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

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

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

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #1 –

Supporting military operations, capacity building, and trainingGrade F

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

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

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

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #2 –

Stopping the flow of foreign terrorist fightersGrade B

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

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

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #3 –

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

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

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #4 –

Addressing associated humanitarian relief and crises Grade F

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

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #5 –

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: , , , ,

Russia returns as al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s ‘Far Enemy’

The Soviet defeat and subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 left victorious Arab mujahideen adrift.  Many retired from their jihadi adventures returning home to North Africa and the Middle East. Others remained in Pakistan, committed to fighting jihads in other theaters, establishing a network that in 1991 would officially become known as al Qaeda.  With time, Osama Bin Laden aimed al Qaeda’s ideology at the United States whom he believed to be the ‘Far Enemy’ who propped up the ‘Near Enemy’–local apostate Muslim dictators and their regimes.  This strategic logic, annotated in al Qaeda’s 1996 declaration of war on the United States, has powered nearly two decades of terrorist attacks on Americans. 

Al Qaeda’s ‘Far Enemy’ logic for singularly focusing on the United States has proven both wrong over the long-term and counterproductive to the terrorist group.  In the months before and after Bin Laden’s death, the U.S. let North African and Middle Eastern dictators fall to Arab Spring uprisings.  Until the rise of the Islamic State (IS), al Qaeda’s jihadi spawn, the U.S. refused to intervene in Syria–one of the bloodiest and most protracted civil wars in recent history.  U.S. inaction in Syria, rather than meddling, has provided what little lifeblood al Qaeda clings to in its most important affiliate Jabhat al Nusra.  

Jihad’s real ‘Far Enemy’ in Syria for many years has been Iran and now Russia.  For several years, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces have helped Syria hold the line against a band of rebel groups to include Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State.  Last month, Russia moved from the shadows and into the forefront with their military build up.  The Russians talk of targeting terrorists, but the pattern of their airstrikes speaks otherwise.  Most sorties have aimed their missiles at Syrian rebel groups including Jabhat al Nusra leaving the Islamic State mostly to the American-led coalition.  Today, Russia, far more than the U.S., has returned to be jihad’s ‘Far Enemy.’

More than a year and a half ago, in anticipation of the Islamic State’s rise over al Qaeda and witnessing the U.S. desire to extract itself from the Middle East post-Iraq, I proposed that, ”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.”  I still believe this to be a wise strategy for the U.S.  First, for more than ten years, the U.S. has failed to successfully counter jihadi ideology and supporting propaganda.  Lacking any demonstrated success winning the hearts and minds of militant Muslims, why continue to waste time and money funding counternarrative efforts?  Second, it’s almost always easier to shift a message (alternative narrative) than to counter it (counter narrative).  If the goal is simply to protect Americans from jihadi violence, then it will likely be easier to shift jihadi violence to another target, such as Russia, than to convince jihadis to abandon their ideology and violence entirely. Third, the Russians have used social media driven information campaigns to discredit the U.S. for years.  Facebook and Twitter remain littered with pro-Russian, Western looking accounts and supporting automated bots designed to undermine the credibility of the U.S. government.  Why not return the favor back to the Russians and restore their place as the ‘Far Enemy’?

Unfortunately, the U.S. will likely be unable to execute such an information strategy to redirect jihadi angst onto a Russian adversary.  Current calls for countering the Islamic State’s ideology echo those of ten years ago to counter al Qaeda.  Americans appear permanently fixed on this failed tact.  U.S. messaging efforts also remain painfully slow to program.  Americans haven’t even figured out how to respond to the Russian invasion of Crimea, therefore it’s doubtful they’d be effective at redirecting jihadi angst prior to the end of the Syrian conflict.  Lastly, the U.S. seems a bit scared of Russia in the information space in part because Russian cyber attacks on the U.S., whether by organized crime or the Russian state, have become a huge vulnerability.  Don’t anger the bear if you can’t keep it in its cage. 

Luckily for the U.S., jihadi propaganda appears to be spinning away from the U.S. and toward Russia.  Months ago, the leader of al Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, said he was instructed by al Qaeda’s top leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to avoid targeting the U.S.  Shortly after Russian airstrikes, Julani released an audio message calling Russia the “Eastern Crusaders” and calling for attacks inside Russia and on Shiite villages.  The U.S. at a minimum, through covert or semi-covert platforms, should take advantage and amplify these free alternative narratives to provide Russia some payback for recent years’ aggression.  Russia would assuredly do that to the U.S.

Tags: , , , , ,

The Islamic State Online: Countering the Symptom Rather Than The Disease May Only Make Them Stronger

The 2016 Presidential campaigns have swung into full gear and tough talk about countering the Islamic State grows by the day.  All of the candidates seem to embrace calls for kicking the Islamic State off of social media.  Hillary Clinton was one of the first to endorse this tactic back in July noting, “we have got to shut down their Internet presence, which is posing the principal threat to us.”  And who wouldn’t want to kick the Islamic State off the Internet?  Here are a couple things to consider.

First, fighting the Islamic State online will be the easiest policy for candidates to get behind–a position with almost no costs and some marginal benefits.  Fighting jihadists online is far more preferable to fighting jihadists on the ground and allows a candidate to call for action without actually having to put any Americans in harm’s way. Battling extremists on social media plays well with American audiences, too. Most Americans understand Facebook and Twitter far better than they do the geopolitics of the Middle East.  Lastly, American policy makers can actually create action on this policy since Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other social media companies predominately reside in the U.S. and can feel discomfort from government tough talk.  As a policy position, “Kicking The Islamic State Of Twitter!” sells.

A second point to consider, however, is fighting the Islamic State online but not on the ground represents nothing more than contending with a symptom while ignoring the disease. Long before the rise of the Islamic State, al Shabaab in Somalia became the first prolific and successful jihadi group to leverage social media.  As J.M. Berger noted, repeated Twitter shutdowns of Al Shabaab did diminish the group’s online prowess.  But these shutdowns occurred concurrently with Shabaab’s decline in Somalia.  Shabaab supporters not only lost access to Shabaab’s propaganda, they lost interest in a group clearly on the wane. 

Undermining access to the Islamic State without eroding affinity for the group’s successes will lead online supporters to innovate and evolve online rather than recede–a dangerous consequence of a tactic that seems so straight forward on the surface.  The Islamic State’s innovation online has been a critical component of their success and a large reason for their overtaking an al Qaeda who failed to adapt to and harness mainstream social media. The Islamic State’s persistent incorporation of new media methods has attracted a band of tech savvy followers.  Resistance from the West on social media has likely led these Islamic State fanboys with computer skills to innovate even further to get out the message and retaliate on the cyber battlefield. 

Today, Islamic State supporters often employ automated bots on Twitter to sidestep attempts to curb their reach.  As they’ve been pushed from mainstream social media sites, the Islamic State has developed and deployed their own apps that provide downloads to their supporters as a way to avoid Twitter’s spam detection algorithms.  Growing support online has also led to the emergence of Islamic State affiliated hackers who during last week’s September 11 Anniversary threatened attacks on the financial system and government websites. Islamic State affiliated hackers have allegedly posted personal information of U.S. military members as well.

Countering the Islamic State’s presence online rather than undermining affinity for the group’s success and resulting message may ultimately lead to policies that make the group temporarily weaker and yet ultimately more resilient.  Kicking extremists off Twitter is fine, but it should not be the first, nor will it be the most essential part of the U.S. strategy to counter the Islamic State.  We should be asking for a lot more from our Presidential candidates who will likely continue to put forth the easiest and least controversial counterterrorism proposals. 

 

 

Tags: , , ,

Can the Islamic State hijack September 11 from Zawahiri’s al Qaeda?

September 9, 2015

The increasingly reclusive Aymen al-Zawahiri sprung up his ugly head this week with a new lecture series entitled the “Islamic Spring”, seeking to remind the West and what few remaining admirers of al Qaeda that the group is not dead on the 14th anniversary of  September 11, 2001.  Along with revoking the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate, al-Zawahiri, via the title of his series, seeks to remind people of the democratic failings of the Arab Spring and how al Qaeda represents the true vanguard for jihad and a caliphate.

The 9/11 anniversary beckons an al Qaeda broadcast, but the group clings to anything that will provide it with any real relevance. Al Qaeda’s remaining hope lies in its tenuous relationship with its Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra whom likely would stand to benefit from disavowing any connections with its global jihadi overlord Zawahiri.  The Islamic State continues to grow in popularity amongst jihad’s next generation and affiliates around the globe seek out allegiance with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, not Zawahiri. 

The Islamic State has also successfully taken ownership in many ways of al Qaeda’s greatest leaders.  Islamic State propaganda commonly heaps respect on al Qaeda’s first leader Osama Bin Laden.  References to Bin Laden and pictures of Bin Laden often drape Islamic State propaganda.  A demonstration of such respect can be seen in the Islamic State’s naming of the “Osama Bin Laden School” in Raqqa, Syria – the stronghold of the Shari`a governed state. 

The Islamic State has also claimed at times another of Al Qaeda’s greatest heroes–American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The Islamic State’s spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani indirectly honored al-Awlaki’s legend by adopting the clerics call for lone wolf attacks in the West–a staple of Awlaki’s preaching and resulting contributions to Inspire magazine.   In January, the Islamic State named their English-speaking foreign fighter contingent designed for targeting the West the “Anwar al Alwaki” Brigade paying homage to the al Qaeda online recruiter’s ability to inspire attacks in the West.

Having laid claim to al Qaeda’s top heroes Bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Awlaki, there remains only one piece of al Qaeda history left for the taking: the legacy of al Qaeda’s crowning achievement: the attacks of September 11, 2001.  What better way to snub Zawahiri than to hijack ownership of the group’s most celebrated attack?  The Islamic State might do this in two ways. 

The least demanding and least effective way for the Islamic State to take ownership of the September 11 attacks would be online.  Through smoking Twin Towers laden motifs and pushed hashtags, the Islamic State could pay homage to 9/11, positioning themselves as the preferred successors of Bin Laden’s al Qaeda rather than al-Zawahiri’s current contingent.  A social media campaign might be accompanied by Islamic State hacking activity as their online supporters and hacker volunteers have recently professed to future online targeting of U.S. government sites and the financial system. 

The more effective method for the Islamic State to hijack the memory of 9/11 from al-Zawahiri would be to do what al Qaeda has repeatedly failed to do: perpetrate an anniversary attack on September 11, 2015.  Bin Laden after 9/11 and al-Zawahiri since Bin Laden’s death have failed to commemorate their glory of 2001.  Al Qaeda needs an attack, but the Islamic State likely has more capability to execute one at this stage.  Using their foreign fighter resources and international supporters, the Islamic State could easily execute a suicide bombing in a neighboring country like Turkey or Saudi Arabia or go even further by coordinating lone wolf and small cell attacks in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.  Achieving notoriety on 9/11 would be a final snub to al-Zawahiri and send him further into oblivion. 

The best forecasts are probabilistic, thus I provide my off the cuff speculation here regarding whether there will be an attack on this September 11, 2015.  Note, I have no direct knowledge of a potential attack, just some thoughts if I were actually doing a forecast. The most likely scenario remains that there will be no anniversary attack this September 11.  As predictions go, there hasn’t been a successful anniversary attack in the last thirteen years so the safer bet is always that tomorrow will look like yesterday, this year like the last. 

The next most likely scenario, I believe, is that the Islamic State and/or its international community of supporters execute one or more low scale attacks.  This would rob al Qaeda of its precious anniversary and further establish the Islamic State as the global leader of jihad.  If I were one of the Islamic State’s leaders, this is what I would do if I already intended to execute an external operation outside Syria and Iraq. 

The third and least likely scenario, I imagine, is that al Qaeda finally launches the long expected anniversary attack with devastating consequences.  Al-Zawahiri’s pre-release of the inappropriately seasoned “Islamic Spring” series, al Qaeda’s diminishing capability globally, and al-Zawahiri’s guidance to Nusra’s Abu Muhammed al-Jowlani to avoid attacking the West suggests, at least to me, that al Qaeda either can’t execute such an attack or doesn’t want to.  Thus for the Islamic State, the anniversary of 9/11 may very well be available for the taking. 

Tags: , ,

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.” 

 

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,