- Analysis shows ISIS is regrouping as more of a guerrilla warfare unit
- Al-Qaeda is resurgent but with a different strategy
- Both movements compete by carrying out attacks in the West `
ISIS is regrouping with a new strategy following the defeat of the physical Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, an August analysis shows. And al-Qaeda has not gone away – in fact, the terror group is “bouncing back” but following a different path than ISIS. They are competing with each other for leadership of the Islamic extremist movement, and the battleground might well be here in the West.
These are some of the conclusions reached by Dr. Asaad Almohammad, a senior research fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, who specializes in using primary sources, in a report for the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague. In particular, he has studied the leading databases of jihadist activity, including the widely used Global Terrorism Database, and has examined the groups’ rhetoric and their own strategic publications.
The international Islamic extremist movement is dominated by ISIS and al-Qaeda, both organizations with global reach. There are also many other regional and national groups who compete, cooperate, merge and fight in the various theaters around the world.
They share the basic objective of establishing a state for the Ummah – the pious Muslim community – based on their strict Islamic principles, using offensive jihad as the method.
There have always been differences in their approach – ISIS initially moved decisively to establish a Caliphate under its direct rule. Al-Qaeda favored the more gradualist approach and made extensive use of local front organizations, such as al-Nusra in Syria and the ruthless al-Shabaab in Somalia. The strings of smaller jihadi movements were focused on their own areas of operation and effectively pursuing a strategy of localization.
In recent years ISIS seemed to totally eclipse al-Qaeda. Their surge in Iraq and Syria seemed unstoppable. But setback and defeat came, Almohammad noted, and he believes now that the organization is focused on survival and reverting to its guerrilla origins. The focus will be on attacking the near enemy – Islamic governments in the Middle East who they feel oppose the purity of their ideology – with only occasional attacks against the far enemy, aka the West, necessary to maintain its profile versus al-Qaeda. They will avoid attacks on fellow jihadis.
Al-Qaeda would naturally favor the gradualist approach and the focus on the near enemy and using spectacular terrorist attacks against the far enemy to drive recruitment and build its own image.
“Central to AQ’s incremental approach is winning the hearts and minds of local populations, in part through establishing alliances with local rebels and tribes as well as establishing sharia courts to influence the social and ideological discourse of populations it seeks to control,” Almohammad wrote. “The group views these undertakings as preconditions to establishing a viable state for the Ummah. AQ contends that IS’s failure to account for these factors short-circuited its expansive state-building efforts.”
What should we expect going forward? Almohammad believes that ISIS can no longer pursue expansion in the short term. Instead, it is focusing on a combination of guided or directed attacks against the West, to maintain its status within the Salafi-Jihadi Movement, combined with local attack operations to polarize communities and bring marginalized elements into its movement. As far as al-Qaeda goes, it is refocusing on local theaters and winning hearts and minds of local populations. But it has a reputation for attacking Muslim targets and al-Shabaab plays a large part in this, which does not help its aim.
Significantly for the West, the report notes that the continuing competition between al-Qaeda and ISIS may lead to more terrorist action on the global stage.
“With AQ bouncing back and IS’s possible desire to maintain its comparative advantage on the global stage, a scenario in which both players try to outbid and outperform each other on this front should not be dismissed,” Almohammad wrote.
Both al-Qaeda and ISIS have the capacity and strategic motivation not only to cause local revolution, but to pursue attacks in the West. Their ultimate objectives have not changed, and competition between them drives them to maintain the fight.