Despite the rise of IS, it remains a more dangerous opponent for the West
Before the Iraqi terror organization known as ISIS and IS came to the world’s attention, it had been fighting for almost a decade as a regional organization of Al Qaeda. From 2004 to 2006, it called itself “al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.” This caused some confusion in 2013 and 2014, when it became increasingly clear that not only did Al Qaeda and IS represent fundamentally different jihadist schools of thought, but when IS began openly to fight against al Qaeda and its allies in Syria.
But as early as 2004, the association with Al Qaeda could barely conceal the fact that this was a marriage of convenience. Iraqi Al Qaeda and its founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was never subordinate to Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, but rather pursued their own goals and strategies, for which they wanted to make use of recruits and cash from the Gulf region.
Al Qaeda on the other hand was going through a weak phase at the time, and the fealty of the Iraqis helped it to generate the impression that Al Qaeda was a network that spanned the globe. That the disputes emerging in 2005 did not lead to an immediate rupture was primarily to do with the fact that contact between Pakistan and Iraq was broken off and both organizations were fighting for their survival in the ensuing years.
It was only when both groupings supported the same local jihadists in the Syrian civil war that they came into renewed contact with each other. The conflict was overlaid with a battle for power and influence and as it progressed, it became apparent that ISIS/IS by no means viewed itself as part of Al Qaeda, but much more as an autonomous organization that was seeking to wrest control of the jihadist movement from Al Qaeda.
IS success in Iraq and Syria made the group so attractive that numerous jihadists declared their allegiance. Just as many regional organizations joined Al Qaeda after 2001, now IS groups have been forming in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and the Caucasus, among other places. In addition from early 2014, many volunteer fighters carried out attacks in the West in the name of IS. Many commentators believed this spelled the end for Al Qaeda.
Although Abu Musab al-Zarqawi publicly joined Al Qaeda in 2004, he never wholly submitted to Osama Bin Laden’s leadership. This was already evident in 2005, when Bin Laden’s deputy and later successor, the Egyptian Aiman al-Zawahiri, wrote a letter to Zarqawi sharply criticizing his approach. The Al Qaeda leadership was especially perturbed by the brutal attacks on Shiite targets that had become a hallmark of the Iraqi group. The execution of Western hostages – in filmed decapitations arranged by Zarqawi – was also criticized. Instead of creating a climate of horror and fear within the Muslim community with their acts of violence, said Zawahiri, Iraqi Al Qaeda should make efforts to win the support of the population.
But Zarqawi and his followers did not change their conduct. Shortly after the death of Zarqawi in June 2006, they even went a step further by proclaiming the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) and demanding that other Iraqi rebel groups fall into line with them. This also contradicted Al Qaeda strategy, which had relied on robust alliances with like-minded organizations – first and foremost with the Taliban – and which had succeeded in overcoming several problematic phases. Iraqi Al Qaeda formulated a leadership claim that endures to this day, but that resulted in a bitter defeat in Iraq. Faced with the new enemy within their own ranks, many rebels gave up the armed struggle and allied themselves with US troops, which moved quickly to force back ISI until it appeared to have been almost totally vanquished in 2008.
But ISI survived, as a small but very strong terrorist organization. It profited from the American withdrawal that began in 2009 and was completed in late 2011. But even more significant were the policies of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who used his extended powers to eradicate Sunnis from the nation’s political system. Late 2011 saw the start of a concerted campaign of persecution against Sunni politicians and many civilians detained without trial in their thousands. The Iraqi government lost all support in Sunni regions of the country, where ISI were increasingly able to recruit and operate without fear of recriminations.
The number of attacks and victims steadily increased from 2012; ISI gained in strength. It captured Fallujah in late 2013, followed by Mosul in June 2014, until large swathes of western and northwestern Iraq were under jihadi control.
The start of the civil war in neighboring Syria furthered this development, as ISI also celebrated successes there. The organization did not make any public appearances until April 2013, but instead supported an offshoot calling itself the Nusra Front (The Support Front for the People of Al-Sham). The group was founded by Syrian members of ISI and also copied the car bomb attacks of its Iraqi parent organization. But its strategy followed the guidelines of Al Qaeda. In contrast to ISI, it very pragmatically sought out allies among the Syrian rebels in pursuit of a common goal – the toppling of the Assad regime.
The events of April 2013 showed that the Nusra Front did indeed align itself with Al Qaeda. During the previous months, ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had tried in vain to bring the group into line. In April he announced that he was dissolving the Syrian organization and merging it, together with ISI, into a new group called the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS).
The formation of ISIS led to an open conflict between Baghdadi and Zawahiri. The Nusra Front sought help from the Al Qaeda leader who issued the prompt decree that the Nusra Front should continue to operate in Syria and ISI in Iraq – under the supreme command of Zawahiri. But Baghdadi refused to obey Zawahiri and a power struggle began in Syria that only came to a temporary halt in 2014 when ISIS/IS began fighting in the north and east, and the severely weakened Nusra Front in the northwest of the country.
Zawahiri threw ISIS out of the Al Qaeda network in early 2014, whereupon Baghdadi declared himself the Caliph of the Islamic State. This resulted in the creation of two enemy camps locked in a bitter duel.
It did indeed seem as though Al Qaeda had passed its zenith in 2014. Intensified persecution since 2001 had put the organization under huge pressure, and it was rarely able to carry out high-profile attacks on Western targets – the 2005 London attacks were the last in Europe for a long while.
In 2011, weak spots in the once powerful terror organizations became especially apparent: the jihadists played absolutely no part at all in the Arab revolutions, because they had never managed to garner broad popular support. At the same time, the ruthless US drone war in Pakistan was bearing fruit, ending the lives of most of Al Qaeda’s top brass. The killing of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 appeared to confirm this trend.
But by establishing regional organizations in the Arab world, Al Qaeda had since 2002 already been working on safeguarding its own survival independently of the fate of the leadership in Pakistan. Al Qaeda “branches” were set up in Saudi Arabia in 2003, in Iraq in 2004, Algeria in 2007 and Yemen in 2009. And while Iraqi Al Qaeda broke away in 2013 to become a rival and enemy, the Yemeni subsidiary not only turned out to be absolutely loyal to the Al Qaeda leadership, with which it maintained close contacts, but also assumed the role of a parent organization in the battle against the US.
In 2009 and 2010 it attempted to detonate bombs on transatlantic flights shortly before the planes landed in the US; the explosives were detected at the last minute during en route stopovers. Al Qaeda in Yemen eventually scored a major coup in January 2015: It had trained at least one of the two attackers who murdered journalists working at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. After 10 years, Al Qaeda had yet again carried out a successful attack on European soil.
IS triumphs in Iraq and Syria and the many attacks by sympathizers of the group in the West had almost managed to obscure Al Qaeda’s enduring strength. This strength will continue to endure. This is first and foremost due to the group’s strategy, which is more pragmatic. It is primarily focused on the battle with the West, which it aims to weaken in a protracted war of attrition.
Its long-term goal is also to establish an “Islamic state”, but it believes attempts to do this are hugely premature, because the West would today find it easy to destroy such a state. Its strategy is much more focused on meticulously planned, well conceived, high profile attacks such as the one carried out in Paris, aimed at provoking an overreaction from the West – or in other words: military interventions in the Muslim world where Al Qaeda is better placed to continue the battle. To increase its chances of success, Al Qaeda relies on allegiances with groups such as the Taliban and tries not to make too many enemies at the same time – which explains its opposition to IS anti-Shiite violence.
IS on the other hand perceives itself as being in a world full of enemies, who must either toe the line or be destroyed as “infidels”. This applies to the US, the West as a whole, the governments of the Arab world, the Jews, Christians, Shiites and even Sunnis who do not share their jihadist interpretation of Islam without reservation. IS supporters want to live in an “Islamic state” and have no concerns about deploying any kind of violence to stabilize this state.
IS could enjoy lasting success first and foremost because its jihadist approach is more appealing than that of Al Qaeda, as evidenced by the influx of foreign recruits and the support of many small groups in the Arab world and South Asia. But Al Qaeda’s strategy is by far the more promising, as it pays heed to its own weaknesses. A terrorist organization cannot take on half the world alone and hope for success in such an undertaking.
The differing strategies also impact upon the threat to Europe presented by both groups. Because IS is concentrated on the establishment of its “state,” it is first and foremost a danger to Iraq, Syria and its neighbors. Al Qaeda on the other hand continues to focus on major attacks in the Western world and has shown in Paris that it can succeed in carrying these out. It can be assumed that its Yemeni subsidiary is still planning attacks on transatlantic flights. This means that in the near future at least, it represents the most dangerous terrorist threat to Europe.
– Guido Steinberg is a Middle East expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
The German Times