Projections of ISIS rise were often met with scorn this time last year. Counterterrorism analysts felt comfort in their decade of al Qaeda analysis; plagued by status quo bias and convinced only government intelligence sources could provide insight into the dark world of Bin Laden and Zawahiri. Meanwhile, al Qaeda’s fate was openly available for everyone to see. Analysts using open sources, J.M. Berger primarily, were witnessing the rise of the do-it-yourself jihad (DIY-J) generation empowering the ranks of ISIS. ISIS network arose from common bonds generated from Iraq fighting circa 2004-2009, virtual connections empowered by ever growing social media, a renewed focus on sectarian hatred of Shia and a goal of Sunni empowerment through the creation of an Islamic State.
Over the past few months the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, where I have the honor to serve as a Senior Fellow, has provided me the platform and support to publish the Smarter Counterterrorism Series. As of last month, I finished the fifth and final part of the Smarter Counterterrorism series. The series was possible due to the collective insights of a lot of great researchers and the feedback of readers here at Selected Wisdom. Thanks to everyone for the support and if interested in reading the entire series, see the five parts here:
Yesterday, I had the good fortune to participate in a debate on the state of al Qaeda, their future direction and how the U.S. might work to counter a plethora of jihadi groups around the world. Katie Zimmerman and Mary Habeck of AEI provided a great venue and discussion questions for a lively debate.
This week, I had the opportunity to write up a short post on the possibility that the new generation of jihadi recruits, fighting primarily in Syria but also across a plethora of al Qaeda affiliates, might dethrone al Qaeda’s global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in order to pave the way for a new targeting focus and direction. Since the al Qaeda fractures in Syria emerged last summer, the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) has openly rebuked Zawahiri. Their targeting focus, mission and direction have been more focused on creating an Islamic state and fighting more for local and sectarian issues than global jihad. ISIS has been directly undermined, disavowed and attacked based on Zawahiri’s direction and jihadis are now in open conflict with each other in Syria.
Today, there is more incentive than any other time for jihadis to either kill al Qaeda’s global leader or assist in his capture/elimination at the hands of Western or Pakistani counterterrorism forces. Here is the introduction to the discussion I posted at FPRI and read the entire post at this link. I’ve also posted one of my favorite tweets reference this dilemma and its historical connections to modern jihad’s founder: Abdallah Azzam.
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.
My latest installment of the “Smarter Counterterrorism” series at FPRI was just released – “ISIS Rise After al Qaeda’s House of Cards“. It took me a little while longer than I anticipated to get this post together as things have been changing quickly the past month. Those breaking for ISIS and leaving al Qaeda’s network of affiliates have been significant. Here is an excerpt of this latest installment where I propose three future scenarios of how jihadi groups might go in the future.
“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. “
An important note with this Part 4 on future jihad scenarios. I do not believe that the al Qaeda affiliates and upstart jihadi groups are as structured in reality in the way the media and the West might have one believe. These groups are morphing weekly and are populated with young twenty somethings who are also confused by Syria infighting. Ultimately, these dopey young men may not always know or agree about what group they are in. Omar Hammami had similar challenges after breaking with Shabaab. I don’t think these groups are particularly well defined, are certain about their own membership and at the same time, many of these groups may not even exist in a year. Old AQ affiliates and new upstarts are very malleable, so we shouldn’t get to hung up on exact organizational structure. Its more a swarm of like-minded subsets right now than well defined jihadi organizations.
Also, if interested in the graphics that were used in the FPRI post, I’ll post the scenarios from Part 4 here with a quick excerpt. Note, this is only part of the article from FPRI and only charts from Part 4. If you would like to download a copy of these charts, just right click on the chart and it will open in this window or in a separate window so you can download them.
Updated Fractures Map – March 2014
First, I updated my fractures map from February and here is my new estimate of the situation amongst global jihad. The big changes come from allegiances emerging within AQIM and I believe more allegiances between younger jihadis in Yemen.
Scenario #1: ISIS Replaces al Qaeda as the Global Leader of Jihad
The first scenario I offered in the article is ISIS running the table on al Qaeda and securing loyalty from the second generation of jihadis that fought in Iraq (See Part 3 here). Here is a chart for what that future scenario might look like.
Scenario #3: Dissolving Into Regional Nodes
Another possibility is that all jihadi groups slowly move away from notions of global al Qaeda resulting in regional nodes which are still connected but with only light connections between all groups. See Part 4 of the series for a full explanation.
“Today’s Jihadi Landscape: What does two competing jihadi networks and other freelance jihadi groups look like?
I’ve been wondering since Bin Laden’s death what a world without “One Big al Qaeda” might look like–see this for example. Only now can we start to see the effects of a generational shift amongst jihadis representing two loosely formed larger networks surrounded by some, or maybe even many, loosely tied or unaffiliated jihadi groups with more regional rather than global orientations.
With the environment changing rapidly and no good way to depict today’s jihadi landscape, I, with input from friends, have put together the following visual estimate of what today’s fractured jihadi landscape might look like. I tried to avoid the vertical, top-down task organization chart models because I don’t believe these relationships represent command and control as much as communication and collaboration. Today’s global jihadi landscape looks more like a swarm not a corporation: it is fungible, malleable and evolving. For the purposes of the charts you see below (Figure 1 and Figure 3), I’ve created three categories, which should not be viewed as definitive or exact as I anticipate much shifting of allegiances in the coming weeks and months. I put forth a discussion here, not an answer, and I’m open to input. If a group appears left out, it’s likely because I was uncertain how to assess them. The amount of overlap represents the degree to which I estimate the groups are interlinked in their communication & efforts.”
And here is the chart I worked on with much help from J.M. Berger, Aaron Zelin and some friends.
This week I published Part 2 of my series on “Smarter Counterterrorism” at FPRI. The second post, “Treating America’s al Qaeda Addiction,” discusses America’s fixation on al Qaeda – how we got there and what we can do to alleviate this addiction. The discussion focuses on the role of Americans writ large, the media, the counterterrorism industry and politicians in sustaining the focus on al Qaeda. Here is a sample from the post and to read the entire article click here. Here’s my take on the current state of the counterterrorism industry:
“This system progressed fine until the drawdowns in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. As the big theaters closed, this forced analysts to chase the next big threat, rapidly research a new al Qaeda affiliate and region, reassert their relevance and publish prose on al Qaeda’s next rise – all done in an effort to protect our nation from terrorism and our own livelihoods in the process. (Remember, I am a member of this industry.) The reports routinely prescribe one of three patent solutions for defeating al Qaeda: 1) the only way to defeat al Qaeda is to completely wipe the planet of al Qaeda’s ideology 2) we must win the hearts and minds of every disenfranchised community from Africa to South Asia or 3) both of these things. In all three cases, a multi-billion dollar campaign of undetermined length, under-researched methods with fuzzy long-run objectives is required – completely infeasible, utterly unsustainable and not appropriately scoped for the more narrow and severe threat of ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda.
The net result of this system has been a splurge of terrorism and counterterrorism punditry by analysts increasingly removed from the frontlines with al Qaeda, relying on less and less journalist reporting and primary documents, framing thinking based on notions of al Qaeda circa 2001 rather than 2011 and trying to piece together a global al Qaeda strategy from a noisy jihadi social media landscape. Each report, if sufficiently scary, presents another opportunity for funded research or a speaking engagement. Who wants to read a complicated report on the rise of the next serious threat presented by Lashkar-Fill-in-the-Blank or Ansar-Fill-in-the-Blank unless its “tied”, “connected” or “linked” to al Qaeda – and “al Qaeda” means whatever you need it to be. The counterterrorism punditry isn’t doing anything devious or deliberate. They are not members of the top 1% nor trying to lead their country astray. Most are passionate about their profession, genuinely well intentioned and highly competitive with one another. Anyone that’s ever sat in a meeting of terrorism and counterterrorism analysts and academics knows its really a passive aggressive game to see who’s smartest – the equivalent of the TV Show “Survivor” for people that don’t like to go outside, where everyone protects or bluffs about their sources and builds alliances to protect their food (I mean funding). The outcome is al Qaeda threat conflation, an endless game of Back-to-Bin Laden or Zawahiri informed by limited sourcing and perpetuated by competition over relevancy.
The worst part of today’s CT punditry is over the long-run it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: by over-classifying things as al Qaeda, we hunt for more al Qaeda, and we find more al Qaeda. We end up over pursuing, making more mistakes, spreading ourselves thin and in fact creating more al Qaeda than we eliminate. Today’s al Qaeda and the jihadi militants swirling around them are too diffuse, scattered amongst too many cultures and countries and evolving too quickly for any one counterterrorism pundit or TV talking head to maintain a persistent understanding.”
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.
“While al Qaeda connections to Gaza and Palestinians are not unheard of, they appear less frequently. Terrorist group competition for Palestinian manpower continues to be quite intense. Al Qaeda came after, not before, groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and many others. But with Hamas pursuing a more political path and young boys willing to fight, al Qaeda might be finding a ripe audience for their message. The article continues by explaining how the Internet facilitated recruitment of parallel operatives:
“The Shin Bet said an al-Qaida operative in Gaza, named as Ariv Al-Sham, recruited the men separately from one another, and had planned to activate three independent terrorist cells via his recruits. Senior Shin Bet sources said they believed Al-Sham received his orders directly from the head of al-Qaida’s central structure, Ayman Al-Zawahri….In the planned attack, terrorists would have fired shots at the bus’s wheels, causing it to overturn, before gunning down passengers at close range, and firing on emergency responders….Abu-Sara also volunteered to help orchestrate a double suicide bombing, involving the dispatching of two suicide bomber to the Jerusalem Convention Center and the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, simultaneously. Subsequently, Abu-Sara planned to detonate a suicide truck bomb in the vicinity of emergency responders arriving at the Convention Center….Abu-Sara was also supposed to travel to Syria for training in combat and explosives manufacturing, and had purchased a flight ticket to Turkey, a gateway to Syria.”
Al Qaeda today only slightly resembles the al Qaeda of yesteryear. Al Qaeda operatives or “al Qaeda-like” organizations stretch throughout North Africa, across the Middle East and into South Asia. This disparate string of organizations hosts a handful of al Qaeda’s original Afghanistan and Pakistan veterans but mostly consist of newcomers inspired by al Qaeda’s message — disenfranchised young men seeking an adventurous fight in the wake of a tumultuous Arab Spring. Al Qaeda, or more appropriately jihadism pursued under al Qaeda’s banner, has morphed in several waves over the course of more than two decades.
Over twenty years, Al Qaeda has harnessed the collective energy of various conflicts in the Middle East, South Asia and now Africa to perpetuate an enduring conflict against the West and specifically the United States. Each Muslim country conflict attracted its own set of foreign fighters ensconced in al Qaeda’s ideology and operational umbrella. But each conflict and al Qaeda affiliate varies in shape, size and capability. Evaluating al Qaeda through three incarnations may help us fully understand the group’s evolution into the present day and what it may become in the future. Al Qaeda may be examined in three periods: al Qaeda 1.0 (1988 – 2001), al Qaeda 2.0 (2002 – 2011) and al Qaeda 3.0 (2011 – present). Note, these periods are not distinct entities. Al Qaeda has transformed slowly through each phase. Some affiliates carrying al Qaeda’s name have rapidly morphed based on changing local conditions while others have adjusted more pragmatically. However, two significant events, the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the death of Osama Bin Laden on May 1, 2011 provide natural turning points for tracing al Qaeda’s evolution.