The Islamic State group and al Qaeda, long rivals for supremacy in the jihadi struggle, are feeling more pressure to combine as the Islamic State loses its territorial base in Syria and Iraq and the still-potent terrorist network founded by Osama bin Laden prepares to welcome legions of foreign fighters fleeing the advancing U.S.-backed coalition, analysts and officials in the region say.
“The discussion [on combining forces] has started now,” Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi warned this month in an interview with the Reuters news agency.
Born out of al Qaeda’s Iraqi faction that battled U.S. and coalition forces during the bloody years of the American combat mission, the jihadis famously broke with the Pakistani-based terrorist group in 2012 to form the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Two years later, the group would declare a “caliphate,” rename itself the Islamic State and rule a wide swath of the Middle East stretching from its self-styled capital of Raqqa, Syria, to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
But with its fighters near defeat in Mosul and U.S.-led coalition forces preparing for the final assault on Raqqa, the Islamic State is poised to go underground and revert to a classic guerrilla force, analysts say. That opens an avenue for re-establishing links with al Qaeda, which has focused on developing a global network of terrorist “franchises” rather than seeking to control and administer its own territorial state.
The Islamic State group briefly did what al Qaeda couldn’t do in seizing and holding ungoverned space for a “caliphate,” said one U.S. official who spoke anonymously with The Washington Times. That development helped draw thousands of foreign fighter recruits who likely would have been rejected by al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda “always wanted these immaculate recruits, while ISIS wanted to take anybody willing to join,” the official said. “But now we have this next generation of foreign fighter jihadists who have been trained on the ISIS battlefield.”
The flow of battle-hardened jihadis fleeing the black banners of the Islamic State in the face of the coalition onslaught in Syria and Iraq, seeking to rejoin their brothers in arms in al Qaeda, is already underway, a top national security analyst said.
“We have a dispersed ISIS and a still-potent al Qaeda network to reckon with, and we may even see something of a reconciliation between the two groups,” said Thomas Sanderson, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
However, al Qaeda is not the only extremist group that will benefit from the pool of recruits built by the Islamic State, said Richard Burchill, director of research and engagement at Trends Research and Advisory, an Abu Dhabi-based think tank.
“Various jihadist insurgency groups and terrorists will be able to benefit from the defeat of Daesh as they can continue to recruit to the cause through the politicization of religion,” said Mr. Burchill, using the Arabic name for the group. “Unfortunately, due to the ideas of political Islam being pursued, there is a wide audience for extremism and many groups looking to exploit individuals.”
Discussions about an alliance have already begun between Islamic State chieftain Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden’s successor, via envoys and messengers from the terrorist groups, Iraq’s Mr. Allawi said.
“I can’t see ISIS disappearing into thin air. They will remain covertly in sleeping cells, spreading their venom all over the world,” likely with weapons, funding and support from al Qaeda’s network, he said.
Al-Baghdadi remains in hiding within the Islamic State group’s territory in Syria after reportedly fleeing Raqqa in March. Meanwhile, al-Zawahri reportedly remains in hiding along the Afghan-Pakistani border and has just released an audiotape to followers.
Al-Zawahri did not directly refer to the Islamic State in his remarks, but urged fighters in Syria to “prepare yourselves for a long battle with the crusaders and their allies the Shiites and Alawites,” a reference to the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad and his ally Iran.
The divisions between al Qaeda and the Islamic State over strategy and tactics have played out on the ground in conflicts far beyond Syria. Rival Islamic State and al Qaeda factions operate in Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh. In Somalia, the jihadi al-Shabab group is divided into camps pledging allegiance to either al-Baghdadi or al-Zawahri.
Aside from disputes over the value of holding territory, the Islamic State and al Qaeda show clear differences on tactical details. Islamic State operatives are typically prepared to inflict far more civilian casualties in their terrorist strikes than is al Qaeda.
Despite the contentious public splintering of al Qaeda and its Iraqi faction in 2012, signs of reconciliation began to emerge in the wake of the Islamic State’s spectacular victories in Iraq and Syria.
CIA Director John O. Brennan said in 2015 that while there was significant competition between the Islamic State and “core al Qaeda” under al-Zawahri’s control, he was not surprised by a call for unity by al-Zawahri because “an emphasis of al Qaeda throughout the course of its history has been that Muslims — they call themselves Muslims — should unite as part of what they see as a holy jihad.”
“That call for unity has always been part of al Qaeda’s mantra,” Mr. Brennan said. “I think they point to al-Baghdadi and [the Islamic State] as being almost an aberration and as not being, in fact, true to the cause.
“What [al-Zawahri], I think, is saying is that there needs to be the unification of these efforts under the rightful sort of banner of al Qaeda,” Mr. Brennan said.
His 2015 comments suggested that the CIA’s view is that once the charismatic al-Baghdadi is ultimately killed by a U.S. or allied airstrike, al Qaeda will swoop in and claim the loyalty of tens of thousands of foreign fighters and other young jihadis who have flocked to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State.
But as the end draws near for the Islamic State’s physical caliphate in the Middle East, one of the big questions is whether al Qaeda’s old-guard leaders — including al-Zawahri — are poised to draw in and rebrand Islamic State recruits as global al Qaeda operatives.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about the way forward and the extent to which al Qaeda and its affiliates will become a magnet for these former ISIS guys who’ve managed to slip away and go back home,” said another U.S. official, speaking on background. “But it really remains an open question how and whether core al Qaeda could benefit once ISIS leadership and [the] caliphate are taken out.”
Killing the ideology
All sides in the debate agree that the expected defeat of the Islamic State on the battlefield — perhaps by the end of the year — won’t end the larger war.
“The defeat of [the Islamic State] on the battlefield will not bring a decline in terrorists and fighters,” said Trends Research and Advisory President Ahmed Al-Hamli.
Distorted understandings given to Islam by extremist ideologues in al Qaeda and the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood continue to inspire violent movements in the name of religion, he said in an interview. “They are defined by the idea of ruling in the name of God, and this dangerous ideology will continue to be a threat,” he said.
But killing an ideology is not as simple as carrying out a drone strike or night raid, as Pentagon and the intelligence community have discovered. The Defense Department last year launched a secretive cybercampaign to dismantle the Islamic State’s vast online recruiting network.
Touting the use of cyberbombs, then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter heralded such efforts as invaluable to breaking the group’s ideological aura online, which had drawn thousands of young jihadis to the cause. But attacks continued, further frustrating the Obama administration.
What has made the Islamic State so dangerous is that it is often the ideology alone that ties the group’s terrorist cells and operatives worldwide, a top U.S. counterterrorism official said.
While al Qaeda has planted individual operatives inside the U.S. to plan, coordinate and launch attacks, those sleeper cells maintained ties to the group’s chain of command that U.S. and allied intelligence agencies could exploit, said Army Lt. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, head of strategic operational planning at the National Counterterrorism Center.
The lack of such linkages, especially by “lone wolf” attackers and returning veterans of the Islamic State wars in Iraq and Syria, means that the potential recruiting pool of foreign fighters threatening the U.S. and the West is staggering.
“A lot of what comes out of ISIS is just, ‘Go where you can and kill who you can,’” Gen. Nagata said. “There’s an inherent danger to this, because their use of foreign fighters [is] more unpredictable.
“Even though they acted to save their skin by fleeing Iraq and Syria, there’s still a latent desire to wreak havoc. And they’ll find an outlet for that.”
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