This week the Foreign Policy Research Institute again allowed me to write a short piece on how ISIS sustains its operations in Iraq and Syria. In the post “Four Key Drivers For Eroding ISIS“, I put forth again my logic for not deploying ground troops to Iraq to rid the world of ISIS but instead using a containment strategy (“Let Them Rot”) to destroy ISIS from within. For a longer discussion of this thought process see this link. And if anyone would like a copy of the graphic that I hosted with this article, I will include a copy of it here.
I’ve continued to post at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and sometimes people ask for the graphics that I post there. It’s difficult to download from their website so I will post the graphics here for anyone that wants to use them.
The latest article I posted at FPRI is “Are We Our Own Worst Enemy? The Problems in Countering Jihadi Narratives and How to Fix Them.” I discuss why its so difficult for the U.S. to counter ISIS in social media and my recommendation for three videos for dissemination to undermine ISIS narrative – specifically using a dramatization of defector experiences. See here for the full article and below for the graphics.
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.
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.
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.
My third post in the FPRI series Smarter Counterterrorism just posted. With the help of some friends, I attempted to define the jihadi environment today and explain in narrative and visually the splits in al Qaeda’s ranks. If interested, please read the entire article “Jihadi Competition After al Qaeda Hegemony – ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda, Team ISIS and The Battle For Jihadi Hearts and Minds” at this link. Also, because I cannot make the charts that JM Berger and I put together display as larger versions at FPRI, I am posting them here for people to download. Please click on the graphics below if you would like the larger versions for easier viewing.
Here is the intro to the post:
“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.
One year ago, American foreign fighter Omar Hammami detailed how Shabaab and al Qaeda betrayed and sought to kill him in Somalia (See here). Shabaab did this because Omar suspected Godane was killing off al Qaeda leaders and foreign fighters that had traveled to Somalia. Omar’s prophecy came true when Shabaab killed him in September 2013.
The past month we’ve again seen unprecedented infighting amongst al Qaeda affiliates, this time in Syria. An extended cat fight between al Qaeda’s global leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham’s (ISIS, formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi over who controls Syria finally resulted in violence with ISIS being attacked by a coalition to include Jabhat al-Nusra (al Qaeda Central’s favored affiliate in Syria) and Ahrar al-Sham, the biggest Islamist dog in Syria’s fight. The al Qaeda affiliate-on-al Qaeda affiliate violence showed an unprecedented level of bloodshed with foreign fighters being killed by their jihadi brothers like never before. The result is really two major competing strains of jihadi networks – an era of terrorism competition (See here and here.)
Today, @intelgirl and @ intelwire tipped me off to what is a sequel to last year’s Omar Hammami video: an American foreign fighter who was almost killed by an al Qaeda affiliate he joined, this time in Syria. The tweet took me to a nearly 10 minute YouTube video where a foreign fighter explains how his own terrorist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, tried to kill him.
In the YouTube video below, Abu Muhammed al-Amriki, a man who lived in the U.S. for 10-11 years, describes how as a member of Jabhat al-Nusra (I think), he was working a checkpoint in Syria when he was told to allow weapons to pass from Turkey into the country to the FSA, a rival of Nusra. He let the weapons pass through which, if I understand correctly, were facilitated by Ahrar al-Sham. He figures out that the FSA, Nusra and Ahrar al Sham are all working together to attack ISIS. He confronts Nusra about this betrayal of ISIS and support of the FSA (He even mentions Joulani in here I think) and Nusra then tries to kill him. So he left Nusra and is now with ISIS. I think this is roughly what he is saying, but listen for yourself below.
As I always say jihadi wannabes, if you join an al Qaeda group, your more likely to be killed by your fellow al Qaeda members than the West.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been writing blog posts and articles with come collaborators. These Syria related posts tried to characterize the different jihadists groups in Syria and how we should look for new methods to combat them. My take: “All jihadists groups in Syria are not created equal”.
While the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq has gotten lots of press for their recent battles against other jihadists and for taking ground in Anbar, Iraq, I’m far more concerned about Jabhat al-Nusra whom I believe to be the smarter and more loyal al Qaeda affiliate to al Qaeda Central. More importantly, I believe Nusra will be the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, more than any other, to pursue external operations outside of Syria against the West and particularly the U.S. As I wrote three weeks back:
“As ISIS wanes, focus on al Nusra – ISIS warnings have filled the headlines recently. However, as seen by this past weekend’s battles, I’ve always thought that ISIS would bring about its own demise through its sectarianism and extreme violence. In my opinion, the West should be focusing on Jabhat al-Nusra. Led by Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, al-Nusra represents the smarter and stronger connected al Qaeda affiliate in Syria – a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” – open to a coalition and governance in the near-term, but likely set on dominating the country and instituting Sharia governance in the long-term. If Ayman al-Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central have any influence in Syria, its with al-Nusra. Nusra and ISIS fought each other on occasion in Syria and the ISIS push into Syria from Iraq sapped Nusra’s foreign fighter supplies. With ISIS in retreat, Nusra has pushed forward seizing ISIS strongpoints and reclaiming foreign fighters. The Daily Star reports:
“Another activist, Abdallah al-Sheikh, said that some Syrian ISIS fighters had stayed in place but switched allegiance to the Nusra Front. Nusra’s commanders are mostly Syrian rather than foreign and it coordinates with the Islamic Front, but both ISIS and Nusra have their roots in Al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
The West should focus now on non-military levers to undermine Nusra such as working vigorously to cutoff Persian Gulf donations to these groups and using information campaigns to communicate that Nusra and ISIS are both al Qaeda groups sharing the same vision for the future. “
Further evidence of Nusra’s dangerous intentions have come from the U.S. government itself this week and news reports from Lebanon. As for the former, see this report of U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper:
“The Syrian militant group tied to Al Qaida, the Al Nusra Front, wants to attack the United States and is training a growing cadre of fighters from Europe, the Mideast and even the US, the top US intelligence official told Congress on Wednesday…He said “Al Nusra Front, to name one … does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.”
For the latter, the latest reports from Lebanon suggest Nusra, much like its competitor ISIS, may be pushing its influence out of Syria.
“The group, named after the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, posted a warning to its Twitter account last week in which it said areas where Hizbullah operates are “legitimate targets”, AFP reported.
The message came three days after four people were killed by a car bombin Haret Hreik – Hizbullah’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburb. JAN in Lebanon claimed responsibility for the blast, saying it came in retaliation for what it described as Hizbullah’s crimes in Syria.”
I hope Western counterterrorism efforts are focusing on Nusra more than other al Qaeda affiliates in Syria. They are al Qaeda Central and Zawahiri’s thread in the Levant. If there is to be a reconstituted and strong global al Qaeda, Nusra is the vehicle for achieving this ascent.
Today, I had the great honor to publish an article with two people much smarter than I: Dr. Michael Doran and Dr. Will McCants of the Brookings Institution. Starting back last weekend, Twitter ignited based on a comment from Will about the need to restrain from designating Ahrar al-Sham, Syria’s most powerful militia in the Islamic Front, a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Since then, there’s been a flurry of discussion and in response the three of us teamed up to offer a counter-argument to the notion of designating every group with an al Qaeda link of one form or another a FTO.
In general, I’m a big fan of designating down to the smallest possible level every group that presents a clear threat to the United States via terrorism tactics. However, the case for Ahrar al-Sham, in my opinion, has not met that threshold yet – although its not unreasonable to believe that it will someday. What seems to be lost in hyper-political discussions about al Qaeda linkages are the dangers of designating a group an FTO too early – that it minimizes U.S. government counterterrorism options and can actually push groups into al Qaeda’s arms. Here is the introduction to the article “The Good and Bad of Ahrar al-Sham“which is available at this link at Foreign Affairs.
“In his recent interview with The New Yorker, U.S. President Barack Obama drew a striking comparison between the Los Angeles Lakers and al Qaeda. “[I]f a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms,” he said, “that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” Similarly, he went on to explain, there is a “distinction between the capacity and reach of [and Osama] bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”
Obama’s quip drew harsh criticism from many on the political right, which accused him of trivializing terrorism. “It’s a flippant, arrogant, and ignorant comment,” said Oliver North, the former United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel. Yet however politically attractive this argument might be, it is false on its face. As Obama hinted, it is a simple fact of life that not all terrorist organizations pose an equal threat to the United States and its allies.
This flap could not have been timelier. The al Qaeda of yesterday is gone. What is left is a collection of many different splinter organizations, some of which have their own — and profoundly local — agendas. The U.S. response to each should be, as Obama put it, “defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.””
Today, the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia provided me the platform to discuss something new I’m exploring; a potential shift in ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda targeting towards Israel. Yesterday brought the announcement of three al Qaeda operatives being interdicted as they developed plans to attack targets in Jerusalem. Here is the introduction to the article and see the full post and discussion points at this link.
“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.”
Yesterday, FPRI gave me the opportunity to write a post discussing the recent commotion in Syria. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) was attacked on many fronts over the past week, battling the Iraqi government in Fallujah and the Syrian Islamic Coalition, a group of Islamists & jihadists, in Syria. ISIS tactics and harsh implementation of Sharia law made their eventual demise a near certainty. But, I think there are several interesting aspects to this jihadists-on-jihadists violence in Syria. See the full article at FPRI and here is a short excerpt from the post.
“ISIS’s fall raises several points and questions about the future direction of jihadist groups.
- ISIS foreign fighters were killed by other Muslims including jihadists – For the second time in less than a year, al Qaeda members have been killed by other Muslims; likely including other al Qaeda members. Last year, internal fractures in al Shabaab in Somalia saw jihadists (al Qaeda members) killing each other (see here and here). This week, Islamists, Salafists and Jihadists took to killing each other in Syria. Foreign fighters enmeshed in these groups thought they were arriving in Syria to pursue a jihad fighting Asad. Instead they are killing fellow foreign fighters that may have come from their old neighborhoods. As I’ve noted in the past, jihadists are more likely to be killed by a fellow jihadist than the West.
- Temporary but important curb on foreign fighter flow to Syria – Social media discussion already signals that this infighting will have a negative effect on future foreign fighters. Foreign fighter recruits gaze on these recent events and wonder what group they should join or whether to go to Syria at all. I imagine foreign fighter flow to Syria might temporarily slow in the near-term which may undermine influence of jihadist groups in Syria. However, should the fight against Asad continue indefinitely and order emerges amongst Islamist & Jihadist groups, foreign fighter flow will likely resume again over the longer-term. As long as there is global demand to participate in the Syrian jihad, some group in Syria will ultimately help facilitate newcomers.
- Another stain on al Qaeda’s global brand, but does it matter? – News stories and opinion pieces about al Qaeda pave a winding, dramatic track. Al Qaeda is either near defeat or at its greatest height. Debates hinge on what different prognosticators define as “al Qaeda” with some seeing every Sunni militant group as part of an all-encompassing organization. Others pursue a more nuanced approach examining each group independently with al Qaeda connections representing one element of their analysis rather than the dominating factor.
For Ayman al-Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central based in Pakistan and co-led by Nasi al-Wuhayshi, leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, Syria’s infighting and the attacks on ISIS should signify another dark chapter in al Qaeda’s history. In the West, ISIS losses will likely be perceived as a pseudo victory against al Qaeda. But, Syria is complex and al Qaeda is no longer one thing. Off the top of my head, I can count almost a dozen different groups either named or connected to al Qaeda each sporting their own degree of loyalty to the brand. So will the current ISIS rebuffing truly impact “al Qaeda” globally? I would assume yes, but the effects will unevenly be felt by al Qaeda affiliates and “linked” groups. Today, jihadists groups have niche audiences and popular support based on country of origin, diaspora connections and relative success. A stain on “al Qaeda” won’t necessarily transcend negatively to an affiliate or regionally linked group. “