Mapping Key Drivers of ISIS Success

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.

Key Drivers of ISIS

Three Videos for Countering ISIS

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.

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 7.35.50 AM Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 9.26.27 PM

American Foreign Fighter Details How al Qaeda’s Nusra Betrayed Him In Syria

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.

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 8.56.50 PM

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.


In Syria: Focus on Jabhat al-Nusra First, ISIS Second

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.

Don’t Designate Ahrar al-Sham in Syria an FTO – At least not yet!

Today, I had the great honor to publish an article with two people much smarter than I: Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 4.23.44 PMDr. 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.””


Has ‘Old Guard’ Al Qaeda Shifted Their Targeting Focus?

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.”

FPRI Post on ISIS in Syria being attacked by Islamists & Jihadists

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. “

Recent War On The Rocks Discussion on Counterterrorism, Syria & Drones in 2014

Just before I took a holiday break, I got the chance to sit down for a chat with Will McCants, J.M. Berger and Ryan Evans in a segment of the War On The Rocks podcast.  Ryan moderated a fun discussion and it is available here at War On The Rocks.  I wish Ryan had recorded our second hour of discussion as well as the first since I think everyone got more fired up as the debate ensued.

For highlights, check out J.M. and Will’s discussion on Omar Hammami’s relevance and engagement.  Will lays down some knowledge on Syria and the Middle East noting that Syria will be for the non-interventionists what Iraq was for the interventionists.  J.M. explains terrorists use of social media which is always an enlightening discussion for me.  At minute 22:00, I get on a drones rant which I’m sure will fill my inbox with hate email and has led to a series of discussions I’ll wrap up in a separate post. Take a listen if you have the time.

War On The Rocks

Video Broadcast of the FPRI Foreign Fighters in Syria Panel

Last week, the Foreign Policy Research Institute hosted a panel entitled “Foreign Fighters in Syria and Beyond”.  I had the honor of sitting on the panel with @will_mccants and @barakmendelsohn.  The discussion was quite good and I felt the questions and commentary spanned many of the key contentious points we currently face in counterterrorism.  You will also note that I get quite feisty about the lack of U.S. detention policy; something I’ve droned on about at this blog on several occasions.

You can listen to the full broadcast at this link.  And if you are wondering about the Antelope vs. Lion vs. Crocodile YouTube video I reference in my talk, I’ve posted it down below.  This is what I think Syria is like right now for foreign fighters – confusing, violent and chaotic.

Foreign Fighters in Syria panel

Foreign Fighters in Syria panel

FPRI Post – Zawahiri’s Latest Message: Please Listen To Me!

Today, I posted my latest thoughts at FPRI on Ayman al-Zawahiri’s public guidelines for all jihadis.  In my discussion, I talk about the agency problems Zawahiri appears to be having with his affiliates; most notably al-Badgdadi of al Qaeda in Iraq/ISI/ISIS or whatever they are calling themselves this week.  Syria has for some time been the great hope for al Qaeda to be resurgent.  Yet, al Qaeda globally seems to be in a fight for control over this jihadi prize.  Here’s a snippet from the article and you can read the entire post at this link.

First, let’s explore why Zawahiri would issue public rather than private guidance to the global jihadi community. Normally, al Qaeda might broadcast strategic vision publicly, but reserve directives and corrective guidance via secure communications.  The most famous intercept of these private communications comes from Zawahiri’s 2006 scolding of abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi for counterproductive violence against Shia in Iraq.  In addition, the Harmony documents provide countless other examples of al Qaeda’s internal directives and squabbles.  More recently some private communications to jihadi groups in Syria have allegedly surfaced showing dissatisfaction between Zawahiri and al Qaeda in Iraq’s emir abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  Al Qaeda, like most any terrorist organization, normally delivers these messages in private for several reasons:

  1. Airing internal squabbles publicly hurts the organization’s popular support and certain leader’s authority,
  2. Public messaging can reveal strategy and orders to adversaries (counterterrorists) enabling their efforts to defeat the terrorist organization, and
  3. Such messaging can, at times, severely reduce the security and success of al Qaeda affiliates.

In short, this message went public because Zawahiri’s guidance isn’t being followed. Al Qaeda Central messages and directives either can’t get to affiliates or they are being ignored.  Both scenarios are problematic for the terror group.