The competition between al-Qaeda and IS could pose a threat as well as an opportunity to the West.
Over the past six months, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) — now known as the Islamic State group (IS) — and its sudden capture of large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria has dominated the front pages of about every major newspaper in the world.
The language and labels used to describe the group, and the way its sudden ascent has been covered in the media has provided fuel to those who argue that the current crisis in Iraq is proof that “al-Qaeda is still alive” and continues to pose a significant threat to the West. All too often, articles about the current crisis in Iraq are peppered with phrases like: “The al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization,” the “al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq” or “the group, which is linked to al-Qaeda.” While it is true that ISIS in its original capacity of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was indeed an offshoot of a former al-Qaeda franchise, al-Qaeda in Iraq, descriptions like this give the impression that the two organizations still share an agenda, are somehow part of one and the same transnational terrorist network and are merrily working together to destroy not only the region, but also the West.
The truth is that the al-Qaeda (central) leadership around Ayman al-Zawahiri already denounced ISIS in February of this year, and the two groups are now actually engaged in a fierce battle for power and legitimacy within Iraq and in the wider Middle East. In order to be able to engage the current crisis in Iraq and to curb the threat of a powerful ISIS, it is essential to fully understand the nuances of the relationship between ISIS and al-Qaeda, and between ISIS and the other players in the radical Islamist arena. Only if we understand the dynamics of the Iraqi crisis in all their complexity will we be able to understand where there are opportunities for engagement and how the West should go about countering ISIS without getting embroiled in an endless military quagmire. At the same time, a closer look at the relationship between al-Qaeda and ISIS shall reveal that the danger might not lie in the assumed link between the two organizations, but in fact may be exacerbated by the competition between the two.
IS, until recently known as ISIS, was preceded by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which emerged in 2006 and was comprised of various insurgent groups: the original al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) organization — led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who had sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004 — the Mujahedeen Shura Council in Iraq, and Jund al-Sahhaba (Soldiers of the Prophet’s Companions). Until early 2011, ISI was a struggling jihadist group, which for years had been trying to topple the Iraqi government with little success. This changed when in the summer of 2011 the Syrian armed conflict erupted, and ISI, now led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, jumped on the bandwagon to join the battle against Bashar al-Assad.
ISI’s involvement in the conflict was limited at first. Abu Mohammed al-Golani, a former ISI member, was sent to Syria by al-Baghdadi to establish Jabhat al-Nusra in the beginning of 2012. With ISI as al-Qaeda’s ally in Iraq, Jabhat al-Nusra in turn quickly became al-Qaeda’s main offshoot in Syria, and one of the most important jihadi rebel groups in the Syrian war. Golani received support and funding from ISI and al-Baghdadi, and al-Nusra soon became increasingly powerful and popular among aspiring jihadis. Al-Baghdadi wanted to use al-Nusra’s popularity to boost ISI, and in April 2013 he unilaterally pronounced al-Nusra to be dissolved and stated that the group was now officially part of ISI. He changed ISI into ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), and demanded from al-Golani to officially accept him as senior in position. Al-Golani’s refusal resulted in the direct expansion of ISI’s operations into Syria, where differences over ideology and strategy soon led to bitter infighting between ISIS on the one side, and Jabhat al-Nusra and its parent organization al-Qaeda on the other.
The animosity between the two jihadist groups is mainly based on rivalry for the highest position in the jihadist hierarchy, and in the competition for power in Iraq and Syria. However, the rift also has an ideological basis, which makes ISIS and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda fundamentally incompatible.
Al-Qaeda’s key objective will now become to once again be seen as relevant and to challenge IS’s appropriation of its key objectives and tactics. The problem is that the only way for al-Qaeda to regain their relevance and credibility now is to up the ante and prove that it is still capable of attack.
The jihadist philosophies of al-Qaeda and ISIS differ in one very important aspect: The original al-Qaeda of Osama Bin Laden had a binary jihadist doctrine that the world is divided into Muslims and non-Muslims. This philosophy focused primarily on attacking the West and getting rid of the Western presence and influence in the Middle East. ISIS, on the other hand, fights predominantly Muslim governments of predominantly Muslim states and, by deliberately targeting Shia, killing fellow Muslims. ISIS justifies this by usurping the right to declare takfir — the right to declare other Muslims as unbelievers. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, believes that a caliphate will emerge only after the wider Muslim world has been purified of Western influence, and that establishing it requires social consensus.
Some senior al-Qaeda members such as Abu Yahya al-Libi have often stressed the sanctity of Muslim blood, and the danger of indiscriminate violence against Shia and fellow Sunni Muslims is something current al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri had also warned of. In some cases, this critique was directly aimed at individual jihadi leaders like al-Zarqawi, who were personally responsible for many executions of Muslims. In 2005, al-Zawahiri, questioned the strategy and prioritization of AQI’s sectarianism: “We must repeat what we mentioned previously, that the majority of Muslims don’t comprehend this and possibly could not even imagine it. For that reason, many of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your (AQI) attacks on the Shia. My opinion is that this matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue. Indeed, questions will circulate among Mujahideen circles and their opinion makers about the correctness of this conflict with the Shia at this time.”
This ideological rift, along with ISIS’ bloody methods — especially its habit of summary executions — as well as its refusal to accept al-Zawahiri’s authority led to the aforementioned very public and bitter rupture between ISIS and al-Qaeda in February. Al-Zawahiri publicly denounced ISIS after the group defied his demand that it cease operating in Syria in favor of Jabhat-al-Nusra. Al-Qaeda’s General Command stated that ISIS was “not a branch of the al Qaeda group … does not have an organizational relationship with it, and al Qaeda is not responsible for their actions.”
Jihadist Rivalry as a Threat to the West
Since the end of 2013 ISIS has been ascending rapidly. After stabilizing their hold on parts of northern Syria, they overran significant parts of Iraq, including Mosul and Tikrit. It was the weakness of the central states of Iraq and Syria that allowed ISIS to quickly gain power. The sectarian nature of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq also played a major role. The Assad regime in Syria is mostly supported by the non-Sunni populations. Even more so, the regime of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq was based disproportionately on Shia support from the south of the country. The policies of the Maliki regime disenfranchised both the Sunnis and the Kurds. In late June, the resurrection and spectacular territorial successes of ISIS accumulated in the declaration of a caliphate in the territories they seized in Iraq and Syria, with al-Baghdadi as its righteous caliph.
Given the historical significance of the caliphate in Islamic doctrine, to claim the caliphate and to call himself the caliph was an incredibly bold move by al-Baghdadi, and large numbers of Muslims see it as inappropriate overreach on his part. A number of jihadist organizations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir have openly rejected the move. The establishment of the caliphate is a crucial point in IS’s short history, and is equally likely to prove to be the beginning of its downfall as the embodiment of its success. The key word, therefore, will be legitimacy. If the so-called Islamic State fails to gain widespread support from Muslims, it will lack the legitimacy it needs to ensure its survival. If on the other hand, the group manages to firmly claim the moral high ground, the caliphate’s establishment might prove to be a strong gathering call for the recruitment of foreign fighters as well as the allegiance of various independent jihadi groups in the region.
However long its lifespan will turn out to be, the establishment of the caliphate has already changed the dynamic of the relationship between IS and al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda (and affiliates) can no longer ignore IS’s claim to have sole legitimacy. Independent jihadi groups and individuals must choose to support (or join) IS or al-Qaeda, as since the rupture between the two any self-respecting jihadi can no longer support both. As far as we can see at this point, it appears that for now the popularity scales, especially regarding young jihadis, are tipping in favor of IS. This is to the detriment of the popularity and legitimacy of the “original jihadi organization,” al-Qaeda. For al-Qaeda, the rising popularity of IS is part of a larger problem it has been dealing with for a couple of years.
Al-Qaeda’s declining potency in its Afghanistan–Pakistan heartland, its dwindling morale after the killing of bin Laden in 2011 and the group’s fracturing into semi-autonomous franchises all have caused al-Qaeda to be less central to the international jihadi conversation. It seems that more and more radical Islamists are attracted to “team IS” rather than “team al-Qaeda.” This greater interest in IS among extremists also stems from a generational change. The attacks of 9/11 happened a long time ago; many of the current young and aspirational jihadists were children back then. During their lifetime they have only seen al-Qaeda in decline, while the rise of IS has been spectacular and inspiring. Al-Qaeda is seen as increasingly old-fashioned and irrelevant, with its ageing leadership and its sporadic release of grainy videotapes. IS, on the contrary, with its slick online presence, videos featuring young Western jihadis, and spectacular recent success, is definitely the more sexy option.
In view of al-Qaeda’s declining relevance and the contrast of IS’s spectacular recent successes, it is not unlikely that some of the leaders of regional al-Qaeda franchises might reconsider their interests and might decide to change their allegiance from al-Zawahiri to al-Baghdadi. We have seen that recently, Sheikh Abdullah Othman al-Assimi, leader of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb has voiced his support for ISIS, thereby implicitly criticizing the central al-Qaeda leadership and undermining his own supposed spiritual leader al-Zawahiri. In recent months it has also become clear that individual fighters from al-Qaeda affiliates are leaving their organizations to join the Islamic State. As long as IS continues to rack up successes, this development is likely to continue.
In spite of these setbacks, al-Qaeda is not about to give up easily, and herein lies exactly the threat of its increasing competition with IS. Al-Qaeda’s key objective will now become to once again be seen as relevant and to challenge IS’s appropriation of its key objectives and tactics. The problem is that the only way for al-Qaeda to regain their relevance and credibility now is to up the ante and prove that it is still capable of attack. If IS continues to gain credibility through future military successes, al-Qaeda will be driven toward launching a new attack against the West to establish its continued relevance to younger recruits. As the latter can still count on a significant support base, the competition for the jihadi hearts and minds will not be over any time soon. We are now finding ourselves in a dualistic position of having to deal with two competing international jihadist groups, each vying for the terrorist top dog position. In their competition for support and relevance, the immediate victims will be thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims caught in the crossfire.
Turning of a Black Page
While the race for influence and legitimacy between al-Qaeda and ISIS is likely to claim many victims and leave death and destruction during its course, it might also provide the West with the best chance to counter the Islamist success and curb the IS threat. The group’s success in recent months has been based on two pillars: its ability to enrich itself and recruit fighters, and its ability to enlist the support of powerful local Sunni tribes in Iraq to support its relative low number of active fighters (estimates range from 8,000-15,000). In view of IS’s limited manpower, this support of local tribes is crucial for IS to be able to maintain and effectively control its territory. So far, al-Baghdadi has recognized the strategic importance of the disaffected Sunni political class tribal leaders and the moderate clerics who oppose the Shia-led central government, and has presented himself and the caliphate as a partner against Baghdad.
The story, which in the media is portrayed to be all about religion and military developments, is actually mostly about politics: access to government revenue and services, a say in decision-making, and a modicum of social justice.
This situation cannot last, however, since in order to keep the support of the Sunni tribes, IS will need to relinquish at least some form of control to the tribal leaders. These tribal leaders do not want to see IS control their people, take away their personal power and prohibit their local customs and traditions. They support IS because it presents an ally in the fight against the Shia-dominated regime, not because they necessarily support IS’s goals or Islamic doctrine. Their style of governing, which goes very much against the social fabric of the local communities, along with its ruthlessness and sectarianism, will likely prove to be irreconcilable with the interests of the local population and tribal leaders in the end. If the latter perceive the Islamic State’s practices as too draconian or its caliphate as marginalizing them, the tolerance they have shown in the face of the common enemy will soon evaporate.
If past is prelude — as it often is — this might mean that IS’ success could be short-lived. When the “former IS,” al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), controlled about a third of the country in 2006, they imposed their dictatorial rule on their fellow Sunnis and displayed a level of violence, sectarianism, censorship and harsh imposition of Sharia that banned many traditional practices. This brutality eventually caused a “Sunni Awakening” of Iraqi tribes that rose up against AQI. These tribes then allied with the US military and by the end of 2007 AQI went from an insurgent group that controlled vast territories to a terrorist group that controlled little and was reduced to detonating the occasional bomb in Baghdad.
AQI was marginalized because the local Sunni tribes were fed up with its antics, and because they were presented with an alternative ally that they thought might better serve their interests. These Sunni tribes revolted against a Sunni Islamist organization, without the presence of a Shia-dominated common enemy. It is therefore important to remember that in order to counter IS’s threat, we should not let the sectarian aspect of the conflict blind us to the very real economic and political interests that lie at the core of many alliances. The story, which in the media is portrayed to be all about religion and military developments, is actually mostly about politics: access to government revenue and services, a say in decision-making, and a modicum of social justice. True, one side is Sunni and the other Shia, but this is not a theological conflict rooted in the seventh century.
The Sunni tribes, and most of the other players that side with IS do not do so because their interest is to marginalize Shia, they side with IS because their interest is to regain or keep their power and influence vis-à-vis Baghdad. However, recent clashes between IS and other Sunni insurgent groups, includingh the Naqshbandi Order, show that these interests are already shifting. In a statement, tribal leaders have addressed new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and expressed that they would consider joining his government if locals were allowed to run the Sunni provinces. As some local Sunni groups are beginning to flee the caliphate, it becomes clear that the divisions among the Iraqi insurgents might present the West with a chance to help turn the Iraqi crisis around.
The opportunity for the West to counter IS lies therefore supporting a new “Sunni Awakening” and providing the Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders that currently support IS with an attractive and viable alternative, so that these leaders might rethink their allegiance. While military pressure such as the recent American airstrikes of IS strongholds might prove an effective short term stalling technique, the structural long term solution should be sought in (covert) diplomacy and trying to break apart the groups that are now bound by opportunism, but that in reality harbor profound ideological differences, and often even mutual hatred.
Over the coming months the West should use all its diplomatic strength to support the new Iraqi government, and bring on board the formerly disenfranchised minorities. While this is certainly not an easy task, the good news — after months and months of increasingly bad news coming from Iraq — is that the Iraqi government has voted on a new cabinet, one that can hopefully make a credible case for Sunni and Kurdish support.
Maliki’s replacement, Haider al-Abadi, is a far less polarizing figure, and one that might just be able to convince the Sunni tribal leaders and other formerly marginalized groups to join the new government, as opposed to supporting IS. The creation of a new, inclusive, government as an alternative to IS has the potential of providing a much needed turning point in the struggle, and one that possibly presents the first step to a way out of the crisis. In the midst of the violence and desperation, there is therefore a glimmer of hope on the horizon. The appointment of al-Abadi and, even more importantly, the recent reports of emerging Sunni disenchantment with IS, might very well indicate the turning of a very black page, and the beginning of a new chapter in the battle for Iraq.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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