ISIS Rise After al Qaeda’s House of Cards – Part 4 at FPRI

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.

Figure 4 alternate

  • 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.

Figure 5 scenario 1

  • 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.

Figure 7 scenario 3



  1. Clint:
    This is outstanding analysis that is innovative and pioneering. It is commentary unencumbered by political correctness that contaminates much of the academic world’s approach to the study of terrorism. I think the ISIS/ISIL is a radical challenge to Al Qaeda leadership and is part of Zarqawi’s enduring and frankly unappreciated legacy.

    Al Qaeda’s central problem is that its far enemy strategy is very much of an anomaly in the jihadi world and it is quite difficult to maintain given that Zawahiri has put so much emphasis on the Syrian jihad. By doing so he has reversed his opposition to sectarian approaches so memorably contained in his 2005 letter to Zarqawi. He has done so out of desperation.

    I have to say that in my opinion that ISIS/ISIL network is likely to have the same fate as the Algerian GIA given the number of enemies it has created. It is an elitist organization committed to takfiri violence that simultaneously rallies opponents and sponsors internal fractures leading inexorably to defeat. Like Hama decades ago for the Muslim Brotherhood, Syria is likely to end as an Al Qaeda grave yard.

    I do not see them capable of achieving any long-term gains
    The Islamist insurgency underway in Syria is likely if current trends persist to implode given the number of enemies (both external and internal) it has created. This will take many years given the sectarian passions underway. The Syrian civil war truth be told enhances Western security interests in the short term given that it pits traditional opponents of the U.S. against each other.

  2. Tony,

    Again thanks for reading and I appreciate the feedback. I think Zawahiri is reversing his position on sectarian issues because its the only way he can maintain influence. For folks on the ground fighting in Syria, there is no way to ignore the Sunni-shia battle unfolding. So Zawahiri has to take notice and adapt.

    As for ISIS, while I do worry about their growth, I also tend to believe that ISIS worst enemy is ISIS, like you said. I think they will ultimately hurt themselves badly with their tactics.

    • Clint:
      This is quite true! Thomas Hegghammer wrote an important article a number of years ago that you may be familiar with for the Hudson Institute series Current Trends in Islamist Ideology that speaks to chronic fissures in the jihadi movement very close to the lines that you are exploring. Just read a article by Nibras Kazimi available on on Syria dated a year before the Arab Spring where he presciently predicted that Syria because of its historical significance in Islamic history and infrastructure of support created by AQI would be the next jihadist battlefield. This is very much out of line with the conventional wisdom of the time that Assad’s regime was impregnable Kazimi also wrote an essay for the Hudson Institute series a few years after Zarqawi’s death about AQI and its fixation on a Iraqi caliphate that I think nicely captures ISIS’s strategy and grandiose ideological pretensions..
      Keep up the tremendous work. This is one of the best efforts I have seen to illuminate from a realist perspective the chronic failure of an AQ movement that is paradoxically resilient. This speaks volumes about the transcendence of millenarian ideological impulses.

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