The U.S. Can’t Destroy ISIS, Only ISIS Can Destroy ISIS – The Unfortunate Merits of the “Let Them Rot” Strategy

During the early 1990s the Algerian government fought one of the nastiest civil wars in recent history against a broad-based Islamist insurgency.  The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) conducted a brutal insurgent campaign employing vicious terrorist tactics on par with today’s modern menace the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known by the acronyms ISIS, ISIL or IS for Islamic State – you pick the one you like).  GIA attacks were often indiscriminate and violent; involving large civilian massacres – quite ISIS like. While I always reserve extreme caution in endorsing any counterinsurgency or counterterrorism tactic utilized by the Algerian government, there may be one instructive lesson from Algeria’s strategy that we in the West and particularly the U.S. might examine for designing a plan to counter ISIS.

The Algerian government, having already tried extreme brutality and overwhelming force, recognized the need to employ smarter tactics.  Rather than tracking every GIA member to ground and in so doing causing harm to locals and further bolstering GIA’s popular support, the Algerians selectively employed what Luis Martinez, author of The Algerian Civil War 1990-1998, describes as the “Let Them Rot” strategy. The Algerian government, Martinez explains,“sought to avoid human losses for non-strategic zones, but also to lessen the demoralizing effects of the ‘dirty job’ on the troops.” (See pg. 150.) Algerian security services isolated districts with Islamist sympathies leaving the GIA emirs to govern via Islamist law and principles.  Contained by the Algerian security services, GIA emirs employed their extreme practices and quickly alienated the local populace as the district, walled off from the rest of society, crumbled economically.  Over time, the districts and the GIA emirs that ruled them, slowly “rotted” creating conditions favorable for the development of local militias to combat the GIA.  Local businessmen and disillusioned Islamists were re-engaged over time by the Algerian government who offered employment through security positions and opportunities through economic development plans.  In the end, the Algerian government didn’t destroy the GIA in these selected districts, they instead let the GIA defeat itself. 

The last two-week’s of U.S. discussion on ISIS has returned to last decade’s tough talk with calls for “destroying ISIS” and being “stronger” against an ISIS that is wrongly being equated with al Qaeda. ISIS, far more than al Qaeda, seeks the formation of an Islamic state and pursues many enemies of which only one is the U.S. As I discussed last week, the American quest to “destroy” ISIS is misguided.  Western Iraq and Eastern Syria are of lesser strategic value to the U.S. than what is currently transpiring in Ukraine with regards to Russian aggression.  By again plunging head first militarily into Iraq, the U.S. will not only re-confirm the narrative of al Qaeda that we’ve so desperately sought to shake the last ten years, but we will also be providing credibility to ISIS as the next leader of global jihad.  Excessive military engagement will certainly weaken ISIS in the near term, but will likely only guarantee the strengthening of jihadi aggression towards the U.S. in one form or another for the longer term. If the U.S. insists on destroying ISIS, ISIS’s remnants will later become something else, much in the way al Qaeda’s death spiral has spawned ISIS.  But if the U.S. can help ISIS destroy itself, it will be the best chance that jihadi violence can go away in our lifetimes.  If the U.S. truly believes ISIS’s violent ideology to be bankrupt, then why not “Let Them Rot” through a more sophisticated strategy designed to disillusion yet another wave of jihadi foreign fighters to Iraq. 

In conflict, the better force will develop a deliberate strategy around specified objectives and exhibit patience in execution.  (Russia’s recent several-month march into Ukraine might be emblematic of this.) To allow ISIS to defeat itself, the U.S. must show restraint when taunted, not infer defeat from an individual loss (e.g., beheading videos) and instead use its lauded smart power to avoid replaying the same strategic mistakes of the last decade’s regime building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To execute a “Let Them Rot” strategy against ISIS, the U.S. must answer two important questions. 

1. How does the U.S. effectively isolate ISIS to prevent ISIS from gathering its necessary resources for survival and the inevitable exfiltration of foreign fighters conducting international terrorist attacks?

I assume this weekend’s announcement of a nine member coalition represents the first step in isolating ISIS. But a strategy involving isolation won’t work when there is a giant gapping hole in the perimeter called Syria.  The U.S. and the West have avoided the Syrian conflict for two years, essentially permitting the conditions that spawned ISIS.  I’ll be interested to hear how they collectively decide to “degrade” ISIS without truly addressing Syria’s civil war. 

2. How does the U.S. lead a coalition to re-engage disaffected Iraqi and Syrian communities and their leading defectors that are willing to repel ISIS?

The U.S. gave itself great compliments during the 2007 “Surge” for winning the hearts and minds of Sunni tribesmen in areas today dominated by ISIS. To defeat ISIS, the U.S. and its coalition must be prepared to effectively entice defectors in these regions.  Luckily, a current for rejecting ISIS may have already begun to emerge in Mosul

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Field Notes: Reading Lolita in Kurdistan

            Two European-looking young men are sitting in the back of the minibus, which I boarded at a sprawling open-air taxi market in Erbil, Iraq. Slender and projecting exotic Western cool, Asin has thin, curly slick black hair and sports a lock of unshaven fuzz on his chin. He is tucked into the back right corner and is reading a Persian translation of Lolita. Sitting next to him, Ako, his traveling companion, looks absentmindedly out the window. With light hazel eyes and curly red hair, Ako wears casual mountaineering clothes and carries a BlackYak climbing backpack. He looks like a German ski bum.*

            The minibus is bound for Sulaymaniyah, a three hour drive west counting stops for security screening at checkpoints and breaks to use restrooms and get chai. Although we would drive through Kirkuk, where one of the checkpoints we pass through would be attacked the next day, this trip is, thus far, uneventful and quiet. Then, as hospitable travelers are wont to do for their journeying compatriots, Ako smiles, gestures, and offers to buy me tea.

            Now the trip gets more interesting.


            “Where are you from?” I ask. We are sitting on plastic chairs underneath a canvas sun shade, enjoying our chai break on the mild sunny day. This is the first question every traveler asks when getting to know someone new. The answer reveals everything. If it is answered with a smile and shrug, your new friend does not know English but, since they bought you tea, sees you as someone they want to know anyway. Or maybe they will not answer truthfully, since travelers could have any number of reasons for masking the truth of their origins.

            Ako smiles. “Iran. But I am Kurdish.” He and Asin, his brother are from neighboring Mahabad, a Kurdish city about four hours from Sulaymaniyah. Although they tell me they are tourists passing through, I sense there is more to the story. I wonder if our limited grasp of each other’s languages has reduced our capacity to connect. Ako speaks English slowly, and I cannot tell if that is because he does not know it well or if it is because he is sizing me up.

            “What do you do?” Ako asks. “Why are you here?” I tell him I am a writer, and he smiles, and whispers something to Asin, who also smiles. “He is also a writer,” Ako says, pointing to Asin. “He likes… (‘How do you say?’)… romance.” Ako is 23 and says he is a baker, but he cannot or will not tell me where he works or what he bakes.

            We shuffle back to the minibus. Asin returns to Lolita and Ako switches seats next to me. Ako’s English is good, as is his Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish and Persian (Farsi). He seems uncharacteristically athletic for a professional baker. “I am a mountain climber,” Ako says. We discuss his watch, his backpack, his gear. “I climbed Khustup in Armenia,” he says, referring to a 3000-meter peak, “but my dream is Everest. And K2.” Whenever he says a mountain’s name, Ako stops and goes into a small reverie, softly punctuating the mountain’s memory with a small phrase, like “beautiful” or “so good.”  

            But Ako’s dream is constrained by politics. “At 18, I had to go in the Iranian Army,” he says. “For two years, my life is nothing. I am a soldier for Iran. I cannot go home to see my father or mother. I want to go to college and be working.” Ako looks at me pointedly. “This is fucking my dream.”

            Indeed it is. Because Ako is a former Iranian soldier, all the places he wants to visit are off limits to his visa applications. His military background also seems to be preventing him from getting an Iranian passport, although it appears he has made other regional visits—such as the one he and Asin are doing now—on local travel documents. Iraqi Kurdistan authorities have granted Ako and Asin 45-day tourist visas to visit Sulaymaniyah. It appears they have other plans besides tourism.

            We are driving in the mountains now, and Ako is happy. He says he has been here before, and points to a rock face where I snap a picture. “I was climbing there and then the police came and said ‘You cannot climb here!’” Ako laughs, then gets quiet. “So good… so good.” I stop and imagine Ako at a base camp near Half-Dome at Yosemite National Park, or talking with Marines on a weekend leave from mountain warfare training at Lake Tahoe.

            We are close to Sulaymaniyah now, and, suddenly, I realize Ako’s plan. Something connects with both of us, and he figures out that I get it. “They need workers here in Sulaymaniyah,” Ako says. “If I can get a work visa, and if I stay for three years, I may be able to get an Iraqi passport.” But it wouldn’t be just any passport: Ako could get an Iraqi Kurdistan passport. Ako knows this region is looked at favorably around the world, and, as such, it may be his only chance at the mountains. Although Ako may be the first person I’ve met who has coveted an Iraqi passport of any kind, it is clear to me that, like many Mexicans I have met planning to enter the United States, Ako intends to stay in Iraqi Kurdistan whether or not it is legal for him to do so.

            Ako mentions another peak in Armenia. I ask if that is on his list. “I’ll tell you my list,” he says. “One: work for money. Two: go become a tourist.” What about your brother, I ask? “He will have to go back,” Ako jerks his head, gesturing towards authorities. “To keep up appearances.”

            We arrive in Sulaymaniyah. In two hours, I’ve grown fond of Ako. I have appreciated him trusting me with his story, and tell him so. He nods and smiles. We exchange contact information, although Ako suggests I won’t hear from him for awhile. “I do not even have a girlfriend,” he says. “I am a climber.”  I tell him maybe someday it will not be so difficult for him to travel. “Maybe someday there will be freedom in Iran,” Ako says. “Maybe, maybe. Always maybe.” We embrace and part ways.

            I hail a taxi and look for the pair. They have disappeared. Somewhere, Ako has his BlackYak climbing backpack slung over his shoulder. And Asin carries his copy of Lolita.

* Given the risks to the article subjects, pseudonyms have been used for identity protection.

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Do al Qaeda Affiliates Actually Have a Plan?

The rise of many jihadi affiliates around the Africa and the Middle East has renewed the American media quest to anoint “The Next Bin Laden”. Lacking any real information or expertise on emerging leaders some analyses has settled on older known quantities; namely Abu Musab al-Suri. (I wonder if someone just changed the date on this article from 2005 to 2013, Lawrence Wright does a better breakdown of Suri at this link from September 11, 2006.) While I’ve always been a critic of Suri, the article does raise an interesting question: do the mish-mash of “al Qaeda-in-name” affiliates actually have a plan for their actions?  Most importantly, what is the plan for Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (aka ISIS/AQ in Iraq) as they move forward in Syria?

If al Qaeda affiliates were to actually build a plan from their own lessons learned, I would assume they might reference three jihadi planners of note and several other lesser-known jihadi veterans old and new.  For the “Big Three” and their relevant works I would pick:

  1. Abu Musab al-Suri and his lengthy 1600 page The Call to Global Islamic Resistance released in 2005

  2. Bin Laden’s final strategic thoughts from Abbottabad

  3. Abu Bakr Naji’s 2004 upload The Management of Savagery

I’ll discuss some of my general notions about these three influences and my opinion on whether any of these three actually make much of an impression on current jihadi conflicts. 

Suri’s 2005, The Call to Global Islamic Resistance

Terrorism analysts have long loved Suri because he in many ways mirrors them; a scholar of jihad who developed strategic doctrine the way one would expect of the U.S. military.  Academics found in Suri order to al Qaeda’s chaos and what on paper appeared to be the Clausewitz of jihadi thinkers.  Peter Bergen noted after spending time with both Suri and Bin Laden, “He [Suri] certainly impressed me more than Bin Laden.”

In 2011, rumors swirled of Suri being released by the Assad regime and turned over to rebels.  A jihadi forum posting (probably one of the least credible sources in the world) suggested Suri was alive amongst Syria’s jihadis but since there’s been little discussion. If he were alive and thriving, he’d certainly be an inspiration to jihadis–that is if years of torture haven’t left him drooling, mad or both.

I’ve always been skeptical of Suri’s influence amongst al Qaeda for many reasons. 

  • Suri, at times, appeared a rival and detractor of Bin Laden.  His negativity likely diminished his influence in some al Qaeda circles.

  • Suri’s work in 2005 focused on the “global” and “individual” rather than the “local” and “collective”.  Suri stressed the need to have lone wolves and small cells conduct attacks independently. His ideas were echoed by the likes of Anwar al-Awlaki and to this day by Ayman al-Zawahiri and their calls for do-it-yourself terrorism.  But this strategy failed for the white supremacist movement in the U.S. and also seemingly for al Qaeda in recent years.  Those casually citing Suri today often refer to this document as strategic guidance for jihadis, but its premise and purpose does not match the environment and conditions of today’s al Qaeda upstarts that are enmeshed in insurgencies and civil wars.  (For the weaknesses of Suri’s “Lone Wolf” strategies see these three analyses by J.M. Berger here, here, and here.)

  • What young jihadi actually reads 1600 pages and can comprehend what he just read? While some AQ leaders might make an effort, I imagine Suri’s insights strewn across the equivalent of an encyclopedia largely fly over the heads of jihadis. From jihadi social media, I’ve learned jihadis like their solutions to be quick, concise, one-size fits all, heavy on the violence and light on popular support.  My sense is that Suri 2005 isn’t a huge influence on today’s jihadi battlefields where many a young recruit runs free. 

  • Suri’s main value rests in his understanding of safe havens and their importance for training, indoctrination and planning.  Unlike recent media accounts, I would imagine Suri, if he is alive and thriving in Syria, recommends ignoring his 2005 global call and instead focussing on his more operational works with a regional flavor -– namely his criticisms and analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood’s failings against Syria during the 1980s. 

My opinion: Don’t design a counterterrorism strategy to thwart Suri’s 2005 strategy, let it go, the strategy is flawed and will likely defeat itself. (I could write a book chapter on this but I’ll let it go for now.) For an excellent work on Suri, read Bryjar Lia’s book.

Bin Laden’s Abbottabad Documents, 2011

Prior to his death, one might mistake Bin Laden’s thoughts as copies from America’s Counterinsurgency Manual, FM 3-24. Reeling from drone strikes and contained in Pakistan, Bin Laden urged a more pragmatic strategy for building an Islamic caliphate by integrating with local communities, “winning hearts and minds” and even considered a name change to repair al Qaeda’s tarnished image.  Bin Laden saw Yemen as a potential opportunity for establishing a caliphate but stressed that jihadis should not move too quickly and must wait for the right time to initiate their efforts.

Bin Laden’s guidance appears particularly salient in the post-Arab Spring where more than a half-dozen opportunities for expansion emerged in short order.  But, patience apparently was not a strong suit of post Bin Laden affiliates.  As noted by Will McCants in his recent article “How Zawahiri Lost al Qaeda”, “one major reason that al Qaeda affiliates are not getting along is the great many opportunities before them.” With each affiliate seeing their own interests before them, they aggressively seek out their own stake, ignoring the patience prescribed by Bin Laden.

Abu Bakr Naji’s 2004 The Management of Savagery

In 2004, a document called The Management of Savagery written by an unknown person, Abu Bakr Naji, surfaced on al Qaeda forums.  The two hundred plus page document (translated by Dr. Will McCants) describes how al Qaeda leaders must understand both the political as well as the military sides of jihad.  Lawrence Wright provides an excellent summary of Naji in his 2006 article:

“Naji recommended that jihadis continually attack the vital economic centers of these countries, such as tourist sites and oil refineries, in order to make the regimes concentrate their forces, leaving their peripheries unprotected. Sensing weakness, Naji predicts, the people will lose confidence in their governments, which will respond with increasingly ineffective acts of repression. Eventually, the governments will lose control. Savagery will naturally follow, offering Islamists the opportunity to capture the allegiance of a population that is desperate for order. (Naji cites Afghanistan before the Taliban as an example.) Even though the jihadis will have caused the chaos, that fact will be forgotten as the fighters impose security, provide food and medical treatment, and establish Islamic courts of justice.”

Naji’s proposed doctrine rings eerily familiar to what we’ve seen in many affiliate risings post-Bin Laden; Yemen, Sahel and now Syria.  Amongst the Arab Spring, Naji’s suggested shift to understanding politics appears particularly relevant.  However, the administration of services has been particularly challenging for upstart groups under significant counterterrorism pressure.  Naji seems to enjoy the idea of securing a hinterland as a safe haven for indoctrination and building capacity; much easier to do in a pre-drone era. However, Naji’s prescriptions appear more relevant to current conditions in the post-Arab Spring Middle East and Africa.   

So are they using these theories & doctrine?

My final guess is that al Qaeda affiliates initially start out with a plan, but based on changing circumstances, divergent interests, counterterrorism pressure and imperfect situational awareness, these plans quickly fall apart.  As is commonly said in the U.S. military, the best plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy, thus commanders must adapt, overcome and improvise based on a set of known objectives and a general sense for how the battle should be conducted (i.e., “Commander’s Intent” in military speak). For al Qaeda affiliates and as seen by the 9/11 attacks (or U.S. planners for a post-Saddam Iraq for that matter), al Qaeda leaders have yet to adequately plan beyond first contact.

There are many other planning documents available to al Qaeda affiliates. Jihadis seeking to build their credibility often pen their strategic theories; irrespective of their actual experience, knowledge or skills (Even Omar Hammami spent time writing his own strategic theory).  Today, we see ISIS in Syira trying to govern and provide social services, all the while indiscriminately killing people of all shapes and sizes.  Essentially, ISIS might be picking some strategic plans while selectively ignoring other guidance that doesn’t fit their personal preferences -– namely the guidance of Ayman al-Zawahiri

In conclusion, I think a few of the affiliate leaders read the strategic documents (AQAP I would presume), and I would guess that both Bin Laden’s final thoughts and Naji’s doctrine may be relevant in today’s contexts.  But overall, I’m skeptical that affiliates and their new recruits, whom have largely not been indoctrinated in al Qaeda camps (a key thrust of Suri), are following much of a plan at all.  In the “Own Your Own” era of al Qaeda, I’m guessing affiliates design strategies that support their objectives first and al Qaeda Central’s objectives second.  If a strategy document supports their preferences, the affiliate will incorporate and cite it.  Beyond that, I don’t imagine today’s young recruits to Syria or their local cell leaders delve very far into 1600 pages of Suri. 

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Al-Qaeda Plots, NSA Intercepts & the Era Of Terrorism Competition

This weekend, the U.S. closed 22 of its embassies throughout the Middle East and North Africa in response to an al-Qaeda threat described by Rep. Peter King described as, “the most specific I’ve seen.”  The New York Times reports, “Intelligence officials said the threat focused on the Qaeda affiliate in Yemen,” and the threat advisory coincides with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent public message released this week. 

This latest threat to American and Western targets overseas is not surprising because of the many internal motivations of Zawahiri and al-Qaeda to plot a spectacular attack now.  Increasingly, al-Qaeda Central and what I would now call al-Qaeda Central Forward — al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) based in Yemen -– face stiff competition with one of its own affiliates, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the latter’s recent absorption of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.

“…competing al Qaeda affiliates may actually increase their attack tempo in an effort to assert themselves” – FPRI, June 17, 2013

As I noted last month when al-Baghdadi rebuffed al-Zawahiri’s announcement of a dissolution of the AQI – Nusra merger, Zawahiri needs to take action in one or more ways that I described in this FPRI post from June 17, 2013 and highlighted here. 

Zawahiri needs to: 1) execute a spectacular attack to re-establish his credibility, 2) increase and speed up communication between he and his subordinates, 3) regain control of resource distribution as most affiliates are currently self-financed, and 4) fire somebody – nothing demonstrates power more than removing subordinate leaders.    

I’ve gotten the sense that since the rise of the Syrian conflict two different strains of al-Qaeda-like threats have emerged.  The first group is the remaining “Old Guard” al-Qaeda members loyal to bin Laden and his successor Zawahiri.  The second, I believe, is al-Qaeda in Iraq who claims to have absorbed Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria as part of the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham – although its still undetermined who is leading who in this region. 

“Old Guard” al Qaeda – From Pakistan to Yemen to…..

Drones have taken a toll on Zawahiri’s AQ Central headquarters and over the past several years AQAP has taken the lead role in conducting external operations against the U.S.  Additionally, several clues have surfaced over the past year to suggest that aside from Zawahiri, AQAP has assumed the role of al-Qaeda’s central headquarters. First, as far back as 2011, AQAP provided resources (though insufficient) to the Nasr City cell in Egypt as part of Zawahiri’s alleged plans to overthrow the Morsi regime.  This is not surprising as AQAP’s proximity to Arab Gulf donors and relative but short-lived sustainment of a safe haven in Yemen made them ideally suited to perform fund transfers on behalf of AQ Central. Second, over the past two to three years, AQAP has increased its role as a propaganda hub through its creation and distribution of Inspire magazine and up until the end of 2011 playing host to Anwar al-Awlaki who embodied the unique qualities needed to rally recruits globally via the Internet. Third, the revelations of Omar Hammami, the American terrorist on the outs with al-Shabaab, details how AQAP in Yemen provided the needed communication and coordination function between AQ Central in Pakistan and al Shabaab in Somalia.  Fourth, the FBI recently named suspects in the Benghazi and an unnamed source reported to CNN that three to four of the suspects were from AQAP in Yemen further showing signs of AQ Central’s reliance on AQAP for the conduct of attacks against the West.  Lastly, this week Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly formalized the appointment of AQAP’s leader Nasir al-Wuhaysi as al-Qaeda’s overall second-in-command.  (This Paul Cruickshank article at CNN provides a good overview on the AQAP connections to the recent embassy closures.

In 2012, I was trying to determine what role a headquarters plays for al-Qaeda globally and descended on these items:

“A headquarters provides strategic vision outlined by ideological principles, structured planning of operations, sustained communications for command and control, indoctrination and training programs for the accession of new recruits, financial resources for sustaining global operations, and logistical support for executing attacks.”

As of today, if any al-Qaeda entity performs these functions it would be AQAP led by Nasir al-Wuhayshi.  Aside from Zawahiri residing in Pakistan, AQAP in Yemen is al-Qaeda Central and the chain-of-succession has been put in place in the event that Zawahiri is finally killed or captured.

The morphing affiliate: Al-Qaeda in Iraq – Islamic State of Iraq – Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Which is it?)

Recent machinations in Syria and Iraq suggest a different strain of al-Qaeda seeking its own path may be emerging in the Levant and Mesopotamia.  The Syrian revolution has been a needed shot in the arm for global jihad.  No conflict since the Afghan jihad of the 1980’s has persisted for so long and attracted such large numbers of foreign fighters.  Syria’s decentralized revolution has provided Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, plenty of room to flourish.  Well resourced compared to other groups and the central hub for global foreign fighter migration, al-Nusra became the brightest spot for a global al-Qaeda otherwise finding misfortune.  However, in recent months, al-Qaeda in Iraq, who has ridden the waves of Iraq’s sectarian conflict to grow in strength, acquired al-Nusra in a merger that appears to have been without the blessing of Zawahiri and al-Qaeda Central.  The merger and creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Sham sent foreign fighters into the ranks of al-Qaeda in Iraq while also fostering a public rebuttal of Zawahiri by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi–-al-Qaeda in Iraq’s emir.  Dating back to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the rebranding to become the Islamic State of Iraq, al-Qaeda in Iraq has always been at a distance from al-Qaeda Central focused more on sectarian and local insurgency than global jihad, and often out of communication or ignoring the guidance of senior leaders such as bin Laden and Zawahiri.  Al-Baghdadi’s unsanctioned merger with Jabhat al-Nusra may represent a calculated maneuver to move past the “Old Guard” al-Qaeda and set al-Qaeda in Iraq on its own jihadi path.

The Two “al-Qaedas” Hypothesis

The two “al-Qaedas” hypothesis isn’t mutually exclusive as I do not doubt that all al-Qaeda affiliates communicate to some degree and that at least on the surface these communications will appear cordial.  However, I see an era of  terrorism competition between al-Qaeda Central and AQ in Iraq based on several reasons and factors. 

Strategic and Attack Focus – After bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda global seemed to focus on using local affiliates enmeshed in the Arab Spring uprisings to create tighter links with local populaces and additional safe havens.  AQAP in Yemen, AQIM in Mali and possibly Ansar al-Sharia in Libya all pursued this approach.  However, Western intervention largely short-circuited this al-Qaeda rebranding strategy.  Meanwhile, the West has chosen not to interfere in Syria providing al-Qaeda in Iraq time to capitalize on the rise of al-Nusra.  Stunted in his command and control of al-Nusra and AQ in Iraq, Zawahiri has possibly returned to large-scale attacks on the West to reinvigorate his “Old Guard” cadres and take revenge on the U.S. who has decimated his ranks via drones. Overall, I think AQ in Iraq’s local focus in the near-term with a build up to attacks on the West over the longer-term is more effective and prevents the West from intervening in ways that disrupted affiliate growth in Yemen and Mali.

Regional Priority – Because of location and proximity, AQ in Iraq and al-Nusra have focused locally on the Syrian Revolution and increasingly on the fight against the Iraqi Regime.  Meanwhile, “Old Guard” AQ Central has pushed in many directions sequentially from Yemen to Egypt and then to Syria resulting in their, like the U.S., arriving late into the Syrian revolution.  It’s likely Zawahiri’s Egyptian bias and hopes of unseating Morsi has provided time for the likes of al-Baghdadi to gain strength and influence in Syria.  For Zawahiri, if you pursue jihad everywhere, you pursue it nowhere.  

Personnel – By preemptively merging with al-Nusra, al-Baghdadi has placed himself on top of the largest foreign fighter migration in recent years.  With more personnel, Baghdadi acquires more power.  Meanwhile, jihadi fights in Pakistan, Yemen and Mali have declined in sequence while drones have severely degraded “Old Guard” al-Qaeda’s leadership.  “Old Guard” al-Qaeda and Zawahiri need a big attack on the West now or risk being outshadowed by a strengthening AQ in Iraq.

Resources – As documented by Afshon Ostovar and Will McCants in their report on Syria, al-Nusra and by extension AQ in Iraq have gained significant resource support from wealthy Gulf donors.  Their increasing share of jihadi revenues likely decreases the share available for “Old Guard” al-Qaeda.  By preempting the merger, al-Baghdadi has placed himself further in the middle of resource streams that likely increase his power vis-à-vis “Old Guard” al-Qaeda leaders.  Unable to get involved in Syria separate from al-Nusra/al-Qaeda in Iraq, a spectacular global attack occurring in multiple locales might be an effective way to reinvigorate their financial base.  

Communication – Beginning with the Bin Laden documents and even more with the retreat of AQIM and al-Baghdadi’s rebuttal, communication between “Old Guard” al-Qaeda and its affiliates varies considerablty between theaters and rests largely on long-term relationships forged by al-Qaeda’s remaining senior leaders.  Meanwhile, AQ in Iraq and al-Nusra host the shortest and likely most protected lines of communication allowing them to move faster and make greater gains from their actions.  As seen by recent headlines, what appears to be one of the largest al-Qaeda Central plots in sometime was allegedly detected through a communication intercept. For Zawahiri positioned in Pakistan, his exterior lines of communication consistently put him at a disadvantage.

Competition Resulting in Escalation and Violence – In conclusion, Zawahiri’s plotting of a spectacular attack and nomination of Wuyashi may be the result of internal forces–competition with AQ in Iraq-–more than external forces.  Zawahiri needs a big attack to reassert his authority and curb the growth of a rival.  AQ in Iraq’s growth and Baghdadi’s rebuttal may have pushed Zawahiri to rush an attack and in the process led to its detection. I’m guessing that only time will tell. Overall, Zawahiri and “Old Guard” al-Qaeda may be returning their focus to global attacks or attacks on Westerners, say in Egypt, to regain momentum and increase their appeal to a new generation of recruits and donors.  If Zawahiri doesn’t act soon, the global jihad will pass him by.  

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Al Qaeda in Iraq publicly rebuts al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

Two months ago, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI – al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate) announced its merger with Jabhat al-Nusra – the dominant Syrian jihadi militia fighting to overthrow the Assad regime.  While the merger didn’t come as a surprise to most analysts of al Qaeda, the regional consolidation did come as quite a surprise to one person in particular-–al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.  It turned out Zawahiri and al Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan were not consulted when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi decided to annex the rising Syrian jihadi group.  Baghdadi’s power play resulted in mass defections from al-Nusra with foreign fighters fully migrating to join the ISI.  Subsequently, last week, Zawahiri allegedly released a statement dissolving the union of the two al Qaeda affiliates and returning al Qaeda’s Levant to its previous state-–a Syrian al Qaeda affiliate in al-Nusra and an Iraqi affiliate in the ISI. 

The thought that Baghdadi had announced the merger without getting Zawahiri’s approval was quite surprising and a bold move by the Iraqi affiliate leader.  However, this week Baghdadi did something no other al Qaeda affiliate leader had publicly done to date – he outrightly defied Zawahiri.  In a message attributed to Baghdadi and showing up on social media sites, the leader of the ISI claims:

“As for the message that was attributed to Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri, may Allah preserve him, we have … several shariah and method-based issues [with it], and the worshiper was given the choice between the command of His Lord and the command that opposes Allah’s command,” al Baghdadi says, according to SITE.

Baghdadi seems to suggest that Zawahiri’s interpretation of Sharia and the situation in the Levant are both flawed and that he and al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch will choose their own direction on how best to move forward. 

Both Zawahiri’s letter and Baghdadi’s rebuttal should be approached with caution.  As al Qaeda has degenerated so has the ability of outsiders and analysts (such as myself) to know for certain whether internal al Qaeda messages leaked to the outside media are truly authentic.  But, reactions to the Zawahiri and Baghdadi notes suggest that jihadis perceive them to be real.  While it is surprising to see a public rebuttal by a subordinate al Qaeda leader, it is not surprising that the ISI was the first to resist Zawahiri in such a way.  Years ago, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi found disagreement with al Qaeda Central over strategy and at the time of Bin Laden’s death, the Abbottabad documents showed a communication gap between headquarters in Pakistan and the Iraq affiliate

One year ago when writing “What if there is no al Qaeda? “, I began wondering when Zawahiri would lose control of the decentralized, global organization he inherited noting several signs of what might lead to a loss in his authority.

Zawahiri’s communications likely take weeks to reach their recipients. Zawahiri probably directs little money to affiliate groups and, if he commands anything, he’s likely limited to routing veteran al-Qaeda survivors from Pakistan to other safe havens. From the perspective of al-Qaeda affiliates, there is little incentive to continue seeking direction from a buttoned-up Zawahiri.

Today, Zawahiri must be quite concerned as he has major command and control issues on two other fronts aside from Iraq.  Al Shabaab in Somalia, since formally merging with al Qaeda, has been in a state of near collapse with Ibrahim al-Afghani, a high-level Shabaab operative, publicly pleading for Zawahiri to relieve Shabaab’s emir Ahmed Godane. This public plea coincides with Godane and Shabaab’s betrayal and hunting of American foreign fighter to Somalia Omar Hammami-–a public dispute that has likely harmed Shabaab’s international support. 

Meanwhile, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) after successfully seizing northern Mali for almost a year saw the defection of its most celebrated operative, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who broke with AQIM and sought to set up his own organization and independent relationship with Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central.  In internal documents discovered by the Associated Press, AQIM notes:

we have only gotten a few messages from our emirs in Khorasan”

I believe Zawahiri must do several things to reassert his authority if he intends to hold al Qaeda together as a global organization.  Zawahiri needs to: 1) execute a spectacular attack to re-establish his credibility, 2) increase and speed up communication between he and his subordinates, 3) regain control of resource distribution as most affiliates are currently self-financed, and 4) fire somebody – nothing demonstrates power more than removing subordinate leaders.  However, I’m not certain Zawahiri has the capacity to do any of these four things.  Additionally, I wonder if Zawahiri’s efforts to reassert communication and control in the coming weeks and months will increase the chances the West might finally detect and interdict one of the last great culprits of the 9/11 attacks.  (Let’s hope this comes true.)

Like last year, I’m trying to focus on:

“when these terror groups [al Qaeda affiliates] 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. “

The disaggregation of al Qaeda may now open the door for new counterterrorism interventions beyond military targeting.  Are there ways, for example in Syria and Iraq, where the U.S. can shape conditions such that groups like al-Nusra and the ISI compete rather than unify? Can the provision of military and foreign aid or the introduction of new proxies create rifts by which he U.S. can weaken al Qaeda’s grip in the Levant?  Likewise, can the U.S. influence foreign fighters in Syria to suggest that fighting the Assad regime does not equate to later attacking the U.S. on behalf of al Qaeda? 

Lastly, while al Qaeda may be degrading globally, the West should not mistakenly believe that jihadi violence will necessarily decrease.  On the contrary, competing al Qaeda affiliates may actually increase their attack tempo in an effort to assert themselves as the new leader post-Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central.  More successful attacks will likely lead to more media attention, more recruits and more resources. As I noted last year in “What if there is no al Qaeda?”, the U.S. may now be encountering many different regional terror groups. Some will require direct engagement and elimination. Some indirect engagement and disruption. And others may only require monitoring and little to no engagement.  Ultimately, in a post-al Qaeda-era (much like the post-Soviet-era), analysis, planning and decision-making will in many ways become more difficult rather than less difficult. 

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