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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U.S. Troops in Syria: A Quick Assessment Of The U.S. Strategy To Combat The Islamic State – One Year On

Last week, the White House announced the deployment of a few dozen Special Forces soldiers to Syria. After more than a year of operations and a promise not to put soldiers in harm’s way, the U.S. would seemingly be pushing troops directly into Islamic State (IS) territory.  The announcement comes just days after the U.S. saw its first foreign advisor perish during a raid on an IS prison in Northern Iraq

It’s been nearly a year since the U.S. convened its “Counter ISIL Coalition” and in short, when all was said and done, more has been said than done.   The U.S. State Department and the President’s Special Envoy retired General John Allen have spent more than a year reciting five “lines of effort” for countering the Islamic State, which they continue to refer to as Daesh–a name that hasn’t really caught on the way they hoped it would. Last year, I identified seven obvious flaws that would plague this strategy.  A couple of these flaws have been remedied, but the toughest challenges still remain.  Here’s my short assessment (grade) of progress on these five strategy pillars and those massive hurdles that still remain for defeating IS (See also Figure 1):

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #1 –

Supporting military operations, capacity building, and trainingGrade F

The toughest challenge and most obvious weakness remains the building and deployment of a Sunni force capable of countering IS in Sunni territory. Never has the world witnessed such commitment to a bad Pentagon PowerPoint bullet than the tripling down on creating militias to fight terrorists. The U.S. has tried for a third time in a third country to train and equip an indigenous force. A year of training Syrians yielded roughly one infantry company of troops (100-200) to fight IS who has possibly recruited thousands of foreign fighters in the same time. Al Qaeda’s Jabhat al Nusra quickly displaced this force, referred to as Division 30. If the U.S. were to pursue a  train-and-equip mission again in a fourth country, we will most assuredly know our policy makers to be absolutely mad. 

Since the U.S. can’t build militias to counter IS, they’ll instead have to reinforce existing forces, and this is where things become problematic. The Iraqi Army and its supporting Shiite militias have made intermittent progress against IS, but seem unlikely to make a full recovery of Sunni areas of Iraq. U.S. Special Forces deploying to Syria will back the only element truly capable of gaining ground against IS–the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (Y.P.G.).  The Y.P.G. seems capable, but will be seen as occupiers should they invade Arab areas such as IS’s heartland of Raqqa.  U.S. alliance with Y.P.G. also chafes Turkey, an American ally, who fears the rise of Kurdish forces as much or more than IS.  The Arab Syrian Democratic Coalition in Syria represents nothing more than a briefing point–incapable, disorganized remnants of forces previously routed by IS.

Bottom line:  Only Sunni Arabs will want to fight and die for Sunni Arab land in Syria. Kurds and Shia will never be fully invested, and should they win, they’ll be resisted by locals.  Until there are Arab forces capable of countering IS in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, there is no viable U.S. strategy to counter IS. An alternative approach and potentially the only viable solution may be to starve and splinter IS into Sunni Arab sub-groups over time, similar to the method used against al Shabaab in Somalia.  This will take years to achieve.

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #2 –

Stopping the flow of foreign terrorist fightersGrade B

Turkey hasn’t sealed its border entirely, but it has somewhat stemmed the flow of foreign fighters into Syria. Analysts continue amplifying talk of foreign fighter flows heading into Syria.  Many of these fighters have expired in fighting, and many others have begun to defect from IS ranks. 

My current assessment is that the flow of foreign fighters to IS has passed its peak.  The costs associated with getting to Syria have become too high for many potential recruits. Regional affiliates allying with IS in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia have created other opportunities for recruits to join an IS affiliate closer to home. Across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, there have been infrequent, but successful attacks coupled with the arrests of IS supporters.  Online, IS networking on social media has been blunted and the fervor amongst its fanboys has reached a steady state.  Surely there will continue to be a trickle of foreign fighters sliding across borders into IS’s ranks, but the flow of fresh extremists no longer appears to be the fire hose it was two years ago. 

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #3 –

Cutting off ISIL/Daesh’s access to financing and fundingGrade C

The U.S. coalition apparently put the brakes on IS external donor funding placing pressure both on Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Banking instructions for wiring funds into IS coffers appear less frequently on social media.  But, slashing IS external funding addresses only a small part of the problem.  IS predominately funds itself through taxation, oil revenues, and black market activities.  Only military defeat and the rolling back of IS territory will undermine their internal resourcing.  Thus line of effort number 1, “supporting military operations” is clearly intertwined with this line of effort number 3.  Luckily, even if the U.S. coalition only sustains its current efforts, IS appears poised to collapse economically according to Jamie Hansen-Lewis and Jacob Shapiro in their recent analysis “Understanding the Daesh Economy”.   

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #4 –

Addressing associated humanitarian relief and crises Grade F

The refugee crisis continues to grow.  A year ago, refugee discussions focused largely on the displacement of civilians to camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.  Today, Syrian refugees flood the Mediterranean Sea and land routes across Europe. Those who’ve decided the Syrian conflict may never end, have given up hope of returning home and now seek other opportunities.  Syrian emigration threatens Europe as droves of refugees resettling in their countries have strained resources and have created isolated immigrant communities that in future years may breed crime and violent extremism.  The conferences and associated working groups for stemming this refugee crisis have begun.  But much like the Syrian civil war, no solution appears available or palatable for an increasingly fractious coalition. 

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #5 –

Exposing ISIL/Daesh’s true nature (ideological delegitimization) – Grade D

Social media campaigns refuting IS have begun.  The United States, United Kingdom, France and others in the future will continue to cast counter IS programming into the social media abyss. IS’s near constant stream of content still drowns out these counternarratives. On the ground in recruitment hotbeds, there seems little success in stemming militancy.  The same failed approaches used to counter al Qaeda extremism last decade are being trotted out against IS.  I guess the logic goes like this: Why invent a new failed approach when the old failed approach works just fine? 

Luckily, disillusioned foreign fighters are fleeing from IS in ways never seen during al Qaeda’s boom years.  Their departure provides a valuable new weapon for creating counter-narratives to IS.  Whether the U.S.-led coalition can take full advantage of these gifts remains to be seen. 

In the U.S., critics have pounded the Obama administration’s weakness in Syria and Iraq. The administration deserves some of this. At times, the U.S. has wanted to lead the charge against IS and then at other times been completely reticent to get involved. The Obama administrations delay to act in many ways may be justified. No one in the U.S. political system, either Republican or Democrat, has clearly identified U.S. interests in Syria or with regards to IS over the longer term. 

The central goal for any IS strategy should be to end the Syrian conflict, but doing so requires bartering with two other adversaries – Russia and Iran.  Simultaneously countering IS and the Assad Regime without deploying overwhelming military force has put the U.S. at odds with all of its allies.  For the U.S. in Syria, there are no good options, and any chosen ‘bad option’ will either anger an ally or enrage an adversary.  Thus the U.S. by default may end up pursuing a strategy I’ve endorsed from the start: “Let Them Rot”.  When you are unsure what to do, it’s often better to do nothing at all or pursue only a limited set of actions.  The U.S. may appear weak from inaction in Syria, but at least we haven’t plunged calamitously into unending conflicts like we did in Iraq and Afghanistan last decade.  General Colin Powell once applied the Pottery Barn rule to Iraq noting, “You break it, you own it.” The U.S. has been negligent in Syria, but not entirely responsible for the conflict.  We didn’t break it, and we don’t own it.  

***Note in this discussion, I, like the U.S. strategy to counter IS, haven’t addressed any of the conflicting nation-state interests that limit any effective and comprehensive strategy. That would require an entirely separate post. 

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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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Propaganda Wars: Militant Islam versus the Islamic State in Syria

In the past two and a half years, the uneven progress of armed rebellion against the Syrian regime has produced rebel infighting. Militant Sunni Muslim groups evolved new strategies to gain and control resources to keep the fighting going, and in doing so, also developed alternative visions and authority structures as individual fighters both in Syria and from outside sought to join whichever group was best able to absorb them. The global jihadi movement, which has come to be known primarily by its foremost proponent, al-Qaeda, established its presence in Syria by the end of 2011, going by the name Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front, JN), and focusing on the overthrow of the Assad regime, much as the previous generation of jihadis had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. As Faisal Devji has pointed out, the broad vision of al-Qaeda and its particular stream of global jihad did not establish a functioning state but rather expressed abstract goals, even when it was involved in local affairs.


One of the very ingredients for success then, was the appeal to piety and its other-worldliness that resists getting bogged down in day-to-day material struggles. The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and its offensive against JN and other rebel groups throughout 2013 followed by its establishment of a Caliphate in June 2014 has proved to be thus a boon and a bust for global jihad: now jihadis have somewhere to go if they want to be part of the Islamic State (IS), but on the other hand, creating a state with living subjects who may or may not share in the IS vision may undermine the purity of the original ideology.

Interestingly, advocates of IS claim that it has a better organizational structure and control of resources than JN ever had. JN originally claimed the exact same thing with respect to the moderate rebel institution they accused of corruption, the Free Syrian Army. Jihadi groups in competition with each other must convince potential fighters and donors that they are both militarily successful and materially responsible, and capable of fully providing for the jihadi soldier’s existence through a range of difficult circumstances. The IS regime, unlike JN, tends to assume that foreign fighters will end up staying on to live in its territory and create families. This fact can be seen in a number of aspects of their propaganda, including the typical “rite of passage” for foreign nationals to publicly burn their passports.

Opponents of the Islamic State, however, point out that their fighters appear to be more interested in enjoying basic earthly pleasures and material objects rather than in praying, fasting, and carrying out the obligations of religious jihad. One account on YouTube said to be affiliated with the militant Islamic organization Ahrar al-Sham, accuses IS fighters of slacking off in the jihadi struggle, and abusing their free time (al-faragh). In the video, backed up by a jihadi anthem (nashid) a montage of photos attributed to pro-IS Twitter accounts shows a cake designed with the black flag of the Islamic State, smiling young men playing pool in a café, and a jihadi flashing a jar of the popular hazelnut spread, Nutella. There are many images of IS jihadis sitting around eating and drinking, and generally smiling and enjoying themselves instead of fighting, praying, or doing other “acceptable” jihadi activities.           

At first, IS social media warriors seemed to embrace this image, knowing that social media is by nature sensationalist. So fighters coming to join the previous incarnation of IS, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham often bragged of living out a “five star” jihad, employing the Twitter hashtag “#5StarJihad.” Images that emerged from this meme included pictures of villas, swimming pools, and various chocolates and foods considered “luxury” items. Already by early spring of 2014, these images were waning in popularity, and it can be assumed that IS leadership wanted to stop the outflow of opportunistic jihadis, some of whom joined JN after growing disillusioned with IS and its constant battles against other jihadi and moderate rebel groups. The end of this trend did not stop pro-IS individuals on social media from gaining headlines in recent months for various non-jihadi activities, ranging from posing with cats to expressing dismay along with the rest of the world over the untimely death of American comedian and actor Robin Williams.  

One of the biggest ways that a jihadi can slander a rival group or individual is to accuse them of “chasing the dunya [world],” meaning to seek this world and its material pleasures instead of those of the afterlife. Indeed, the doctrinal roots of Wahhabism and contemporary salafi-jihadism go back to Ahmed Abu Hanbal, who was notorious for his piety, which as Nimrod Hurvitz notes, implies strong will in the face of persecution and a refusal to give into moral temptations of excessive materialism. Social media was set ablaze for a few days following the first speech of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State, who appeared to be sporting the “James Bond” Omega watch costing thousands of dollars. In this case, instead of promoting the image of a cash-loaded Caliph, the social media minions of the IS argued that it was actually an “al-Fajr” Swiss-made watch designed to tell the times for prayer, and offering a compass to orient oneself towards Mecca, and costing around $430.      

Rival jihadi groups must boast of their material bounty and aspect of good living along the path of Allah, in order to attract fighters into their ranks. Moreover, the Islamic State now has the added pressure of trying to attract whole families to live in the shadow of their “Caliphate.” In order to do so, not only do they have to send out the message that fighters are well armed, but also generally well equipped, well fed, and their wife and children (or future children) will also be cared for and protected. A Canadian recruit for the IS spoke in a video published by al-Hayat Media Center, one of their dominant media organs, saying to future jihadis, “Your families would live here in safety, just like how it is back home.”*     

Nevertheless, in addition to constantly accusing each other of being trained, funded, or otherwise supported by either the CIA or the Mossad, the Salafi groups in Syria, in particular, tend to accuse each other of trying to make a profit off of the devastating civil war—see, for example, this. The oilfields were particularly contentious, in northeastern Syria, as most of the smaller groups did not actually have the technological know-how to extract and transport the oil in a safe or highly lucrative fashion. The Victory Front was the first group to advertise its consolidation of the Syrian oil fields in Raqqa province in 2013. In particular, the leader of JN, Abi Muhammad al-Jawlani, believed that a self-sustaining organization with strong control of resources was the key to victory over the Assad regime. So it was surprising to many rebel organizations to see how quickly and violently the Islamic State worked to drive out JN and take over the oil fields and refineries. Before the recent US-led bombing of many of these centers in late September it was estimated that IS was netting around $3 million a day from illicit oil sales. Such profits enabled IS to pay fighters more than other groups. One Syrian defector from IS recently told a reporter that he was able to make $600 a month, which is something he had never dreamed of before the Syrian civil war.

Before the US-led coalition bombing of Syria, it seemed that JN was trying to distinguish itself from IS and appeal to outside donors. This can be seen in the fact that they allowed Qatar to publicly negotiate the release of American journalist captured in 2012, Peter Theo Curtis, one week after IS gained new notoriety by beheading James Foley. However, the bombing campaign inside Syria which targeted JN as well as IS triggered reactions from the JN leader accusing Arab states supporting the bombings of assisting Jews, Persians, and Romans, and warning other rebel groups not to cooperate with the campaign in any way. On the other hand, the campaign targeted IS-held oil refineries and fields, potentially limiting the self-sufficiency of IS for the near-term may weaken the appeal of the Islamic State by depriving it of one of its claims, namely, the monopoly on prosperity.


Dr. Joel D. Parker is a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and North African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and tends to employ a multi-disciplinary approach to contemporary Syria, propaganda, radical politics, jihadi ideology and music, and youth movements in the 20th century. Hebatalla Taha and Linda Dayan also contributed to this article.


*Such accusations emerge in anti-JN propaganda by IS targeting the spiritual leader of JN, Abu Mariya al-Qahtani. One comment charges specifically, “Abu Mariya al-Galaxy [sic] only wants to increase his power in Der ez-Zour, because there are oil fields and gas plants in Der ez-Zour. Abu Mariya chases a dunya.” One respondent, and JN defender, pointed out the irony that the misspelled name al-Galaxy instead of al-Qahtani was probably because of an auto-correct program from a Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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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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