ISIS support in North Africa.  Libyan and Tunisian foreign fighter networks to Iraq during the 2003 – 2008 time period greatly empower ISIS today.  Just this week, Derna’s Shoura Council of Islamic Youth (SCIY) pledged allegiance to ISIS while Abu Sleem Martyrs’ Brigade chose not to declare allegiance to either AQ or ISIS. (Hypothesis: SCIY hosts many foreign fighters returning from ISIS in Syria and Abu Saleem may have some old AQ members in their midst that are unsure which way to go…just a theory.) Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sahel, conversely, remains loyal to al Qaeda publishing a joint call for unity with al al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen.   Al Murabitin, led by Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar, remains committed to AQ as well.  I imagine much shifting of allegiances between AQ and ISIS in this region in the coming months with many groups possibly opting out of declaring their support either way. 
  • Levant & Arabian Peninsula – This region remains the battleground for jihadi hearts and minds.  ISIS captures the majority of foreign fighters into Syria but Jabhat al- Nusra remains an important force in the fight against Asad.  For jihadis in the region, the decision now becomes, “which is more important, fighting Asad in Western Syria or the U.S. led coalition in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq?”  I estimate the majority of jihadis feel more inclined to join ISIS fighting a host of enemies rather than solely focusing on Asad. 

More important is the battle between ISIS and AQAP.  ISIS has gained significant backing from Saudi foreign fighters and had plots disrupted in the Kingdom. It’s likely donor flows to ISIS from the Arabian peninsula now eclipse those to al Qaeda – traditionally the resource lifeline of a Bin Laden-led al Qaeda.  This leaves Yemen. AQAP remains the strongest affiliate of al Qaeda and, as will be discussed below, serves as the counterweight to ISIS taking nearly absolute control of global jihadi support. 

  • South Asia – Al Qaeda’s remaining senior leadership now may only hold a slight edge in South Asia.  Protected for more than a decade by the Taliban, Zawahiri’s foothold in the hills of Pakistan may be eroding.  Alleged Taliban members calling for support of ISIS and reports of ISIS recruiting in Peshawar likely drive Zawahiri’s latest calls for establishing an al Qaeda affiliate in India – a ploy aimed at securing al Qaeda’s relevance and sustaining Taliban protection by engaging in a local issue that re-incentivizes AQ connections in Pakistan at a time when they are being outpaced by the glory of ISIS.
  • Southeast Asia – After initial concerns and flurries of counterterrorism activity post-9/11, jihadi groups in Southeast Asia loosely tied to al Qaeda largely went dormant by the 2006 – 2008 time period.  Jihadis in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Phillipines have awakened from their slumber; inspired by ISIS pursuit of a state and high levels of violence.  Kidnappings of Westerners in the Phillipines and recruiting in Indonesia for ISIS has risen to significant levels.  Southeast Asia is decidedly pro-ISIS.  
  • Balkans/Caucasus – The Syrian conflict, more than previous, recent jihadi campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, has mobilized jihadi elements throughout the Balkans and Caucasus sending a swarm of foreign fighters into the ranks of ISIS.  While Nusra initially drew some contingents from this region, I’d estimate the vast majority of support from this region goes to ISIS.
  • North America, Europe & Australia – Small numbers of Western recruits to al Qaeda have popped up over the past decade.  Today, al Qaeda is a distant second for Western jihadi support.  European foreign fighters fill the ranks of ISIS and Australia has seen a disproportionate number of ISIS recruits as well.  Americans, still only a trickle of the foreign fighter flow, have mobilized more for ISIS than Nusra (AQ) with the notable exception of the first U.S. suicide bomber in Syria surfacing in Nusra/AQ ranks.
  • East Africa – East African social media accounts often praise the efforts of ISIS but al Shabaab’s tight control on local jihadis in Somalia and their affiliates in Kenya has sustained loyalty to al Qaeda.  The group recently reconfirmed their loyalty after the death of their emir Ahmed Godane.  Al Shabaab’s commitment to al Qaeda may possibly be enforced via their close connections to AQAP in Yemen who remains the anchor of al Qaeda allegiance. 

Yemen: The Swing State in the battle between al Qaeda and ISIS

If al Qaeda and ISIS held an election, Yemen would be the American equivalent of the swing state of Florida.  Zawahiri smartly designated Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of AQAP, as his global deputy last summer; a wise strategic move that provided an anchor of AQ support as ISIS surged.  AQAP’s loyalty to al Qaeda represents the remaining barrier to ISIS completely overtaking al Qaeda as the global leader of jihad.  AQAP acts as a key interlocutor with AQIM in the Sahel and essentially commands its own affiliate, al Shabaab, in Somalia.  Should AQAP shift allegiance from Zawahiri or remove itself from the dispute all together, al Qaeda would consist of nothing more than a few veteran envoys spread around the globe and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria – a group likely questioning why it remains loyal to Zawahiri as it is overtaken by ISIS.  I do not expect a shift by AQAP anytime soon, nor do I think Wuhayshi, a long-time al Qaeda man, will break his oath to Zawahiri.  However, for ISIS to fully rise without competitors, AQAP in Yemen must change its stance.  Another scenario to watch for is whether Wuhayshi, similar to the recent joint AQAP-AQIM call for unity, makes a decisive move to unify the ranks of AQ and ISIS should the situation become particularly dire for both groups. 

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Potential Implications of U.S. killing al Shabaab’s Leader In Somalia – Ahmed Godane

Yesterday, after a long pause in overt counterterrorism in Somalia, the U.S. launched a drone strike near Barawe aimed at a convoy. Separate reports indicate four missiles killed up to six militants; one of whom may be al Shabaab’s notorious leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane (aka Mukhtar abu Zubayr).

As al Shabaab’s emir, Godane officially merged the terror group with al Qaeda, swearing allegiance to Osama Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Since this merger though, al Shabaab’s trajectory under Godane’s leadership has been in decline with the group fracturing and shrinking over the past two years.  Despite his corrosive leadership, Godane maintained his grip on al Shabaab, continued to execute devastating terrorist attacks against a fragile Somali government and has successfully spread jihadist inspiration and terror attacks to nearby Kenya highlighted by last year’s spectacular attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall.  If Godane was killed by the U.S. drone strike (still an ‘if’), his death would likely have a significant impact on Somalia, the Horn of Africa and ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda’s remaining adherents in the Horn of Africa. 

Potential Impacts of Godane’s Death on Somalia 

Godane, even by al Qaeda’s standards, demonstrated extreme levels of ruthless killing and excessive violence, alienating allied clan leaders and the local populace.  By some accounts, Godane forced the merger with al Qaeda to assert his dominance over what has always been a fractious al Shabaab.  Since February 2012, Shabaab has fractured and been pushed into the hinterlands of South Central Somalia.  Hassan Dahir Aweys, a stalwart of Islamism in Somalia, and Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, a Godane competitor for al Shabaab’s crown, both broke ranks with Godane over his excessive violence and passion for al Qaeda’s global agenda over the more important local objectives of the clannish al Shabaab.  Since breaking ranks, Robow’s militias have engaged in open combat with Godane’s al Shabaab. 

Even more revealing of Godane’s character has been his murderous repression of dissenters.  Under Godane, Shabaab took a preference for local Somali fighters vis-à-vis foreign fighters — namely, Omar Hammami an American recruit from Alabama.  But then Hammami vocally broke ranks with Shabaab. The Hammami episode revealed intense dissension in the ranks eroding Godane’s support and Shabaab’s foreign fighter flow.  The Godane-Hammami debate led to Shabaab pursuing a year and half long manhunt ending in the murder of Hammami at the hands of Godane’s henchmen.  Godane’s ruthless side was further revealed by his murder of his own long-time aide and friend Ibrahim al-Afghani, a well-respected veteran and founding member of Shabaab,

Shabaab’s fractures and Godane’s elimination of dissenters created a Shabaab governance structure built on fear.  Godane ruled with an iron fist, and thus his death will/would have a significant impact on al Shabaab and the insurgency plaguing the country’s fragile new government.  I suspect, if Godane were killed, to see a case study in Somalia of how leadership decapitation as a counterterrorism tactic can have a major impact.  Somalia in general, and Shabaab in particular, presents a situation where clan leaders have an outsized sway in the direction of their group; leaders trump ideology. 

Here are several considerations if we find out that Godane was killed in Somalia yesterday:

  • When feared leaders die, fractures happen quickly and dynamically – Godane kept a close eye on his enemies and a closer eye on his subordinates through a dominating internal intelligence arm.  I suspect many of Godane’s lieutenants already had plans of their own should Godane die or they remove him via a coup.  My estimate would be the most hard core of Godane’s adherents will break off and form a particularly violent element of al Shabaab.  I’d also estimate that there will be a separate less committed faction of Shabaab that will break away and look to defect, setting up deals with the Somalia government – a positive sign.  Whatever happens, I would estimate major changes in the next month in terms of Shabaab loyalties with fractures emerging across clan and sub-clan lines. 
  • Robow comes out stronger amongst Somalia’s jihadists– If Godane is out of the picture, I suspect Robow will be strengthened and can consolidate some of his power in Bay and Bakool provinces of Somalia.  The larger question is whether Robow might look to settle with the Somali government.  Always more of a local jihadist leader rather than a globalist, Robow might be content to rule his own turf in Somalia’s interior if the Somali government and allied forces grant him a settlement – a tricky task seeing as how the U.S. has designated Robow a “Foreign Terrorist”.
  • An opportunity for the new Somali government – While we might expect some immediate retaliatory attacks by Shabaab loyalists on Somali government targets and international groups, I suspect Godane’s death might present an opportunity to create more truces with local clans ostensibly forced into Shabaab allegiance under Godane. 

Potential Impacts of Godane’s Death on the Horn of Africa  

If Godane were killed, I imagine there would be several regional implications as well:

  • Will jihadist affiliates in Kenya and Tanzania crumble or break out? – As Shabaab grew weaker in Somalia, Godane was surprisingly successful at spreading his influence to disenfranchised Muslim populations along Kenya’s coast, amongst Nairobi’s Somali slums and into northern Tanzania.  In one sense, Godane’s death might bring the fragmentation and dissolving of emerging jihadist elements in the Horn of Africa like al-Hijra.  Or conversely, maybe these young and now disconnected jihadist groups will be freed of Godane’s control to pursue disorganized but more frequent violence.  In either case, I expect Godane’s death will impact jihadist extremism through the Horn of Africa. 
  • Experienced and dangerous foreign fighters on the loose – With Godane dead, al Shahaab’s deadly external operations forces might be looking to either retaliate, relocate or both.  As seen by the successful and well-planned attack on the Westgate Mall last year and Harun Fazul’s interrupted plans to conduct an al Qaeda attack on a hotel in London, Shabaab has a proven capability to attack outside Somalia and hit Westerners.  Key Shabaab foreign fighters like Ikrima, Karate and the under discussed but important American Jehad Mostafa have a proven track record for delivering attacks and detecting their next moves will be crucial.  I suspect they will either wreak havoc by accelerating operations they already have in motion, or will rapidly move to a new battlefield and affiliate if they believe their Somalia safe haven is compromised. The closest option for their refuge would be al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, for whom Shabaab has a proven relationship, or if they seek a more relevant home they could try to infiltrate into Syria’s jihadist enclaves.  In all circumstances, keeping tabs on Shabaab’s Western foreign fighters will be crucial.

Potential Impacts of Godane’s Death on the al Qaeda versus ISIS battle 

Will Godane’s death be a seminal moment in the ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda versus ISIS battle?

Finally, and probably most interesting, Godane represents one of the few remaining outspoken loyalists to Zawahiri and ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda.  But, young jihadists are clearly more excited about ISIS and there have been recent reports of Somalis showing up to pursue jihad in Syria.  If Godane is dead, will Shabaab’s new leader swear allegiance to Zawahiri and ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda, to abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS, or will he pursue an independent track for Shabaab in Somalia independent of today’s jihadi politics? 

Again, these implications will only matter if it turns out that Godane is in fact dead.  Godane may have survived this latest drone strike; it’s quite possible given there are hardly any pictures of this secretive leader – he’s the terrorist equivalent of the ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ from the movie The Princess Bride.  However, these considerations might be informative for Godane’s future death if he turns out to be alive. Godane’s death now or in the near future is likely considering he lives in Somalia and has many enemies, both foreign and domestic.   

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Why would the U.S. want to be ISIS’s ‘Far Enemy’?

For Osama Bin Laden, the calculation to attack the U.S. seemed simple. To topple apostate regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa (the “Near Enemy”) that were preventing puritanical Sharia governance and the development of an Islamic state, al Qaeda needed to instead attack the United States and its Western allies (the “Far Enemy”), exhaust them in far flung battles and eliminate Western support for corrupt dictators (“Near Enemy”) suppressing al Qaeda’s vision.  Bin Laden and al Qaeda’s attacks did drag the U.S. into extended conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  However, these conflicts did little to erode U.S. support for what al Qaeda deemed the “Near Enemy”.  Instead, al Qaeda’s attacks on the U.S. created a lethal counterterrorism force that destroyed most of al Qaeda’s senior leadership and isolated surviving al Qaeda senior leaders, like Ayman al-Zawahiri, from local bases of popular support nestled amongst al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, the Sahel, Somalia and now Syria. 

While the U.S. and al Qaeda toiled away, “Near Enemy” apostate regimes fell one after another succumbing to local uprisings devoid of any jihadist inspiration.  Throughout most of these Arab Spring uprisings, the U.S. sat idly by, not stepping in to be the “Far Enemy” propping up apostate dictators.  Ironically, the Arab Spring’s overthrow of apostate dictators and the resulting set of security vacuums created across North Africa and the Middle East have upended the narratives of both the U.S. and al Qaeda.  For the U.S., the spread of democracy has not created peace and stability throughout the Arab world.  For al Qaeda, attacking the “Far Enemy” did not bring about the fall of apostate regimes.  The U.S. and al Qaeda’s fixation on each other has left both flat-footed and peripheral in today’s most significant terrorism and counterterrorism development: the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS, or ISIL or IS, please pick whichever you like).

ISIS’s rise in Syria and later Iraq comes from both U.S. inaction in Syria and al Qaeda Central’s failed action since Bin Laden’s death.  ISIS’s objectives and direction are inspired more by the group’s first leader Abu Musab al- Zarqawi rather than from al Qaeda under Bin Laden and Zawahiri. ISIS under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has pursued an audacious and pragmatic plan to develop an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria taking control of Sunni regions suppressed by the Assad regime to the west and shunned by the Maliki government in the east.  For ISIS, attacking the U.S. may be a long-term objective but their base of support is mobilized by its delivery on objectives that al Qaeda touted but never moved on-–e.g., establishment of an Islamic State, governance by Sharia law, and widespread violence against all enemies of jihadi interpretations of Islam.

In response to ISIS aggression and their beheading of American Jason Foley, the calls for U.S. direct military action have begun to mount with many equating ISIS with al Qaeda. ISIS will remain a problem for years to come, but there is little reason for the U.S. to act so strongly. The very notion of deploying 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. soldiers to flush out ISIS reflects several things:

  • American loss aversion from last decade’s experience in Iraq. For many there is a strong psychological urge to pour more into Iraq so as not to “lose” what was invested in blood and treasure since 2003.  But, the very existence of ISIS in Iraq today only confirms that the U.S. investment of the past decade has been lost; don’t chase a bad investment with more blood and treasure.
  • American misconceptions that it remains central to the stability of the Middle East.  A failed intervention in Iraq, meddling in Libya, absence after the Arab Spring, and avoidance of the Syrian conflict have pushed the U.S. to the periphery.  The U.S. has not been the center of ISIS thinking in their push to Baghdad.
  • A lack of American consensus on its national interests in the Middle East.  With each call for direct military intervention, I’ve seen no clear articulation of what U.S. interests need to be met through the “rolling up” of ISIS.  Yes, ISIS will likely attack the U.S. if given the opportunity, but over aggression towards ISIS will only strengthen their resolve to attack the U.S. rather than lessen it. (Brian Fishman wrote a great piece at War on the Rocks touching on this.)

Broad-based, direct U.S. military action against ISIS will ultimately recreate a narrative that the U.S. has worked vigorously to move past over the last decade-–the “Far Enemy” propping up “Near Enemy” apostate regimes, in this case, two regimes, Assad in Syria and Maliki in Iraq, working in direct opposition to American wishes.  Instead, the U.S. should continue its limited, measured engagement of ISIS for several reasons:

  • ISIS battling against the Iraqi government represents the latest installment of a battle between Sunni and Shia elements in the Middle East. The U.S. should avoid it.
  • By suppressing ISIS, the U.S. is empowering an Iranian government that has spread its tentacles widely throughout the Maliki regime.  Iran had no problem helping the U.S. bleed in Iraq, it’s time for the U.S. to return the favor by letting Maliki’s legacy in Iraq–if unchanged–and Assad in Syria feel the pain for choosing a declared enemy of the U.S., Iran, as its primary ally.
  • The U.S. has been touting the need to use “Smart Power” for years.  There has never been a more appropriate time to apply “Smart Power” against an ISIS adversary that has so few friends.  ISIS is widely hated; build a coalition and use other levers of U.S. national power in combination with military action to bring about ISIS’s demise.
  • ISIS’s biggest enemy is ISIS. When young boys so zealously pursue violence in the name of an ideology not condoned by the local population, they are far more likely to defeat themselves rather than be defeated by an outside force.  Rather than providing ISIS credibility by over committing militarily, give ISIS some time to hang themselves. 
  • ISIS foreign fighters, I believe, are more likely to pursue external, terrorist attacks outside Iraq on Saudi Arabia, Turkey and to some extent Western Europe.  Direct U.S. military engagement will only turn those interested in attacking places like Saudi Arabia, the number one exporter of foreign fighters and home to many of jihad’s top financiers, toward America’s shores.  Why not let countries like Saudi Arabia suffer some of the blowback for what they helped create?
  • ISIS has been smart thus far in challenging the U.S. more with rhetoric than action.  If the U.S. is limited in its approach, maybe Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will get the message, “you mess with the U.S. and you’ll go the way of Bin Laden.”  If ISIS’s primary goal is an Islamic State, they’ll be antagonistic but well short of delivering another 9/11-scale attack.

Overall, I like the U.S. approach thus far: protecting the Kurds, assisting in re-taking control of key locations like the Mosul Dam, etc.  Yes, I’m quite certain that there will be ISIS members or ISIS supporters who kill Americans. But there are many other groups, to include al Qaeda’s “Old Guard,” that will be pursuing terrorist attacks against the U.S. moving forward.  In conclusion, don’t give ISIS its “Far Enemy.”

Enough for now, in my next couple of posts I’ll write about what might be some instructive strategies for countering ISIS moving forward. 

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How does the U.S. counter al Qaeda while al Qaeda fights itself?

(This is the fifth and final installment of the “Smarter Counterterrorism” series.  See Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here) 

The Syrian conflict has created an unprecedented foreign fighter migration, one that has surprisingly divided rather than united jihadi recruits under al Qaeda’s banner. Al Qaeda is only one piece of a multi-part terrorism threat picture where up to a dozen or more groups still retain some level of intent to attack the U.S.  Meanwhile, al Qaeda Central’s primary affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN), participates in open battle with one of al Qaeda’s disavowed affiliates–the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS).  In general, from a strictly Western counterterrorism perspective, if jihadis are killing jihadis who are also killing Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps members and Hezbollah operatives, what is not to like?  But short-run benefits of al Qaeda infighting should not blind us to the longer run reality-–there are now thousands of trained jihadi foreign fighters, with access to Western countries empowering a dozen or more terrorist groups on many continents, all with varying degrees of commitment to attacking the West in the West or Western targets abroad.

In an era post-al Qaeda hegemony, how should the West and in particular the U.S. counter al Qaeda, with ISIS possibly over the horizon, and pursue any emerging terrorist groups empowered by returnees from Syria? By no means do I believe to have an exact solution. I don’t believe in the notion of a singular grand U.S. counterterrorism strategy (See Part 1 of this series). In the past, I’ve also debated with those who believe we should develop strategies or policy sets with regards to nations based on the presence of an al Qaeda threat in a country’s borders (i.e., Yemen, Pakistan, and many others).  I don’t believe that hinging U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis other countries based solely on a counterterrorism imperative is necessary or wise-–especially in countries where there resides little to no U.S. strategic interest outside of counterterrorism. 

For the rest of our lives, there will be disenfranchised people somewhere in the world who will want to kill Westerners and will pursue terrorism to achieve their goals.  We should not seek to stamp out every evil ideology on the planet but instead look to mitigate the threat each terrorist group presents while carefully calculating the costs and benefits of our actions.  Instead of grand counterterrorism strategy or a mish-mash of inconsistent policies constrained by counterterrorism objectives, I return to the assumptions put forth in Part 1 of this “Smarter Counterterrorism” series and recommend the following for counterterrorism moving forward:

  • Develop a counterterrorism plan explicitly designed to do a few tasks well, not several hundred tasks lightly.

  • Establish a general intent for the counterterrorism community to achieve its mission without micro-managing every action or confining agencies to a convoluted grand counterterrorism strategy that is outdated the moment it is published. (Note: I like current U.S. concepts of a “disposition matrix.”)

  • Undertake six actions now to disrupt and deter current and future terrorism threats.

General Counterterrorism Intent:

In the military, the “Commander’s Intent” provides an overall sense of direction for units to pursue a desired endstate.  The “Intent” can describe courses of action, limitations on methods, and key tasks for accomplishing the mission.  The “Intent” acts as guidance for subordinate agencies and practitioners to develop their own operations without constraining their actions; especially when the enemy situation is highly dynamic such as the terrorism landscape the West encounters today.  I put forth here four recommendations for what might be included in U.S. and Western “Counterterrorism Intent”: 

  • Keep jihadist groups competing –  As noted above and pushed by myself since 2012, if al Qaeda and its current or former affiliates want to compete and kill each other, the West should not get in the way. If there are actions that can be taken to encourage terrorist group competition, by all means we should take them.  However, this general intent only works in the long-run if the West and in particular the U.S. maintains sufficient intelligence capabilities to truly understand how groups are competing and when these groups might seek an attack on the West to one-up each other.  Additionally, the U.S. must not delude themselves into believing there will be no need whatsoever for counterterrorism action. For the foreseeable future, the West must disrupt terror groups that will continue plotting attacks; namely “Old Guard” al Qaeda’s external operations branches.

  • Prepare for the worst case scenario – As I discussed more in depth during Part 4 of this series, the U.S. and the West should prepare now for two “most dangerous” scenarios that might arise.  First, what would the U.S. and its partners do if the two major strains of jihad, “Old Guard” al Qaeda and Team ISIS, compete in such a way that they pursue parallel, escalating attacks on Western targets? Second, what would the U.S. and its partners do if “Old Guard” al Qaeda’s proxies in Syria converge to focus their energies to attack Israel?  (al Qaeda linked rebels recently seized locations in the Golan Heights.) The West should not sit back and hope that these most dangerous scenarios don’t arise.  Rather than get caught flat footed, the U.S. should make plans now for how we would intervene to derail these most dangerous scenarios. 

  • Avoid foreign intervention and nation building – As we in the West have come to realize the past decade, large-scale foreign intervention followed by nation-building has largely failed to root out terrorists.  Foreign intervention confirms jihadi ideological justifications for fighting the West, is extremely costly and ultimately results in a weak state prime for the creation of a terrorist operational safe haven.  The West has learned its lesson on this I’m sure. A better counterterrorism approach over the horizon is currently underway in the Horn of Africa, where limited military and intelligence support is provided to counterterrorism forces who pursue limited objectives.  

  • Sustain intelligence capabilities across all theaters – Sustaining our intelligence capabilities to understand the plethora of terrorist threats we face has never been more important.  Yet, the U.S. government has been desperately trying to hold onto these capabilities due to the Edward Snowden affair.  The U.S. government must continue to fight for these capabilities, and the American public must understand that the best way to protect Americans in the digital age is to harness our advantages in technical surveillance.  Americans, to keep you safe, the U.S. government may end up learning a little bit about your electronic life.  Security is a trade off, deal with it. 

Specific Counterterrorism Actions:

A delicate balance of counterterrorism actions should be pursued moving forward from 2014.  Some who have tired from the Global War on Terror years might believe we should do little to nothing in the counterterrorism realm. This would be foolish as the threat of terrorism has not evaporated, but has rather changed.  Others would argue the reverse, that al Qaeda (whatever that means!) is stronger than ever and requires accelerated military action to halt their advance.  This would be equally foolish as jihadis writ large have never been in such a self-destructive state.  Aggressively advancing military counterterrorism any direction would likely galvanize disparate jihadi factions together rather than keep them competing.  To effectively strike a balance between these two poles, I recommend undertaking only a few counterterrorism actions.  Many of these actions the U.S. government is already pursuing fairly well; a massive improvement over how counterterrorism was conducted a decade ago and hats off to those nimbly pursuing al Qaeda operatives today.

  • Quash Terror Financiers – No action may be more important today than getting control of the money and resources streaming in to Syria and other terrorist safe havens.  While it is good to see jihadis fighting each other, as long as resources remain constant, these groups (i.e. “Old Guard” al Qaeda, Team ISIS and other upstarts in other regions) will ultimately build sufficient capacity to conduct an attack on the West.  Extreme ideologies lacking resources become little more than a cult over time.  But al Qaeda and today’s jihadi variants persist because they sustain a steady supply of resources from the Middle East.  Today, I or anyone else can get on openly available social media and contribute money to jihadis in Syria or watch big money donors in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar rally support for their favorite jihadi faction.  The U.S. government has pursued efforts to disrupt this stream and Saudi Arabia seems aware of the blowback dangers of their citizens’ financial and materiel support to the Syria jihad. One alternative being pursued appears to harness money flows to select Islamist groups vis-à-vis jihadi groups.  Whatever the specific actions end up being, my point is that countering terror finance has never been such an important element of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

  • Eliminate “Old Guard” al Qaeda and its external operations cells  – As I’ve advocated in Part 1 and later addressed in Part 3 and Part 4 of this “Smarter Counterterrorism” series, I believe U.S. counterterrorism strategy should focus on “Old Guard” al Qaeda whose external operations elements remain committed to attacking the U.S. and the West.  The kinetic elements of counterterrorism, military operations supported by robust intelligence and when possible law enforcement, should continue as they have in recent years, nimbly targeting the most dangerous elements of al Qaeda wherever they reside.  When feasible, the West should capture and try these al Qaeda operatives in courts of law. When a threat to the West is imminent and capture is infeasible, military operations should be pursued.   The U.S. has improved this counterterrorism triage process dramatically in the past decade and it will need to be sustained at today’s level of intensity for the foreseeable future.

  • Transition Russia & Iran as the far enemy – Moving forward, U.S. information campaigns in counterterrorism should consider redirecting al Qaeda’s ‘far enemy’ narrative. Today, the real far enemies of jihadis in Syria are Russia and Iran.  Russia has reinitiated its imperial ways and acts as a buffer to Western intervention in Syria.  Iran provides resources, troops, and technological capability to the Syrian regime.  For the sectarian ISIS, Iran is a natural far enemy.  For “Old Guard” al Qaeda, Russia was their first far enemy in Afghanistan; let’s encourage them to reboot that campaign.  Whether the U.S. likes it or not, Russia and Iran continue to target the U.S. in deliberate information campaigns.  Why shouldn’t the U.S. redirect some of the jihadi hatred towards those with the dirtiest hands in the Syrian conflict: Russia and Iran? (Note: I also have another recommended objective in the information space, but why should we cough up all of our best ideas here for jihadis to read?)

  • Sustain Foreign Fighter Tracking – The rapid resurgence of foreign fighter networks into Syria comes in large part from the second great foreign fighter migration to Iraq circa 2004–2010.  Those survivors of the Iraq battlefields today help facilitate new recruits to Syria and have provided fuel for ISIS splintering from core al Qaeda. A common estimate of the aggregate number of foreign fighters in Syria tossed about in the media is 10,000. Thomas Hegghammer has estimated that 1% to 10% of foreign fighters return home to commit violence. It is difficult to know how many of today’s 10,000 foreign fighters will survive and return home, but I would expect somewhere between 750-1000 members of today’s foreign fighter legions will be committed to violence against the West post-Syria. During the Afghanistan jihad, there was little to no way to track where the source of future foreign fighters would come from. Six years ago, we could see where today’s foreign fighter supplies would arise based on al Qaeda in Iraq’s human resources database captured by U.S. Forces in Sinjar, Iraq.  Today, however, an essential part of being a Syria foreign fighter is maintaining a Facebook page and a Twitter account.  If Western countries are not using this openly available information to track and estimate their risk of violence from returning jihadis, they are being foolish.  Today’s social media has helped empower foreign fighter recruitment to fight in Syria, why shouldn’t we use that same information to prepare ourselves for the third foreign fighter glut post Syria?

  • Eliminate Wuhayshi & Zawahiri (or not?) – One of the more perplexing dilemmas in the post al Qaeda hegemony period is where to focus efforts to eliminate key al Qaeda leaders.  One would expect Ayman al-Zawahiri to be the most important target for Western counterterrorism efforts, but ISIS rejection of Zawahiri and Zawahiri’s track record since Bin Laden’s death (see Part 3 – “Zawahiri’s Tenure“) suggest Zawahiri’s death or capture might actually help rather than hurt global jihadi unity (See this recent post). Zawahiri’s statement this past weekend illustrates how limited his control is of jihad’s competing factions. While I firmly believe the West and its partners in Pakistan should capture or eliminate Zawahiri at any point feasible for he is most certainly preparing a plot against the West or Israel, the most important leader for “Old Guard” al Qaeda and jihad as a whole is Nasir Wuhayshi, the leader of AQAP in Yemen and al Qaeda’s deputy commander globally.  As discussed in Part 3, Wuhayshi remains committed to attacking the U.S., will be more effective as the leader of al Qaeda globally and is highly respected by the rank and file jihadis from the Sahel to South Asia. If anyone has the ability to reunite all jihadis, ISIS and other independents, it would be Wuhayshi.  Thus, I’d recommend focusing leadership decapitation efforts on Wuhayshi first to prevent a stronger more potent al Qaeda in the future. Eliminating Wuhayshi would likely further unchain a jihadi movement already moving in many different directions-–see Scenario #3 of Part 4 here. 

  • In Syria, Focus on Nusra first, Then Prepare For ISIS – Jabhat al-Nusra and its network of “Old Guard” al Qaeda liaisons amongst the Islamic Front should be the focus of counterterrorism in Syria. Nusra will be the vehicle for future attacks on the West and Israel after the Syrian conflict.  By directly checking Nusra first, the U.S. would be reaffirming that support for al Qaeda’s doctrine of targeting the U.S. as the far enemy will result in direct counterterrorism action. Overall, in terms of al Qaeda affiliates, I recommend the priority of effort go to (1) AQAP in Yemen, (2) Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, and (3) al Qaeda Central in Pakistan. From Part 3 and Part 4 of this series, some might think I’m ignoring the threat of a rising ISIS. If the West were lucky enough to see the complete crumbling of “Old Guard” al Qaeda, ISIS would likely still present a threat to the West over time if allowed to create a sustainable safe haven in Western Iraq. But, I believe ISIS may recognize that as long as they avoid going toe-to-toe with the US in the near-term, they can avoid receiving a mouthful of missiles that might overtake their ambitions of establishing an Islamic State. Additionally, ISIS targeting is distinctly more sectarian, so why not let local populations, partners, or even adversaries like Iran deal with this rising group? ISIS’s rise must continue to be monitored and if they shift their targeting toward the West then the West should move to deter them. In the meantime, hit Nusra hard–an affiliate committed to “Old Guard” al Qaeda’s goals.

Western Counterterrorism Actions That Could Be Reduced

From my time working in government it was always the case that great new ideas were always advocated, but outdated or unproductive processes and concepts were rarely if ever eliminated from the repertoire.  Moving forward, I think there are two areas where the U.S. could reduce counterterrorism effort.

  • Messaging to undermine al Qaeda’s ideology – The United States has wisely declined to challenge al Qaeda’s religious justifications for its actions. And why bother? Jihadi ideology, much like communism during the 1980s, is failing right now because of its own weaknesses and flaws. The United States government should continue refuting al Qaeda’s misinformation about the United States and disseminating examples of al Qaeda’s hypocrisy and dissension in its ranks, but avoid efforts to challenge al Qaeda’s ideology on religious grounds.

  • Avoid Governance & Development as part of counterterrorism strategy – A decade ago, I supported the notion of using economic and governance aid and development as a part of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.  However, more than ten years of counterterrorism has proven that I was wrong.  These development efforts have been extremely expensive and have not to my knowledge shown any measured effect in undermining al Qaeda and other jihadi groups.  I want children to be free of disease, girls to attend school and citizens around the world to enjoy liberty and human rights irrespective of terrorism rather than in spite of it.  Let’s devote our limited development resources in those locations that can ultimately share in Western values and host the requisite economic underpinnings and components of civil society for which democracy flourishes; not in those terrorist safe havens incongruent to democratic principles, unsustainable for future growth and of value to the West only through the lens of counterterrorism. At times, there might be good reason to pursue limited development projects in support of counterterrorism objectives in local environments that are hotspots for terrorist recruitment. But the scale should be small and the scope focused. For example, a development project in Nairobi, Kenya to thwart Shabaab recruitment might make sense if integrated with democratic governance efforts and a partner supporting U.S. democratic values.  However, trying to reform the justice systems of North African countries to undermine al Qaeda sympathies, an idea I once heard of in a counterterrorism context, does not make much sense.

As I reach the end of this series, I’d like to thank all those who have read the five installments and provided feedback  – I’ve learned alot from each of your insights. In conclusion, I hope we can all learn from the past decade’s counterterrorism lessons to continue improving our mission to deter and defeat al Qaeda and any future terrorist threats that spawn from it.  We will need to pursue counterterrorism for many years to come; hopefully we can do this in a measured and effective way unhinged from the fear of another 9/11.  

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