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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Counterterrorism Intent:

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

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

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

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

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

Specific Counterterrorism Actions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Western Counterterrorism Actions That Could Be Reduced

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

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

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

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

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Would jihad’s new generation kill off al-Qaeda’s global leader Ayman al-Zawahiri?

In November of 1989, a car passed through a street in Peshawar, Pakistan only to be demolished by a roadside bomb.  Inside, the single most inspirational figure of the Afghanistan jihad, Abdallah Azzam, lay dead along with two of his sons.  The most effective jihadi prostelytizer of his era, Azzam inspired thousands to come and fight in the name of Islam to defeat Soviet aggression in Afghanistan.  Later, Azzam’s campaign and concepts would morph to become part of the foundation for the world’s most notorious terror group–al-Qaeda. 

Jihadis prefer to pass blame for Azzam’s death to the Mossad; a convenient scapegoat that would seemingly make sense in one context.  Azzam, a Palestinian by birth, toyed with the notion of carrying the jihad from Afghanistan to Palestine.  But the evidence of Mossad responsibility is scant, and in reality its equally or more plausible that Azzam’s death came not from afar but from within jihadi ranks.  At the time of his death, younger jihadis were interested in sustaining the Peshawar base as a training and staging ground for global jihad against other apostate regimes.  Usama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Suri were some of the foreign fighters wishing to continue the jihadi campaign elsewhere, but they were likely stifled by the older and wiser Azzam.  While we can’t know for sure whether Bin Laden, Zawahiri, Suri or one of their contemporaries triggered Azzam’s assassination rather than the Mossad or Pakistani ISI, when comparing two theories the general rule of thumb is the simplest explanation is more likely the correct one.  Who would have a stronger motive for Azzam’s murder, easier access to Azzam as a target and the ability to effectively employ an IED on a moving car?  The Israeli Mossad based thousands of miles away and likely more focused on local terror concerns at their doorstep?  Or the emerging generation of al-Qaeda, disagreeing with their leader over direction and targeting, jealous of Azzam’s fame, well trained in roadside bombs and with easy access to the target?

I point to the historical example of Azzam because the past decade’s narratives of a unified al-Qaeda bound tightly by an all powerful ideology have blinded us to a truth that is only now revealing itself.  Today, the greatest threat to al-Qaeda is al-Qaeda.  One year ago, I had several Twitter arguments with counterterrorism (CT) aficionados over the possibility of al-Qaeda killing off its own members.  Some thought this preposterous, arguing the ideological underpinnings of al Qaeda were so strong as any such internal violent purge would be deemed unethical by global jihadi cadres.  But my past research on al-Qaeda’s internal documents convinced me long ago that the terror group was just like any organization-–full of petty, bickering and competing individuals constantly undercutting each other.  When things go poorly, jihadis behave badly, and ideology doesn’t pave over the differences and jealousy between al-Qaeda members.  

Less than six months after having the above mentioned Twitter argument, we watched al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate brought in by Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2012, destroy itself during the summer and fall of 2013 murdering ‘Old Guard’ al-Qaeda member Ibrahim al-Afghani and the notorious American foreign fighter Omar Hammami amongst others.  Again some CT pundits supporting the al-Qaeda purist argument saw Somalia as an exception, a peripheral jihadi theater plagued by clannism.  (Hedgehog thinking at its height.)  Fast forward six months to the start of 2014 and we see all out war in al-Qaeda’s ranks with al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS directly fighting and killing each other in jihad’s marque theater-–Syria.  One can jump on social media right now and sort through pictures of jihadis killing other jihadis or hear of a recent ISIS suicide bomber killing an old al-Qaeda hand.  Just over a year ago, I bantered back and forth with Omar Hammami on Twitter that the leading cause of death for jihadis is jihadis-–a statement that is more true today than it was then. 

A scenario I didn’t include but should have considered a few weeks back during Part 4 of my “Smarter Counterterrorism”series is whether al-Qaeda or its main rival ISIS would actually dethrone its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, by killing him or ensuring his capture?  Michael Hanna brought this scenario to my attention while I was also receiving a tip from JM Berger about a new ISIS media campaign surfacing on Twitter.  The campaign, marked by an Arabic hashtag (قاعدة_الظواهري_لا_تمثل_قاعدة_أسامة #), roughly translates to “Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda Is Not Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda”.  It’s a true reflection of the turmoil al-Qaeda has undergone since Bin Laden’s death.  With open fighting in Syria, would ISIS, the upstarts of jihad’s next generation, undertake the ultimate coup by knocking off Zawahiri and orienting the jihad in a fresh direction?  Or would al-Qaeda Central itself recognize the need to remove Zawahiri to make room for a new leader? It’s very unlikely. I would put the odds of such a scenario at less than 10%.  But there are a few reasons, in addition to al-Qaeda’s history of internal purges, that might encourage a Zawahiri internal removal now more than other times in al Qaeda’s past.

  • ISIS Support & Target Access In Pakistan – Most assume that Zawahiri, like Bin Laden, took refuge in Pakistan after leaving Afghanistan.  Just recently, one of ISIS’s overhyped mergers came not from the Middle East or North Africa but instead from a dirty dozen or so dissenters in Pakistan.  While the names seemed largely unremarkable and relatively unknown (possibly even bogus), the merger nonetheless suggests some degree of dissent near al-Qaeda Central’s ranks and the possibility of access to Zawahiri by ISIS supporters.   Could ISIS supporters be the entity aware of Zawahiri’s location and motivated to make an attempt on his life? Or could they merely cough up Zawahiri to counterterror forces allowing the West or the ISI to kill or capture him?  Similar accusations to this were made against Ahmed Godane, Shabaab’s leader, who allegedly served up contrarian foreign fighters, such as Harun Fazul, in Somalia for targeting.
  • Paving the way for Wuhayshi to ascend to al Qaeda’s throne – Zawahiri formally appointed Nasir Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the deputy of al-Qaeda globally.  This move made sense strategically for two reasons. First, AQAP under Wuhayshi has been the most successful and lethal affiliate against the U.S. drawing respect from jihadis young and old and being sought for guidance from as far away as AQIM in the Sahel. Second, Wuhayshi was a Bin Laden man from the Arabian Peninsula. By elevating Wuhayshi, Zawahiri selected a “Vice President” that could bind a Gulf constituency for which Zawahiri likely lacked overwhelming support.  But will Zawahiri’s strategy work? Yemen, like parts of North Africa, hosts legions of younger Saudi and Yemeni foreign fighters that fought in Iraq with today’s ISIS leaders.  Likewise, if an al-Qaeda insider were to want to see al-Qaeda truly thrive in the future, anointing a more respected and effective Wuhayshi through the removal of Zawahiri might be just what al Qaeda globally needs to thrive again in the face of a belligerent ISIS.  I’m not saying Wuhayshi would orchestrate such a coup. I’d just like to raise the possibility of a more strategic and forward thinking al-Qaeda Central insider doing what needs to be done for the good of al-Qaeda’s global brand.
  • ISIS might already be building a case for Zawahiri’s elimination – Just this weekend, references to the cloudy circumstances of Azzam’s murder have surfaced amongst ISIS supporters.  (See tweet below.)  These messages seem to suggest that Zawahiri or ‘Old Guard’ al-Qaeda members were responsible for Azzam’s death. 

As a concluding note, I would also put forth that today, more than any time in the past couple years, I believe the West is vulnerable for an al-Qaeda Central directed plot.  Al-Qaeda:

  • Needs a spectacular attack to reassert its global authority as top dog
  • Could benefit from how an attack would divert attention from its killing of dissenters (ISIS)
  • Might like to distinguish its targeting focus on the far enemy as opposed to sectarian issues; and
  • The U.S. hasn’t been this distracted (due to Snowden, Russia-Ukraine, Iran, Syria, etc.) with regards to counterterrorism since 9/11.

Next post, back to the conclusion (Part 5) of the Smarter Counterterrorism series

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ISIS’s Rise After al Qaeda’s House of Cards – Part 4 of “Smarter Counterterrorism”

(This is Part 4 of Smarter Counterterrorism, see Part 1 herePart 2 here, and Part 3 here)

Ayman al-Zawahiri must have awoke to the news of Bin Laden’s death on May 2, 2011 with the excitement of soon being al Qaeda’s global leader followed shortly by the anxiety of leading an organization and associated jihadi movement in sharp decline.  Zawahiri, while often described as an intelligent architect for al Qaeda’s violence and an aggressive influence on Bin Laden, lacked the traits of a charismatic leader able to reinvigorate a vast and varying network of affiliates populated by a younger generation more inspired to kill than pray.  Al Qaeda’s internal documents showed Zawahiri to be controlling; seen scolding al Qaeda’s most compelling leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and consistently trying to rein in an organization that by design was meant to be decentralized.  Zawahiri’s failures in Egypt always colored his view of al Qaeda’s future direction and where the group might misstep; fearful of excessive violence against innocent civilians eroding popular support and weary of wannabes loosely aligned or unknown to al Qaeda perpetrating bumbling plots of limited value.  In communiqués to Bin Laden, Zawahiri’s pushing for more control by al Qaeda’s central leadership appears to have been heard but either ignored or deemed too difficult to implement.  Adding to Zawahiri’s problems were his personality and history, which by many expert accounts, made him both difficult to work with and lacking the respect of al Qaeda’s frontline fighters.

By June 2011, al Qaeda’s conclave officially confirmed what was already assumed. Zawahiri became the group’s official emir and began receiving oaths of loyalty (Baya’t) confirming allegiance between al Qaeda affiliate leaders and al Qaeda Central’s new leader in Pakistan; that is with the exception of one affiliate – the Islamic State of Iraq led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – a first sign of the divisive internal politics to emerge in al Qaeda’s ranks post Bin Laden. 

Zawahiri’s Tenure as al Qaeda’s Chief

To understand how al Qaeda has faltered since Bin Laden’s death and to anticipate where jihad will go in the future, we must examine the leadership transition to Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Through the summer of 2011, senior al Qaeda leaders and conduits to affiliates were being eliminated every month, Anwar Awlaki in Yemen, Ilyas Kashmiri in Pakistan and strangely the elusive Harun Fazul in Somalia.  Fazul, once Bin Laden’s personal secretary, died at a Somali government checkpoint similar to ones he likely passed through easily dozens of times before.  In the following months, rumors swirled that al Shabaab’s leader, Ahmed Godane, had arranged for Fazul’s timely death to settle a score with the ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda leader floating in his turf.  The mysterious pattern of al Qaeda foreign fighters being killed in Somalia continued through 2011 and 2012 and rumblings of internal rifts in Shabaab’s ranks grew while a plan for formal membership to al Qaeda was in the works. With Bin Laden gone, al Qaeda princes across many affiliates were making their own plays in a ‘Game of Thrones’ where politics and power became the priority over ideology and al Qaeda’s grand strategy. 

Months if not years in decline forced Zawahiri to act after Bin Laden’s death and his actions led to al Qaeda Central’s unravelingApparently the message was “Do Something” and the affiliates used their own initiative and some of Bin Laden’s final guidance to push for Islamic states in the Arabian Peninsula, the Sahel and by alliance in the Horn of Africa. First came al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who rebranded a parallel militia, Ansar al Sharia, and began securing turf in Yemen, instituting Sharia law and establishing an Islamic state; only to be met by a flurry of U.S. drone strikes and the remnants of the Yemeni army.  By late 2012, AQAP slipped back into the shadows leaving behind their attempts at an Islamic state as a new caliphate emerged in the Sahel.  Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) with an array of local insurgents stormed northern Mali in a pattern similar to what had recently taken place in Yemen.  Through the fall of 2012, AQIM made their run at establishing an Islamic state until the French intervention of January 2013, which quickly dispersed AQIM back into the desert and in pursuit of irregular warfare from the hinterlands as splinter groups led by emerging leaders like Mokhtar Belmokhtar conducted the attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria. 

Three significant challenges arose requiring Zawahiri’s management in 2013; each demonstrating Zawahiri’s limited ability to control al Qaeda and begging the question of whether there remained a centralized al Qaeda at all.

  • Shabaab’s killing of its own foreign fighters in Somalia

Stories of al Qaeda foreign fighters being killed in Somalia by Shabaab’s leader, Ahmed Godane, continued to surface via the social media pleas of American foreign fighter Omar Hammami.  While not the most important foreign fighter or American in Shabaab’s ranks, Hammami’s rants proved fortuitous of larger splits in al Qaeda’s ranks.  Shortly after Hammami’s public complaints came a call from an original Afghan mujihadeen member in Somalia, Ibrahim Afghani, begging Zawahiri to unseat Godane.  Al Qaeda stood silent as Godane’s loyalists killed off both Hammami and Afghani. Shabaab has since crumbled under Godane’s leadership and Zawahiri has publicly ignored these upheavals in Somalia.

  • Syria: The Great Jihadi Migration

By 2013, Syria became the ultimate jihad creating an unprecedented foreign fighter migration unmitigated by Western policy or intervention.  Fueled by Gulf money and motivated by calls for an Islamic state as well as sectarian fighting, young men flocked to join the ranks of a diverse set of Syrian militias.  While the FSA bickered, jihadists and Islamists groups grew strong on foreign cash and foreign men started carving out a stake in Syria’s rebel landscape and taking the attack to the Assad regime.  Zawahiri, as best he could, made a play to harness jihadi energy in Syria through its primary affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and with its estranged affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq).

Zawahiri dispatched emissaries to coordinate al Qaeda’s Syria mission, but likely lacked the pull to truly control the wide stretch of jihadis funded independent of AQ Central.  Al Qaeda’s second generation of fighters that fought in Iraq, saw their own vision in Syria and under the leadership of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, seized on an opportunity to coalesce all jihadis under one roof.  In the summer of 2013, Baghdadi made the first ever public rebuttal of Zawahiri attempting to annex all jihadis in Syria.  Zawahiri, with few options, tried to reassert control going as far as to issue public guidance to jihadis everywhere hoping to communicate around rather than through disobedient middle managers.  Despite Zawahiri’s attempts to manage jihadists in Syria in the summer and fall of 2013, ISIS continued to grow and with each day since ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda’s star has faded. 

  • Egypt: Opportunity Lost

The third big dilemma for Zawahiri has been Egypt; where as he predicted, democracy has failed at the hands of authoritarians who’ve retaken control and suppressed both Islamists and Salafists alike.  Of all opportunities, Egypt likely presents the opportunity of greatest appeal to Zawahiri. At no time since being forced from his homeland with his fellow al Jihad members has there been such opportunity for al Qaeda in Egypt.  Persecuted Islamists and a somewhat permissive security environment in the Sinai have allowed for al Qaeda to make a play.  But even in Egypt, Zawahiri’s homeland where old networks could lead an organized jihadi rebellion, al Qaeda has floundered.  The Egyptian state has proven steadfast in fighting jihadism and al Qaeda’s ability to resource and coordinate a deliberate campaign has again shown to be limited.  The Nasr Cell was dismantled and spikes of violence in the Sinai have been met by military action. Zawahiri and al Qaeda so far have failed to create a sustained rebellion in Egypt despite the opportunity.

Zawahiri’s House Of Cards

Frustrated by his inability to rein in al Qaeda affiliates and outshined by a more aggressive and dynamic Baghdadi with ISIS, Zawahiri ultimately engineered what might have been unthinkable only a few years ago – open war on fellow jihadis to reassert his power and control. First came the open revocation of ISIS as part of al Qaeda. Then came the denouncements of ISIS by ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda clerics.  Finally, Zawahiri, through al Qaeda connections in the Islamic Front and coordination with the FSA, helped orchestrate an all out attack on ISIS in Syria. Smartly, Zawahiri’s primary affiliate Nusra held back from the initial engagements with ISIS allowing them to save face by appearing more neutral while seizing abandoned ISIS outposts and foreign fighter defectors.

While Zawahiri likely didn’t command each action on the ground in Syria, his plan ultimately became a house of cards.  Betrayed foreign fighters witnessing jihadi groups facilitating the attacks of more secular groups on fellow jihadists began speaking out.  Social media, a medium through which Zawahiri himself had tried to circumvent a belligerent ISIS, turned on al Qaeda’s leader detailing how it was ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda influence that had orchestrated the fitna (discord) in the ranks.  Zarqawi’s foreign fighter legions from Iraq, sided with their ISIS brothers over the opinions of clerics from Bin Laden and Zawahiri’s generation.

The outcome from Zawahiri’s retribution has been surprisingly to ISIS advantage.  Rather than punishing ISIS and regaining authority over the global jihad, Zawahiri and al Qaeda may soon become the second largest jihadist organization in the world.  Angered by Zawahiri’s betrayal and admiring of ISIS commitment to pursue an Islamic state, what were once thought to be al Qaeda Central affiliates are openly declaring allegiance to ISIS emir Baghdadi.  As seen in Figure 4, jihadist groups across North Africa and the Middle East have switched allegiances largely along the lines of the Iraq 2003-2009 foreign fighter distribution from Figure 3 in Part 3.  While al Shabaab in Somalia has reaffirmed its support for Zawahiri and ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda, the majority of contested affiliates have swung to ISIS’s favor. Ansar al Shariah in both Tunisia and Libya appear to be far more in ISIS camp. The younger generation of jihadis in AQAP/Ansar al Sharia in Yemen have sided up with ISIS (See Figure 6) even pushing at times in social media for AQAP’s emir al-Wuhayshi to shift his support from Zawahiri to Baghdadi –  I expected a transition, but this is occurring at a pace far quicker than I anticipated.  Zawahiri’s plan has backfired and his status has never been so diminished. 

Future Jihadi Scenarios: Best Case, Worst Case and which is most likely

Having reviewed al Qaeda Central’s efforts since Bin Laden’s death and recognizing the splits within jihadi ranks leading to ISIS’s rise, exactly anticipating the future direction of today’s jihadi landscape seems nearly impossible for there are too many variables, too many groups and too many countries to extract how this dynamic system will play out.  As a result, I’ll propose three potential jihadi scenarios and conclude with which one I think is most likely to occur as of today (probably a bad idea) and what might be the most dangerous scenario that would compel significant Western action. 

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

ISIS’s star has risen rather than fallen as al Qaeda Central, Nusra, Ahrar al Sham and other Islamist and jihadi militias have taken up arms against ISIS.  A month ago, I anticipated a battle for jihadi hearts and minds amongst two competing generations of jihadi fighters, particularly in Libya, Tunisia and Yemen (See here for background).  However, the shifting of sides to ISIS has occurred far faster than I could have anticipated.  The deputy commander of Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia surfaced with ISIS in Syria and ISIS support amongst Yemeni jihadis has been significant.  As seen in Figure 4, pledges of support to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi continue to roll in and this week ISIS announced in the coming weeks the merger of two additional groups and a new incarnation of their name – a name I would expect to be more globally oriented. As for the two groups merging in the ISIS announcement, the first appears to be the Central Region of AQIM in Algeria and I think the second might be a younger splinter group in Yemen (See Figure 6). Other candidates for the second merger might be Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia or Ansar al Sharia in Libya who’ve been pipelining folks into Syria, al Murabitun led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar who is a long-time Zarqawi fanboy, or a real wild card situation where AQAP in Yemen pulls out of al Qaeda entirely and joins with ISIS. A month ago, I would have expected this scenario to take at least six months to occur if it were to come to fruition.  Today, I think this scenario could occur in as little as one to two months, see Figure 5 below. 

Tipping Point for Scenario #1: AQAP’s leader Wuhayshi.  If Wuhayshi, al Qaeda’s global second in command, shifts his loyalty to ISIS or just chooses to set AQAP on its own path, al Qaeda will crumble.  The remaining franchises of al Qaeda would have little incentive to stay under Zawahiri. 

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

This scenario would be a sustainment of the al Qaeda civil war initiated two months ago.  Al Qaeda Central and its primary affiliate Nusra along with associated Islamist and jihadi groups (like Ahrar al Sham) continue to battle ISIS across multiple countries creating a jihadi civil war front stretching from Iran to the Sinai. Over the last two to three weeks, Nusra has openly discussed its intent to build its own operations in Iraq to compete with ISIS and has notably expanded its operations in Lebanon.  Meanwhile, ISIS has discussed potentially pushing operations into Iran; a logical step for an organization committed to killing Shia as much or more than Westerners.  I’m uncertain whether this competition might play out between AQC-minded versus ISIS oriented nodes in Egypt and Gaza but I would not be surprised if this occurred. Overall, I believe this scenario would weaken global support for jihad over the longer run, but could also render a more dangerous scenario that I alluded to in Part 3 of this series, where a desire to be seen as the more powerful jihadi element pushes both sides to execute attacks on Western targets abroad, Western targets in Europe or possibly aim at Israel.

Tipping Point for Scenario #2: Gulf donors coming to al Qaeda’s rescue would be the only way I think this scenario continues over the longer term.  Zawahiri has already rolled out lots of top clerical support and this hasn’t done much to overcome ISIS rise. I doubt Zawahiri’s ability to corral and then allocate resources makes this scenario possible.

  • Scenario #3: Dissolving Into Regional Nodes

Two forces, al Qaeda Central and ISIS infighting and the continued trend towards self-funding, might dissolve common notions of large jihadi organizations and alliances.  Al Qaeda affiliates and regional upstarts may find little incentive to hitch their group to a volatile global jihadi alliance that would only erode their local popular support without bringing in outside resources, operational capability or ideological clarity.  Thus over the longer term, jihadi groups gradually distance from each other and focus on local governance and self-resourcing.  Affiliates will remain more tightly wound regionally, but might only maintain very loose connections between regions; more similar to how jihadi groups operated during the inter Afghan jihad period of the 1990s. (See Figure 7) 

I would still expect affiliates to send their fighters to Syria for experience and training as a way to entice local recruits to gain credibility and bring back knowledge – similar to how Lashkar-e-Taiba sent fighters to the frontlines in Afghanistan during the 2000s to maintain their recruitment and credibility vis-à-vis Taliban elements who were drawing more support to Pakistan’s western rather than its eastern border.  Affiliates will still maintain connections, but these linkages would be more person-to-person and leveraged when needed rather than in a unified way – a swarming network rather than a set of unified affiliates.

Tipping Point for Scenario #3: Assad tamps down the Syrian rebellion and achieves a ceasefire in some form while al Qaeda aligned elements like Nusra continue to battle with ISIS.  The failure to achieve a sustained jihadi state in Syria because of infighting turns off jihadi donors, diminishes global foreign fighter recruitment and leaves affiliates to operate on their own.

In conclusion, I’m certain there could be other scenarios and the actual outcome will likely be some variant of one of these three.  But for planning counterterrorism actions, I would assess the scenarios as follows.

  • The best-case scenario from the West’s perspective is Scenario 2 (Continued Competition) minus the most dangerous additional element of competitive attacks on the West by each side (AQ vs. ISIS).  Absent one-upping attacks on the West, this scenario severely tarnishes global jihadi visions in the eyes of future recruits, donors and passive supporters of al Qaeda.
  • The most probable scenario may be Scenario 1 (Rising ISIS).  I’ve been surprised by the pace of support shifting to ISIS. The physical relationships built amongst the younger foreign fighter generation in Iraq and Syria, ISIS actually pursuing an Islamic state and Zawahiri’s betrayal have all combined to truly give ISIS an edge moving forward.  I expected shifting but the magnitude so far suggests ISIS might become the new global jihadi leader.  I’d only give Scenario #1 a slight edge over Scenario #2 (60% – 40% as of now). I believe that Scenario #1 (Rising ISIS) is less preferable to Scenario #2 as ISIS, if left unchecked, is likely to push for spectacular regional and global attacks as they grow.
  • Scenario #3 (Regional Nodes), I believe, is the least likely in the near term because I don’t see an end to the Syria situation for some time.  Scenario #3 though may represent a longer-term phase of what would come if Scenario #2 were to come to fruition in the near term – a continued distancing of jihadi groups globally.

The past four installments (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and this Part 4) of the Smarter Counterterrorism series have been designed to build to the final installment on what strategy the West might pursue in a chaotic but still threatening jihadi landscape.  The fifth and final part will (hopefully) come out in the next two weeks.

To download the charts shown in this post, visit this link and click on the graphics.

**** Special thanks to J.M. Berger of who not only helped me stay in tune with the ISIS vs. Nusra shifting the past month and chart development but also gave me the idea for this installment’s title to include a House of Cards reference.  See below in Figure 8, J.M. Berger’s updated “State of Play” chart and visit this link to download a copy.

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Smarter Counterterrorism in The Age of Competing Al Qaeda’s

Last week Ayman al- Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s global leader publicly dissolved the relationship between al Qaeda Central and the group currently known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS) and formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq.  Zawahiri and al-Qaeda’s General Command said in what was effectively a press release: 

“[ISIS] is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group . . . does not have an organizational relationship with it and [al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions,”

Zawahiri’s announcement comes only two weeks after Dr. Michael Doran, Dr. Will McCants and I addressed the challenges accompanying the premature designation of al Qaeda affiliates in an article entitled “The Good and The Bad of Ahrar Al Sham”.  

Our thesis put forth that today’s terrorism threat picture looks far different than a decade ago–more complicated and subsequently more challenging to navigate.  Appropriately understanding the true terrorist threats to the U.S. and the West requires in-depth analysis from multiple disciplines and an open mind to pursue counterterrorism strategies informed by the lessons learned from the past decade but not constrained by past models of al Qaeda activity. 

This post and several to follow represent my assumptions and opinions on how the U.S. might push forward in counterterrorism against al Qaeda and those jihadist groups emerging from al Qaeda’s wake. (These are my opinions and not necessarily shared by my co-authors Drs. Doran and McCants-–I speak only for myself here.)  The posts are meant to stir discussion and debate; I have no illusions that I have all the answers or am exactly correct in my prescriptions. 

For my first post in this series, I have six assumptions and/or principles that shape my opinions to come in future posts.  

  •  Al Qaeda is not one big thing 

Analysts and pundits should stop focusing on building links between al Qaeda affiliates seeking to present loose networks as one large insurmountable threat.  Billing al Qaeda as “One Big Thing” over the past decade resulted in the U.S. pursuing strategies, such as military occupation and backing corrupt dictators, which galvanize competing al Qaeda adherents and unify disparate affiliate actions. The US should pick its fights wisely and for the greatest counterterrorism return at the lowest cost. Since Bin Laden’s death, we’ve seen unprecedented al Qaeda infighting in Somalia, Syria and the Sahel. Rather than build new fears of an al Qaeda juggernaut, we should instead be employing our vaunted “smart power”–that’s if the U.S. can act smartly rather than in a partisan manner and still has power in a region where it has pursued a campaign of disengagement in recent years.  

  • All al Qaeda affiliates are not equal in intent, commitment and capability

Most all Sunni militant groups from Africa to South Asia will express some level of support for al Qaeda and targeting of the West.  However, their commitment to al Qaeda and its objectives varies considerably depending on local agendas and operating environments.  An upstart al Qaeda affiliate constantly weighs the costs and benefits of attacking the U.S.-–comparing the resulting credibility and support produced by a successful attack against the immediate and intense U.S. counterterrorism pressure to follow any attack.  For most affiliates, its better to wave the al Qaeda banner and passively allow safe haven of “Old Guard”, core al Qaeda operatives than to actively pursue their own attacks on the U.S. Beyond intent and commitment, the capability of affiliates to attack the U.S. is limited to only a few nodes.  Even if an al Qaeda affiliate wanted to attack the U.S., most are limited to picking off the stray, undefended American or Westerner that floats through their area of operations.  If an al Qaeda upstart affiliate lacks the commitment and capability to attack the U.S., should the U.S. expend millions of dollars to destroy ten guys waving an al Qaeda flag?  I think not, most of these gun-toting disenfranchised youth do not pose a direct or immediate threat to U.S. national security. But I also don’t think these upstarts should be ignored.  Intelligence collection and analysis will be essential to understanding when these nascent groups cross the line and become a significant threat to the U.S. 

  • Destroy al Qaeda’s core, “Old Guard” network 

Rather than chasing every militant from Morocco to Pakistan, the main effort should remain on the “Old Guard” al Qaeda network committed to attacking the U.S. I estimate this network consists of the following elements plus or minus a few people:

  • Ayman al Zawahiri and his closest advisors of “Old Guard” al Qaeda in Pakistan. I’d estimate this to be no more than a couple dozen individuals.
  • AQAP’s top leadership in Yemen led by Nasir al-Wuhayshi as well as AQAP’s external operations branch, which includes the talented bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri.  Since 2005, this element has presented the most credible and significant threats to the U.S.  
  • al Qaeda leaders and foreign fighters embedded in al Shabaab in Somalia as an external operations force executing attacks regionally and in the West. This includes al Shabaab’s top leaders (i.e., Godane and key deputies) as well as those known Western passport holders plotting attacks (see, for example, Ikrima).
  • AQIM’s top remaining leadership in the Sahel to prevent their reconstitution in the desert and resulting push for attacks against the West and in particular Europe (i.e., Yahya Abou el-Hammam,  Sultan Ould Badi, Ould Kheiru). This includes Mukhtar Bel Mukhtar’s “Those Who Sign With Blood” who have been a divisive force in AQIM, but have also demonstrated clearly their intent to attack the West.
  • Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, al Qaeda’s most important affiliate today who seeks a long-run strategy of building al Qaeda’s next safe haven and tapping into the greatest foreign fighter migration in history.  Also in Syria, al Qaeda envoys to other group’s in the Islamic Front must be interdicted or disrupted (see, for example, Abu Khalid al Suri worming into Ahrar al Sham).
  • al Qaeda operatives and foreign fighters from Syria moving into Egypt that are building a jihadist force to destabilize Egypt and antagonize Israel with cross-border attacks designed to unify Islamists, Salafists and Jihadists under one banner.   

 In addition to these leadership elements, I also believe that the U.S. should take steps when appropriate to interdict:

  • Occasional envoys dispatched from al Qaeda seeking to expand the group’s influence into second-tier affiliates in Libya, Tunisia, the Sahel, Nigeria and other places.
  • Americans or U.S. persons in al Qaeda or its orbit with the ability to infiltrate back into the U.S. or specifically target the U.S. homeland (see these three as examples: Abousamra, Mostafa, Gadahn).

When I hear the words “al Qaeda”, I think of the above elements consisting of a few hundred “varsity” players rather than 10,000 disenfranchised young boys firing guns in the air, toting black flags and posting YouTube videos. Only a few of the smartest survivors of the Syrian jihad will be a threat to the West in the future.  I’m not advocating ignoring emerging affiliates; persistent intelligence collection will be critical, but go after the bigger fish that threaten the U.S. rather than every small fish floating in the stream. Groups like ISIS may pose a threat to the U.S. and should be countered if necessary, but in the meantime, ISIS and other faltering groups hurt “Old Guard” al Qaeda as much as any U.S. action–let partners with a larger stake in defeating ISIS take the lead. Despite media stories suggesting al Qaeda’s rise, I think the U.S. counterterrorism community is actually focused appropriately on the right al Qaeda targets.  I hope public and Congressional pressure to fight last decade’s al Qaeda won’t push them off course. 

  • When we designate groups as foreign terrorist organizations (FTO), we should destroy them.

During the discussion on Ahrar al-Sham, Dr. Doran, Dr. McCants and I were trying to illustrate the complications that come along with designating a group an FTO.  The designation restricts U.S. options for dealing with the group in non-military ways and can actually strengthen al Qaeda’s hand.  For me personally, I believe in the concept of FTO designation but only if the U.S. is serious about countering the FTO. Designating a FTO and then doing nothing to destroy the group results in the FTO getting the credibility of fighting the U.S. without any adverse effects.  Over the long-run, failing to destroy a FTO makes the U.S. look ineffective and weak. Designation of a FTO or foreign terrorist (FT) for that matter should come with decisive action commensurate with what one should expect from a global superpower.

  • Effective counterterrorism strategy focuses on doing a few tasks well, not several hundred tasks lightly.

Lumping each pseudo-jihadist under an all encompassing Al Qaeda banner dilutes US counterterrosm efforts resulting in a repeat of the strategic complications of the 2004-2007 era–when defeating al Qaeda could only be accomplished by solving all of the developing world’s problems via a 500-700 point implementation plan spread across a massive bureaucracy. Nineteen al Qaeda hijackers executed the 9/11 attacks, not 19 million. More than twelve years after 9/11, we should look back on US counterterrorism and recognize that protecting our country and Americans overseas has come from one task far above all others: killing or capturing core al Qaeda members.  Further quelling al Qaeda or what it is to become also comes via two important supporting elements: conducting counterterrorism consistent with American values (i.e., minimizing the killing of innocent bystanders, ending indefinite detention, supporting democratic principles & abandoning corrupt dictators) and maintaining dominant intelligence capabilities that help distinguish the most dangerous elements of al Qaeda for targeting separate from those more innocent and less threatening to U.S. national security.  Ironically, the American public’s overriding self-interest in civil liberty protection has likely rendered it more difficult for the US government to distinguish friend from foe.  Lastly, putting an end to our notions of regime change via military occupation, abandonment of Arab spring dictators and renewed commitment to American values further eroded the last decade’s fodder for al Qaeda’s narratives. Unfortunately, the U.S. has more recently backed Arab Spring uprisings through inaction. The battle between democracy and Sharia has only just begun and further dimming opportunities for “Old Guard” al Qaeda requires a long-run strategy in countries where democracy is not likely to flourish in the near-term. Until the U.S. can figure out its strategic interests in the Middle East (assuming it can, I’m not convinved this is possible), I recommend a narrow counterterrorism strategy focused on a small set of tasks executed by a limited set of actors.     

  • Terrorism is a lesser threat to our national security compared to other long-run issues.

The media and counterterrorism pundits are notorious for maps of al Qaeda where entire countries are shaded ominous colors when there are maybe only a half dozen al Qaeda members/supporters in a country consisting mostly of uninhabitable desert. Al Qaeda threat conflation convinces Americans that terrorism is a national security threat more dangerous than all others leading to over extension of counterterrorism efforts. (My next post will further discuss why we are hooked on one big “al Qaeda”). Terrorism poses a less serious threat than many other national security issues such as climate change, excessive US national debt, Chinese cyber theft of intellectual property, an aggressively resurgent Russia, Iranian nuclear gamesmanship and a hothead North Korean supreme leader with daddy issues. Each of these threats poses a far greater threat to long-run US national security than lost young boys trapped amongst al Qaeda affiliates that are just as likely to kill their own members as they are Americans.

Next post later this week: “To Say al Qaeda Is To Say Nothing At All”. 

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