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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Jihadi Competition After al Qaeda Hegemony – The ‘Old Guard’, Team ISIS & The Battle For Jihadi Hearts & Minds

(Part 3 of Smarter Counterterrorism, see Part 1 here & Part 2 here)

Before deciding where to focus and how to counter terrorists threatening the U.S., we need to evaluate the terrorism environment that the U.S. now faces.  I doubt it’s ever been as chaotic and dynamic.  The fractures surfacing inside al Qaeda and its affiliates should be expected after Bin Laden’s death. Bin Laden compelled allegiance through long-standing relationships dating back to the 1980s Afghan jihad, created the organization’s justifications for targeting the U.S., boasted a string of successful attacks on U.S. targets, held unparalleled international prestige and controlled resource distribution to a global network. Ayman al-Zawahiri had big shoes to fill, and while I do think he’s made some recent gains in reasserting control, he is no Bin Laden and he faces challenges Bin Laden never had to contemplate.  I believe al Qaeda’s current divisions come from several forces that began to emerge prior to Bin Laden’s death in 2011. 

What forces keep al Qaeda together? What forces break al Qaeda apart?

Dynamics of Success and Failure  – Al Qaeda grows strong when things are going well.  As I discussed almost three years ago in an FPRI monograph, al Qaeda and its affiliates since about 2007 have struggled to execute a substantial, successful attack on the West.  Benghazi didn’t rally the troops and the Westgate attack (2013) killed only a few Westerners.  Both were blips in the al Qaeda landscape and don’t measure up to 9/11 or the 2005 London bombings.  The biggest boon to jihadi recruitment comes from the Syrian jihad where al Qaeda has not led the fighting but has instead piggybacked on the conflict’s attractiveness for foreign fighters. 

Lacking a big attack for six years at the time of Bin Laden’s death, I imagine many al Qaeda members (Like the leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq, now the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS)) were primed to move in their own direction and find their own success.  Today’s jihadi recruits observe Syrian conflict social media content and see ISIS committing violence on a broad scale and actually setting up an Islamic state in accordance with a harsh version of Sharia – an objective al Qaeda Central touts but seems reluctant to pursue. Jabhat al-Nusra who talks to similar goals, pursues them pragmatically and with less violence-–a method of lesser appeal to young boys attracted to the violence and glory of battle.  ISIS has done a better job of sharing their successes and to them has gone more recent jihadi support. 

Resource Distribution: Centralized vs. You On Your Own (YOYO) – Gregory Johnsen said it best in his book on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) The Last Refuge, “Bin Laden talked less than others, but he planned more.  And he had something no one else had: money.” In the pre-9/11 period, Bin Laden was not the only jihadi leader plotting attacks or training foreign fighters, but he was doing it faster than any other group because he could pay his cadre and resource his fight independently.  Other jihadi leaders like Abu Zubaydah came to Bin Laden seeking funds and its likely key operational jihadi planners like Khalid Sheikh Muhammed sought Bin Laden out because he knew al Qaeda could staff and empower his plot. The Abbottabad documents attest to Bin Laden’s role as the key intermediary for resource distribution in al Qaeda and amongst the affiliates.

Fast-forward to 2011, al Qaeda resources were running dry.  With Bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda affiliates increasingly resourced themselves, or if they requested funds, they were left short handed.  In today’s al Qaeda, Zawahiri commands far fewer resources and for affiliates it’s harder to take orders from the boss (Zawahiri) when he isn’t paying you.

Physical Relationships: The Value of Shared Experience – “Old Guard” al Qaeda came about from shared experiences and physical relationships built during the Afghan jihad of the 1980s; where future al Qaeda leaders Bin Laden and Zawahiri mixed with foreign recruits in the guesthouses of Peshawar building life-long loyalty.  This likely occurred again in Iraq, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi built teams fighting Shia and Americans, but this time, Bin Laden and Zawahiri were not there to build physical relationships with the next generation of jihadis.  As a result, I suspect part of today’s al Qaeda splits result from two generations of veteran foreign fighter networks demonstrating preference divergence: 1) those that fought during the 1980s Afghan jihad and 2) those that fought during the Iraqi jihad of 2003-2010.

Many of the latter generation of foreign fighters have no true physical relationship with ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda members and have fought jihadi campaigns on their own with little resource support or guidance from al Qaeda Central.  While al Qaeda Central leaders like Bin Laden & Zawahiri focused on television pontificating while self-imprisoned in Pakistan, al Qaeda’s second generation of foreign fighters built strong bonds of shared consequence in the prisons of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  A quick look at the biographies of ISIS or AQAP leaders would suggest strong loyalty between men imprisoned together in Abu Ghraib, Camp Bucca or Sana’a.

If forced to choose between “Old Guard” al Qaeda’s direction or that of al-Baghdadi and ISIS, who would a fighter on the primary battlefields of Syria and Iraq choose:

  1. an elder Zawahiri in Pakistan whom he has never met and rarely hears from, or
  2. the local al-Baghdadi who suffered in prison with him and fights in the trenches with him everyday? 

The decision rests on each individual jihadi. Those most devout to jihadi ideology and inspired by Bin Laden I’d suspect pick Zawahiri and “Old Guard” al Qaeda. Those more committed to their brothers they fought with in Iraq or Syria and inspired by abu Musab al Zarqawi, I believe, will side with al-Baghdadi and ISIS.  On the whole, I estimate today more young jihadis side with their brothers from the battlefield (ISIS) than with the less personally known “Old Guard” al Qaeda.  Interestingly, Omar Hammami hinted at this preference divergence dilemma from Somalia a year ago on Twitter and today one can witness this individual shifting of justifications for the Syrian jihad and siding with either Jabhat al-Nusra (AQ) or ISIS in social media. 

Common Situational Awareness and Frequent Communication – Sustaining a command and control relationship requires al Qaeda Central to constantly and consistently communicate with its affiliates.  Best explained by Dr. Jacob Shapiro in his new book The Terrorists Dilemma, constant communication jeopardizes al Qaeda leaders’ operational control.  From 2008 – 2011, al Qaeda Central’s leadership in Pakistan was decimated by drones and communication from Bin Laden & Zawahiri to affiliates became less frequent and increasingly delayed.  Affiliates were left to pursue jihad as best they could with limited guidance naturally breeding independence amongst affiliates.  AQIM documents recovered in the Sahel and the public dissension from Shabaab’s fractures illustrate how al Qaeda Central communication gaps created friction in the ranks as affiliate leaders competed for control and direction of their regional jihads.  Zawahiri’s communication challenge shown most in the fall of 2013 when he began publicly issuing his guidance to jihadis everywhere as a way to get his intent to the rank and file in Syria and bypass his rival ISIS-–one of several public signs of the splintering to come. 

Unity of Effort: Global over Local or Local over Global  – Al Qaeda’s original justifications for violence hinged on Western occupation of holy lands, Western support of corrupt local dictators and the desire to create an Islamic caliphate (state). The U.S. has withdrawn from sacred Muslim lands, allowed for apostate rulers to fall and has in some cases completely ignored or temporarily tolerated the establishment of Islamic states (e.g., Taliban in Afghanistan pre-9/11, AQIM in the Sahel and ISIS in Syria). Attacking the “far enemy” of the U.S. holds less appeal today than it did ten years ago. From the Abbottabad documents, we know Bin Laden recognized the need to re-brand for local appeal and incorporate more local issues into the ideology. In Yemen, the Sahel, Somalia and Syria, al Qaeda’s global agenda has mutated to accommodate local issues and garner local recruits and resources.  However, with each mutation, “Old Guard” al Qaeda’s reach and control has waned yielding more power to local leaders with less unity to al Qaeda’s Central leadership.  With al Shabaab in Somalia, Ansar al Sharia in Yemen, AQIM in the Sahel, and ISIS in Iraq and Syria, local affiliates have implemented Sharia with such violence that it has tarnished al Qaeda’s image.  Overall, global al Qaeda issues carry less resonance with locals and affiliate members than local challenges encountered building an Islamic state. 

Marriage and Kinship – Kinship proved a binding force for al Qaeda’s “Old Guard” in Pakistan.  A decade of enduring fighting in Afghanistan (1980s) saw foreign fighters intermarry with local Pakistani and Afghani populations.  Al Qaeda’s intermarriage with local populations has been essential to sustaining their security in Pakistan.  This practice can be seen in some other jihadi campaigns, for instance Omar Hammami likely survived for a period by marrying into a local Somali clan, but the duration of jihadi campaigns up to Syria have been shorter and more intense in their combat (e.g., Iraq). While a lesser factor overall in al Qaeda unity, the bonds of family have likely weakened with more recent waves of foreign fighters. Will this dynamic of intermarriage return in Syria? Maybe, but it will likely be to “Old Guard” al Qaeda’s detriment and more supportive of ISIS and the newer generation of jihadis enduring battles in Syria & Iraq and pushing to build a state with locals. 

Today’s Jihadi Landscape: What does two competing jihadi networks and other freelance jihadi groups look like?

I’ve been wondering since Bin Laden’s death what a world without “One Big al Qaeda” might look like–see this for example.  Only now can we start to see the effects of a generational shift amongst jihadis representing two loosely formed larger networks surrounded by some, or maybe even many, loosely tied or unaffiliated jihadi groups with more regional rather than global orientations. 

With the environment changing rapidly and no good way to depict today’s jihadi landscape, I, with input from friends, have put together the following visual estimate of what today’s fractured jihadi landscape might look like.  I tried to avoid the vertical, top-down task organization chart models because I don’t believe these relationships represent command and control as much as communication and collaboration.  Today’s global jihadi landscape looks more like a swarm not a corporation: it is fungible, malleable and evolving.  For the purposes of the charts you see below (Figure 1 and Figure 3), I’ve created three categories, which should not be viewed as definitive or exact as I anticipate much shifting of allegiances in the coming weeks and months.  I put forth a discussion here, not an answer, and I’m open to input.  If a group appears left out, it’s likely because I was uncertain how to assess them.  The amount of overlap represents the degree to which I estimate the groups are interlinked in their communication & efforts.

“Old Guard” al Qaeda – Jihad’s First Generation

I believe allegiance to al Qaeda’s Central leadership in Pakistan rests largely on those recruits most ideologically committed to Bin Laden’s original vision for the organization and the founding members of al Qaeda were bound together by shared experiences from Afghanistan, Sudan and Pakistan (1980 – 2005). Even amongst the “Old Guard” stalwarts, a Zawahiri-led al Qaeda, I believe, relies heavily on Zawahiri’s closest allies, those physically sitting next to him in Pakistan, his original confidents from Egypt and former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group members that migrated to Afghanistan in the 1990s. I’d imagine some of the remaining “Old Guard” North African al Qaeda members hovering in Iran the past decade and now migrating to places like Libya represent key interlocutors for Zawahiri.  Abu Khalid al-Suri with Ahrar al-Sham may be another example.

To sustain “Old Guard” al Qaeda, Zawahiri must cling to two affiliates above all others; al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Jabhat al-Nusra, the key lever for the “Old Guard” to remain relevant. (Large Green circles – Figure 1.) Other “Old Guard” adherents may be a mish-mash of foreign fighters that fought more recently in Afghanistan since 2003–an example of this might be the uptick in German foreign fighters that made their way into Pakistan.  Zawahiri’s remaining loyalty comes from public oathes of allegiance (bay’a) from many leaders he doesn’t know.  As Frank Underwood in the recent American hit show House of Cards says, “The nature of promises … is that they remain immune to changing circumstances.”  But promises, as seen in the show, can be interpreted differently depending on the circumstances. ISIS has interpreted Zawahiri’s role as emir of al Qaeda differently than most other affiliates. How will other affiliates interpret their promise to Zawahiri moving forward? Only time will tell.

Team ISIS – Jihad’s Second Generation

ISIS strength comes from its foreign fighter networks generated in Iraq from 2003 – 2010.  These foreign fighters revere Zarqawi; a man of action in their eyes who walked what he talked targeting both the U.S. and the Shia.  The Iraq foreign fighter networks provide great power to ISIS for they drew nearly equal parts from both North African and Persian Gulf countries.  (See Figure 2.) Unlike “Old Guard” al Qaeda, Team ISIS actually works to implement the vision of an Islamic state and their broader targeting of the Shia has brought wide appeal in the most important foreign fighter migration in history, Syria, based on the availability and immediacy of targeting Hezballah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.  Team ISIS has surprisingly received oaths of loyalty from affiliates (Red Circles – Figure 1) and has received strong support from second generation foreign fighters across both North African and Persian Gulf affiliates. 

Independent Jihadi Groups – “You On Your Own”

Some jihadi groups have operated largely independently for many years receiving little guidance and constructing their own independent, illicit financing (e.g., AQIM) or even garnering their own donor relationships.  Syria and Libya represent two prime examples of how patrons from Kuwait and Qatar have backed jihadi groups outside of “Old Guard” al Qaeda. 

Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s “Those Who Sign With Blood” may be the first sign of how jihadi groups with cash and charismatic leaders set out on their own jihads establishing their own objectives.  The more independent jihadi groups have linkages to both sides of the “Old Guard” al Qaeda versus ISIS schism, may choose sides based on personal loyalties, or may wait out current debates to side with the winner rather than back a position outright.  Why should independent jihadi groups risk alienating a key ally in the future if they currently have no stake in the infighting? Groups in the Sahel, Libya, Tunisia and the Horn of Africa already operate and resource independently.  Why pick sides until one has to? Likewise, these lightly tied al Qaeda affiliates might want to rise up on their own, much like ISIS, and pursue an independent path to becoming the biggest force in jihad. An all out war between “Old Guard” al Qaeda and ISIS might result in further separation of jihadist groups into three to five regional networks more integrated into local environments and less connected globally.  Either way, the future jihadi landscape will be in flux for many months if not years as networks reshape. 

Battleground for Jihadi Hearts & Minds – Libya, Tunisia, The Sahel & Yemen

Today’s jihadi fault lines likely represent the divergence of two jihadi generations. Looking at the breakdown of foreign fighters to Iraq discovered in the Sinjar records (Figure 2), there must be divided loyalties amongst those foreign fighters that returned home, reconstituted during the Arab Spring and now fuel both Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in Syria.  As I attempted to depict in Figure 1 with the dashed box, Libya and Tunisia were two large suppliers of foreign fighters to Iraq whose Zarqawi inspired recruits now influence Ansar al Sharia Tunisia (AST) and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (Benghazi, aka ASB).  AST and ASB have tight bonds with ISIS fighters and many of their fighters have been imprisoned together and were sprung together during recent raids in Iraq (see this Aaron Zelin post for evidence).  AST ideologues have been vocal supporters of ISIS.  Thus, I imagine a sub-surface battle is currently underway between Zawahiri’s envoys and North African foreign fighter veterans from Iraq.  I suspect Zarqawi’s legions rather than Zawahiri’s old dogs will win sway resulting in AST and ASB being more supportive of ISIS moving forward – although this support may not be overt. 

The decisive point between “Old Guard” al Qaeda and ISIS may have been forecasted a few months back when Zawahiri formally and publicly promoted Nasir al-Wuyhashi al Qaeda’s second-in-command.  The logic for this selection was initially obvious; AQAP has attempted the only viable external attacks on the U.S. in years and the affiliate had assumed most of the functions of al Qaeda Central issuing operational guidance, coordinating with affiliates and even distributing resources.  More subtly, Zawahiri’s nomination may have signaled an attempt to maintain control over a successful affiliate more evenly manned by both generations of jihadi fighters; the “Old Guard” represented by Wuhayshi (a loyal Bin Laden man) and at the time Said al-Shihri and the new wave consisting of returning Saudi and Yemeni foreign fighters fromIraq that fueled AQAP’s 2009 resurgence.  By promoting Wuhayshi, Zawahiri (an Egyptian) may have sought an ally more proximate and representative of Arabian al Qaeda members who have larger taps into Gulf cash and can check the rise of an aggressive ISIS led by al-Baghdadi.  AQAP provides crucial coordination between al Qaeda Central with its affiliates al Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Sinai.  Without AQAP and more specifically Wuhayshi, the outer orbits of “Old Guard” al Qaeda (Shabaab, the Sinai & maybe AQIM) may evaporate and Zawahiri’s great prize of an Egyptian jihadi uprising can easily fade. 

The Benefits and Risks of Jihadi Competition

I’ve been a strong, vocal advocate for keeping jihadis competing (see here for example) and still believe jihadi-on-jihadi violence in places like Somalia and Syria provide a net positive for counterterrorism as infighting burns up resources, turns off donors and sours foreign fighter recruitment flows.  Over an extended period and if large-scale jihads like Syria end, the chaos and confusion of jihadi fighting can permanently damage the appeal of a global al Qaeda message and ideas of jihadi unity, hopefully reducing targeting of the West and jihadi violence overall. 

Excessive jihadi competition, on the other hand, can in some scenarios produce great risk to the U.S. and the West.  If resources to both “Old Guard” al Qaeda and ISIS remain constant, due to an unending Syria conflict for example, competing jihadi networks may present a most dangerous scenario where competition for notoriety and resulting perceived gains in manpower and resources push groups to seek more spectacular attacks on the West to demonstrate their prowess and assert their dominance.  (There is more to come on this dynamic in my next two posts.)  In contrary to counterterrorism pundits raising fears of a resurgent “One Big al Qaeda”, the most dangerous scenario is parallel, competing jihadi networks attempting to outpace each other through spectacular attacks on the West. 

This leads to next week’s post, Part 4 – “Anticipating ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda’s Plan”

See here, Figure 3, a chart put together by J.M. Berger, myself, Aaron Weisburd, Aaron Zelin and some additional friends.  We will update this chart in the coming weeks, but it attempts to map organizations, forums, clerics and their relationships to affiliates.  Its a work in progress, and we welcome feedback.

For those interested in downloading a larger version of this chart, click here

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Israel: Has ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda Shifted Focus?

Yesterday, the Jerusalem Post followed later by the New York Times reported that three Palestinians seeking to attack targets in Jerusalem were interdicted. The story alleges the three men were recruited, online, by an al Qaeda operative in Gaza. The Jerusalem Post says the targets of the three men “…included the Jerusalem Convention Center, a bus traveling between the capital and Ma’aleh Adumim, the US embassy in Tel Aviv, and emergency responders who would have arrived at the scene of attacks.”

While al Qaeda connections to Gaza and Palestinians are not unheard of, they appear less frequently.   Terrorist group competition for Palestinian manpower continues to be quite intense. Al Qaeda came after, not before, groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and many others.  But with Hamas pursuing a more political path and young boys willing to fight, al Qaeda might be finding a ripe audience for their message.  The article continues by explaining how the Internet facilitated recruitment of parallel operatives:

“The Shin Bet said an al-Qaida operative in Gaza, named as Ariv Al-Sham, recruited the men separately from one another, and had planned to activate three independent terrorist cells via his recruits. Senior Shin Bet sources said they believed Al-Sham received his orders directly from the head of al-Qaida’s central structure, Ayman Al-Zawahri….In the planned attack, terrorists would have fired shots at the bus’s wheels, causing it to overturn, before gunning down passengers at close range, and firing on emergency responders….Abu-Sara also volunteered to help orchestrate a double suicide bombing, involving the dispatching of two suicide bomber to the Jerusalem Convention Center and the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, simultaneously. Subsequently, Abu-Sara planned to detonate a suicide truck bomb in the vicinity of emergency responders arriving at the Convention Center….Abu-Sara was also supposed to travel to Syria for training in combat and explosives manufacturing, and had purchased a flight ticket to Turkey, a gateway to Syria.”

If these initial reports are true, this plot would represent a notable shift in ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda’s targeting – one that I had been expecting for some time (see the closing paragraph here.)  For Zawahiri and his ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda compadres, they will always seek the end of the U.S. However, the al Qaeda organization, if it is to survive in an era of terrorism competition, must recalibrate its objectives.  In its inception, al Qaeda sought to:

  • Expel Americans from Muslim holy lands
  • Establish a caliphate implementing Sharia law
  • Attack the “far enemy” (the U.S. and the West) to prevent them from propping up “near enemy” apostate regimes
  • Destroy Israel and eliminate Western support for Israel

A cursory examination of these broad ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda objectives suggests that most don’t hold much water more than a decade after 9/11/2001.  The U.S. no longer occupies holy lands in Saudi Arabia. As evidenced by the Taliban before 9/11 and AQIM and AQAP temporary caliphates in recent years, the U.S. either doesn’t, or is slow to, respond directly to a caliphate if it does not pursue terrorism against the U.S.  As for attacking the “far enemy” to relieve support for the “near enemy”, the U.S. either helped topple apostate rulers (Libya) or stood by and watched as dictators fell during the Arab Spring. If this were truly an Al Qaeda objective, they should be seen as failures as their actions had nothing to do with the recent fall of apostate rulers. The remaining objective is Israel.  With Syria boiling and Egypt ripe, in my opinion, shifting focus to Israel makes a lot of sense from al Qaeda’s perspective:

  • The U.S. has been killing us! (al Qaeda that is) – While al Qaeda and its affiliates have had their moments over the last decade, for the most part; they’ve been outmatched by the U.S. and its Western partners. For every al Qaeda affiliate that rises up, an eventual descent has occurred.  Syrian linked al Qaeda groups represent the only counter to this trend, and there, Zawahiri struggles to maintain any control.  So for Zawahiri, a pragmatic terrorist, why not shift focus from the U.S. in the short term and return later to the lofty objective.
  • Regenerate resources – Resources for al Qaeda flowed during the early years of Iraq and Afghanistan, but Gulf donors are fickle.  Bin Laden’s death, the failure to achieve lasting gains against the West, opportunities to back upstarts post-Arab Spring and the unending escalation of and sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict have given donors a host of more viable salafi-jihadi causes to invest in.  By shifting focus to Israel, ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda might be able to tap into what has always been an enduring anti-Israel resource stream.
  • Rally both Syrian and Egyptian support – With the fall of Mubarak and later Morsi, Zawahiri, an Egyptian, has never been better positioned to push ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda forward in Egypt.  Affiliates and partners in the Sinai have made gains.  Likewise, as Zawahiri battles for control in Syria against one of his own affiliates, ISIS (formerly al Qaeda in Iraq), what better way to shift attention back to ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda by executing a spectacular attack in Israel refocusing attention on a common adversary of all groups.  Successfully executing an attack in Jerusalem would rally support for ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda on both borders of Israel and might quell some of the sectarian fighting going on in Syria and Lebanon.  The doomsday scenario is if all jihadists groups, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, all call a temporary truce and turn their guns toward Israel.  Zawahiri has already called for such unity, a high profile attack might be what is needed to demonstrate the possibilities.
  • When al Qaeda attacks Israel, they will be engaging the U.S. too – If ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda were to attack Israel, the U.S. will get involved.  Thus, if Zawahiri can’t attack the U.S. or go toe-to-toe with their capabilities in other regions, attack Israel and opportunities to attack or pinch the U.S. will present themselves.  It’s not a coincidence that one of these suspected bombers sought to hit the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Is Jordan Forever Destined to Play Second Fiddle?

Jordan has never been the star, the key player, or the pivot around which some major international deal has been centered. Its history is mostly devoid of spectacular developments, though some argument can be made for the Black September events or the Jordanian-Israeli Peace depending on who you ask. It is the friend of many, but the number one, closest ally of none. Yet, the Kingdom remains hopeful and ever ambitious that one day it will indeed take center stage.

The Arab uprisings – which began with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, continued on seemingly triumphant with the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, began to spiral with the unraveling of Yemen, and has now deteriorated into a full tailspin in the interminable battle for Assad’s survival – has yet to touch the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in a way that irrevocably alters its monarchic character. Yes, there have been reform to little avail; yes, the bedrock of monarchic support that was the tribal elites is starting to crack; yes, there have even been outspoken calls for the King’s ouster and protest chants comparing the Jordanian monarch to Muammar al-Qaddafi, Ben Ali, and Bashar al-Assad; and yet, King Abdullah II and Jordan’s monarchic system persist. Some two and a half years after the start of the so-called Arab Spring, Jordan just isn’t all that different. So, why not keep on trying to make a lasting mark, and become one of the big boys?

Jordan thought it had found its first big opportunity with the fall of Mubarak. Egypt – the self-proclaimed umm al-dunya – had for some decades been the United States’ go-to Arab partner when it came to most things Middle Eastern. Whether it was peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, joint terrorism strategy in the region, or even trade, Washington relied on the Egyptians first – though it was always happy to receive secondary backing from the Jordanians or include the Hashemites in the plans when advantageous. However, when Mubarak fell, and more importantly, when Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood rose, Jordan felt primed to fill the void. The reality turned out to be more of the same. While no other country has replaced Egypt and the relationship it enjoyed with the U.S., American-Jordanian relations remain mostly unchanged. The current administration continues to work closely with Jordan, frequently meeting to discuss “the very urgent issues impacting that country, and the rest of the world,” but the practical relationship is quite as it was.

Jordan’s second opportunity might have been the Syrian crisis, being that King Abdullah has known the Assad family his entire life, having come to understand his northern neighbor in that time, and is dealing with a serious refugee influx the likes of which reach over 500,000 to date. However, once again, Jordan does not seem to be critical to any future solution. Firstly, King Abdullah has only mildly spoken out against Assad, otherwise remaining pretty neutral in a bid to safeguard Jordan’s economic stakes and maintain its status with its Gulf friends. Secondly, when it comes to arming the warring factions, and affecting the outcome in equally concrete ways, it seems that Jordan cannot quite hang with the likes of Russia and the United States – not to mention Turkey, Qatar, and other influential countries who are trying to influence the conflict. It is, in this case, out of its league and out of its budget.

Jordan’s third opportunity – or so it imagines – is the recent attempt to begin thinking about maybe potentially reviving the Arab Peace Initiative (wishy washiness intentional). Since he took the throne, King Abdullah has felt that it is his personal responsibility to carry on his father’s efforts toward peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, as he detailed in his 2011 book, Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril. There are whispers that parties are willing to move beyond the 2002 Initiative to include minor land swaps to the parties’ mutual satisfaction. The Israeli public is apparently more amenable to the idea these days, with 69% of the public willing to support Netanyahu if he agreed to the API according to a recent Israel Peace Initiative-commissioned opinion poll. And perhaps more importantly, the United States seems to be throwing its weight behind reviving a peace process by sending Secretary of State John Kerry around the Middle East to meet with all the players involved. However, as was recently argued, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the main two players competing to bring this deal to fruition, leaving little room for Jordan to do much except emphatically stress in meeting after meeting that the two-state solution is the only viable solution to end the conflict.

In short, it is likely that in the foreseeable future, Jordan is in fact going to stick to playing second fiddle. But it’s not all bad, its location, history, and favorable relations with its neighbors and the West have allowed it to play a role nonetheless.

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Syria: Suffering the effects of the 2nd Foreign Fighter Glut

The end of the Soviet Afghan campaign did more than leave a nation in civil war.  Thousands of Muslim foreign fighters from around the world were left to find a new path for their life.  Many returned home to pursue a relatively mainstream existence, pursuing normal daily work while at night repeating tales of jihadi battles fought in far off lands. 

For some fighters, the opportunity to fight in Afghanistan turned into a one-way ticket. Many Middle Eastern and North African countries preferred not to have trained, battle hardened mujahideen return home.  Likewise, some foreign fighters now craved more conflict and actively began seeking new theatres in which to fight.  Osama Bin Laden seized upon this first glut of idle foreign fighters to create a “base” – al Qaeda – which served as a focal point for the restless energy of homeless fighters.  This first glut of fighters not only formed al Qaeda’s core cadre, but acted as the connective tissue to an informal network of veteran Afghan foreign fighters spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa.  Al Qaeda successfully activated this network of former foreign fighters from the first Afghan jihad to fill its pipelines with a second generation of young men to serve in the post 9/11 campaigns of Afghanistan and Iraq.  

While al Qaeda’s jihadi campaigns of Afghanistan after 2001 and Iraq after 2003 have not come to a complete close, these conflict are both well past their peak with a second generation of foreign fighters returning to their homes and neighborhoods. This second generation of fighters has now repeated the cycle of their predecessors from the first foreign fighter glut, spinning tales of combat and facilitating the radicalization and recruitment of new crops of fighters to serve in jihadi campaigns as fresh battles arise.  In essence, the best recruiter of a new foreign fighter is a former foreign fighter.  While the Internet and social media provide a powerful conduit for introducing recruits to jihadi ideology and reinforcing extremist messages perpetuated by local clerics, it’s the physical relationships between former foreign fighters that catalyzes the reception, training, staging, onward movement and integration of new recruits into jihadi ranks.  (A conceptual graphic of this cycle is below (Figure 1) and a more in depth description of this process can be found at this link: “Countering Terrorism from the Second Foreign Fighter Glut”, 2009)

Today, the second glut of former foreign fighters, as well as their family, social and religious circles, have become fully activated generating the rapid supply of a third generation of jihadi fighters to the Syrian battlefield.  Jabhat al-Nusra, now an official al Qaeda affiliate, has received hundreds if not a thousand or more new recruits from North Africa and the Middle East as well as handfuls from Europe and a small trickle from North America.  The hometowns of this third generation of recruits are likely similar to their first and second generation predecessors to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Likewise, they probably travel the same pathways, physically, socially and ideologically, that their predecessors passed through just six to seven years ago while making their way only a short distance away to places like Sinjar, Iraq.

In 2009, I tried to estimate the volume of foreign fighters remaining after the scaling down of U.S. conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In Figure 2 above, I show a hypothetical example of what foreign fighter numbers might look like if there were actual data available to measure the flow of global foreign fighters.  Marked with yellow stars, each tried to estimate the number of al Qaeda affiliated foreign fighters at differing periods.  Each conflict, Afghanistan in the 1980s (#1), al Qaeda pre-9/11 (#2), Afghanistan & Iraq mid-2000s (#3) and what the number of fighters might look like in the future (#4).  These represented only hypothetical estimates and did not anticipate how future unforeseen conflicts might change the foreign fighter recruitment pattern.  Essentially, point #4 tried to anticipate foreign fighter recruitment as a steady, low rate without the presence of any other jihadi conflicts to increase the volume globally.

Today, Syria has mobilized foreign fighters, I estimate, at a volume equivalent to that of Iraq and Afghanistan just a few years ago and if left in its current state will far outpace the above estimate of foreign fighters of 2012 and beyond.  Syria has not only jumpstarted the networks of the second foreign fighter glut, but will likely sustain those informal networks for the perpetuation of a third generation of foreign fighters.  Additionally, Syria has inspired foreign fighter recruitment on several sides.  While much attention has been paid to jihadis linking up with the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra, more secular Sunnis have joined the Free Syrian Army while Shiites from Hezballah and members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps have arrived to support the Assad regime.  

Why has Syria ignited foreign fighter networks so quickly, to such a great extent and in the presence of other conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa?  First, the Syrian revolution has continued far longer than any other Arab Spring uprising.  With each passing day, the Syrian conflict draws the attention of additional recruits.  Second, in Syria, foreign fighters have made a difference in sustaining the fight against Assad due to the absence of international support for the rebellion.  The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more foreign fighters will descend on the country. Western inaction in Syria will not only sustain foreign fighter flows to Syria, but will sustain a decades long jihadi foreign fighter recruitment cycle and likely produce a third foreign fighter glut fostering conflict for the next decade.

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