Two-and-a-Half Years After ISIS’s Rise: Global Jihad Spreads And Morphs

Today, Islamic State foreign fighters bleeding out of Iraq and Syria power an unprecedented wave of directed attacks on three continents inspiring cascading waves of inspired violence from distant supporters scattered around the world. With that having been said, the good times for the Islamic State ended in 2016.  Their decline has come as fast as their rise and points to yet another shift in global jihad. The jihadi landscape, in only three years, has transformed from the unipolar world of al Qaeda to a bipolar competition between the al Qaeda and Islamic State networks to a multipolar jihadi ecosystem with dozens of groups holding varying degrees of allegiance and affinity for their extremist forefathers. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State now represent two big players in a sea of militancy filled with many competing currents. As seen in Figure 10 below, the world of jihad has never been so vast, dispersed, and diluted.

As always, there are a few notes on the al Qaeda versus Islamic State chart as of September 2016 (see Figure 10). I generally don’t like organizational charts for describing jihadi terrorist groups. I’ve been to too many military briefings where organizational charts have been pushed as command and control diagrams. Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and their affiliates largely represent swarming collaborative relationships rather than a directed, top-down hierarchy synonymous of Western military constructs. 

In the chart, circle size represents an imperfect estimate of a group’s relative size compared to other groups.  Larger circles equal bigger groups, smaller circles denote lesser-sized groups, and I can only make circles down to a certain size before the writing becomes illegible.  More overlap between circles represents my estimate of greater communication and coordination between the groups. Sometimes I couldn’t overlap groups as much as I’d like due to space limitations and this being a two- rather than a preferred three-dimensional rendering. I’ve inserted dashed circles for what I anticipate to be emerging Islamic State affiliates or new jihadi groups of no particular leaning. I could probably list a dozen other names in the chart but to prevent excessive cluttering I’ve stopped with these names. (Many thanks go to Will McCants for insights on ISIS affiliates, J.M Berger as always for his social media prowess and Aaron Zelin, particularly this year, for further refining my perspective on the emergence of fractures.) For past estimates of  al Qaeda versus the Islamic State, see depictions from February 2014, March 2014, and April 2015.

estimate-4-sep-2016 aq vs ISIS

What’s changed in two-and-a-half years? What should we think of jihad’s winding path?

Remarkable Speed Of Change. The most remarkable aspect of jihad’s last five years has been the speed with which things have changed. The end of the Afghan Mujahideen to al Qaeda’s zenith on September 11, 2001 took a decade. Al Qaeda’s downward spiral in Iraq began in 2008 and the Islamic State’s rise began in 2013 –i.e., half the time of the previous generation. ISIS broke from al Qaeda and overtook them in roughly eighteen months and has now receded dramatically in nearly the same amount of time–a rise and fall occurring in a little over three years. Each foreign fighter mobilization and outflow over the last thirty years has been larger and faster than the one before it. Advances in communication and transportation have made each generation’s radicalization, recruitment and mobilization easier and subsequently faster. This trend, should it continue, points to a new wave of jihad arising fairly quickly.

Volume Of Fighters And Groups. The Syrian conflict generated the largest foreign fighter wave in history. Despite the Islamic State’s reckless consumption of its foreign manpower, today and through the near-term, there will be more jihadi foreign fighters scattered around the world than at any point in history. Compared to previous generations of jihadis, survivors of Syria and Iraq’s battlefields will be better trained, more experienced, better connected physically and virtually, and have greater opportunities amongst numerous weak and failing states. The world should prepare for, and expect, years of jihadi violence emanating from this most recent foreign fighter mobilization.

Don’t mistake dispersion for strength. Scary maps showing the spread of jihad have been a favorite scare tactic of governments and the counterterrorism punditry for a decade. Similar to al Qaeda’s transition to affiliates beginning around 2004, the Islamic State’s members, supporters and re-branded followers have now spread from Morocco to the Philippines. Unmet jihadi dispersion can equate to resilience, but should not be confused with strength. With the exception of a declining emirate in Libya and challenged affiliates in Yemen and Afghanistan, the Islamic State’s affiliates operate largely as small terrorist groups working to establish their base of operations and local popular support. Likewise, al Qaeda’s affiliates have yet to regain their previous heights–e.g., al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) of 2011, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) of 2012, and al Shabaab of 2013. Affiliates of either stripe, as of yet, lack the projection power and global appeal of their headquarters. Don’t make what are mostly molehills into mountains just yet; this is particularly the case when there remain sufficient unconventional warfare methods to encourage their destructive competition.

Scale of jihad matters more than it’s spread. Dispersion should bring concern when one or more affiliates begin to scale in size. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) during al Qaeda Central’s decline (2009 – 2012) and the Islamic State since taking Mosul demonstrate what Clauset and Gleditsch revealed in their study “The Developmental Dynamics of Terrorist Organizations” that the larger a terrorist group grows the greater number, pace and size of terrorist attacks they can execute.

Al Qaeda’s growth from 1993 to 2001 allowed them to increase the pace, complexity, and lethality of their plots. The swelling of the Islamic State’s ranks and the grabbing of turf in Syria and Iraq enabled the creation of operational space for developing external operations branches and the manpower to reach Western targets. Their growth brought the recent unprecedented violence of their Ramadan offensive–i.e., directed and networked attacks every day in a new country creating a wave of cascading terrorism perpetrated by inspired followers. The lesson for the West: ignoring jihadi group growth will lead to a terrorism cancer nearly impossible to rein in.

Fracturing and Competition. Despite recent fear mongering over the Islamic State’s rise or al Qaeda’s comeback, the global jihad as a whole has more fracturing and infighting than any time in its history. The Islamic State versus al Qaeda rivalry remains but is likely secondary to the generational and resource competition occurring across many affiliates. Splinters have erupted in Jabhat al-Nusra/Fateh al-Sham (Syria), Boko Haram (Nigeria), al Shabaab (Somalia), and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU – AFPAK) in just the past few months. Characterizations of global jihad as unipolar or even bipolar should be met with skepticism–the sands have never shifted so much or so quickly. Remember, jihadis are violent young men, routinely narcissistic, highly egotistical, often jealous of each other, and particularly rash. Analysts should beware imprinting order on what is largely chaos.

What might we think of today’s jihadi terrorism landscape moving forward? 

The al Qaeda versus Islamic State debate is nothing more than a silly DC Beltway sideshow. Three years ago, pundits and analysts widely refuted the notion of an al Qaeda break up. Two years ago, I participated in a debate regarding “al Qaeda’s grand strategy” while the Islamic State was overtaking their terrorist forefathers by seizing Mosul and declaring a caliphate. Despite these analytical surprises, similar prophesying about jihad’s future direction has returned. Some analysts again trumpet a resurgent al Qaeda, a claim made by an analyst every year since the 9/11 attacks, or they have begun parallel theorizing about the Islamic State’s grand strategy. Luckily for pundits, no one keeps score in the counterterrorism fear factory where production is rewarded over performance.

The “al Qaeda versus Islamic State” dichotomy is a hollow paradigm, reflective of analytical status quo bias from those unable or unwilling to envision a future of jihadism different from what has been seen in the past. While “al Qaeda” or “ISIS” may be convenient for communicating media narratives, today’s vast jihadi landscape cannot be accurately characterized by the names of two groups who are past their primes and that have, at best, limited ability to control their adherents. However, this paradigm will continue in the near term because….

Right now, we know less, proportionally, about what’s going on in jihad than anytime since September 11, 2001. Never have counterterrorism analysts and pundits had so much to cover and so little time and ability to do so. Today, jihadi ranks have expanded widely across three continents and they communicate in dozens of languages. With the exception of a couple of open source outlets and academic think tanks, no one can track the endless string of al Qaeda and Islamic State “Number 2’s” killed by airstrikes. The rapid, successive deaths of leaders in nearly all jihadi groups worldwide has created a chaotic jihadi stew where younger, more violent emerging leaders strike out seeking to raise both their own stature and that of their group locally.

Successfully anticipating jihad’s divergence will require tens or even hundreds of analysts equipped with advanced degrees, language skills, and field experience tapped into a blend of human and technical sources. Luckily, we have that! It’s called the U.S. intelligence community. Moving forward, Western intelligence services will be positioned to put together the global picture.

Jihadis have gone local and academics and analysts should as well. To understand jihad’s local flavor moving forward, look to journalists (like here and here) and academics (here’s one) doing true field research, in-person interviews and reporting rather than those relying heavily on social media personas of dubious access and reliability.

Connections Mean Less, Intentions Mean More. A decade ago, and even in recent years, al Qaeda connections were used to characterize perpetrators or groups. But terrorist connections mean little in the wake of the Islamic State’s rise and the unending battle in Syria. Tens of thousands of foreign fighters from Africa through Asia have fought with al Qaeda last decade or the Islamic State this decade. Every Arab male between 18 and 26 years of age is now more likely than not to have a connection in some form to a person that fought with either or both terrorist group. Even recent inspired terrorist plots lacking any physical connection to al Qaeda or the Islamic State have surfaced links to both groups (here and here). Moving forward, analyses must wade past connections to examine the intentions of jihadis and their groups. Do they seek to target the West? If not, then add them to the long list of those needing monitoring but too numerous to thoroughly vet simply because “they are connected to a guy on Twitter who is connected to a guy who might be in the Islamic State”.

The next five years of jihad will look more like the 1990s than the 2000s. Figure 10 demonstrates the diffusion of jihad. I can’t properly account for all of the groups rising and falling, shifting between networks while paving their own local agendas. With the Islamic State’s decline, and al Qaeda’s limited reach, emerging groups powered by returning foreign fighters will converge and diverge largely based on regional and local forces. Instead of the al Qaeda versus Islamic State paradigm currently being put forth, the multipolar jihadi landscape of the 1990s leading to al Qaeda’s rise provides a more appropriate historical framework for anticipating future jihadi manifestations.

Prior to the September 11 attacks, many different Sunni terrorist groups with or without connections to al Qaeda pursued their own agendas competing for recruits, resources and influence amongst many different countries. This setting appears more reflective of the diffuse set of jihadis pursuing a range of ideological positions and local agendas in the near-term. Those groups that scale the largest and the quickest amongst this chaotic stew will be of the greatest concern moving forward.

Final Note

Unless something changes, Figure 10, will be my last al Qaeda versus Islamic State bubble chart. Surely my comments above have pointed to my own hypocrisy and underlying belief–there are too many actors, locations and competing interests to characterize jihad in a simple bipolar chart. Last decades’ theorizing should remind us how unlikely anyone will be to accurately estimate where, when, and how jihad’s next wave will emerge. Rather than focus on groups and fighters, it will be long-run forces that forge where jihad will revive and thrive next. Rest assured, after the Islamic State’s foreign fighter mobilization their surviving legions will unleash violence again somewhere soon.

Al Qaeda versus the Islamic State: a short video

Watch this short movie to see how the al Qaeda versus Islamic State estimates have changed in the past two-and-a-half years.



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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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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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