Analysis and comments
ON THE POSSIBILITY OF MERGING AND SCENARIOS FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF AL-QAEDA AND THE «ISLAMIC STATE»
The hypothetical scenario of the merger of the two most important and claiming world domination Islamist-jihadist organizations Al-Qaeda and the “Islamic State” (both banned in the Russian Federation) is rarely discussed among extremism researchers. In this regard, an article by a lecturer at the Federal University of Applied Sciences (Lübeck, Germany) Dr. Christian Herrmann poses particular interest. He emphasizes that such a scenario will be very important, since it will significantly aggravate the dangerous situation for Western countries.
Taking into account that both extremist structures have much in common, the expert finds it surprising that the merger has not yet taken place, even if there is little evidence for this at the moment. The author tries to understand whether there are arguments for or against the merger of the “Islamic State” (IS) and Al-Qaeda and offers his own forecast for the development of these organizations.
General Comparison of Al-Qaeda and IS
Al Qaeda and IS are fighting for global influence among the adherents of the jihadist ideology. Founded by Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda strives to establish an Islamist regime in countries with a Muslim majority and, based on this, achieve global expansion. It calls its opponents “an external enemy”, which includes the states of the collective West, especially the United States and Israel, and an “internal enemy”, which are the so-called non-Islamic governments of the Middle East and North Africa. At the same time, Al-Qaeda is perceived as the vanguard of the international jihadist movement. Its worldwide network of regional organizations and undercover support structures still exist. However, Al-Qaeda was unable to strengthen its influence in jihadist circles. Its detailed propagandists-theologians seem unable to recruit new followers. Al-Qaeda's basic tactics remain the same – attacks that are hard to carry out, but that are highly media-effective. Besides, individual fighters or groups are called upon to commit acts of terrorism without prior consultation and formal interaction with the parent organization.
The Islamic State played a central role in the Syrian civil war in 2013 and took over areas in northern Iraq in 2014. The IS leader of that period, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed the caliphate on June 29, 2014. After the air strikes by the US-led international coalition on IS started, al-Baghdadi called for retaliatory attacks in the West. Numerous terrorist attacks have been carried out on behalf of IS in Europe, including Germany.
According to the publication, after the fall of the Syrian city of Al-Baguz in March 2019, IS lost territory in the key Syrian-Iraqi zone, and the caliphate ceased to exist. The death of al-Baghdadi and IS spokesman Abul-Hasan al-Muhajir in October 2019 is considered a symbolic defeat of the terrorist organization. However, as soon as on October 31, 2019, the new official IS spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurashi in an audio message announced a successor under the pseudonym Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi as the new caliph of IS. Presumably, this is the Turkoman Amir Muhammad Sa'id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla.
Since then, IS has established itself underground in Syria and Iraq and has a worldwide network of factions that are likely to continue the fight under the leadership of al-Baghdadi's successor. At the end of 2020, under the new caliph al-Qurashi, IS remained weakened, but it could still operate, at least at the regional level. In both Islamic countries and the West, the terrorist threat that should not be underestimated continues to emanate from individual criminals and IS-inspired groups. In the Sunni parts of Iraq and Syria, al-Qurashi completed the transformation of IS from a state structure into a network.
By contrast, the strategic situation for al-Qaeda is darker. It has not-so-charismatic leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri, who show a low level of proficiency in public relations (social media). In general, the group was not successful in attacks outside the Middle East for a long time.
Nevertheless, the expert notes that for some time, due to military defeats, both organizations have a strong need for success. In the eyes of their supporters, they again have to prove their legitimacy with sensational acts of terrorism. The death of al-Baghdadi has greatly increased this need, especially for IS. Thus, the unification of forces (for example, in the areas of training followers and logistics) would have a certain operational sense. From a propaganda point of view, it could be relatively easily described as “reconciliation and reunification.” Therefore, there is no reason to completely reject such a possibility.
Both organizations seek to create a global caliphate: both al-Qaeda and IS have a clear claim to world domination, which sets them apart from other Islamist terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, whose agendas are mostly regional. Since al-Qaeda and IS have always claimed the leading role in the “Islamist resistance,” relationships between them and other groups have been and remain tense.
Thus, an Afghan branch of IS entered into fierce battles with the Taliban and suffered significant losses. The Taliban are demanding explicit subordination from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Sunni Palestinian movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip also opposes IS and Al-Qaeda.
Both organizations belong to the Sunni branch of Islam (Wahhabism). Given that 80% of Muslims are Sunnis, this is significant. On the other hand, one should not be mistaken and misinterpret this fact, believing that the representatives of the Sunni direction of Islam monolithically support the two groups. Rather, local political, ethnic and social and cultural conditions play a much more important role. For example, the Sunni tribes sided with the American forces as part of the Awakening Campaign and expelled the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda from their territories, for which IS then retaliated against the tribes with mass killings.
The two organizations are united by their extreme position in relation to the Shia. But it also led to the gap between them. IS originated from the al-Qaeda branch in Iraq, located at the center of the Sunni-Shia fault line. It has succeeded in igniting the Iraqi civil war through targeted attacks on the Shiasand is convinced of success in the long term. According to the expert, it is impossible to expect a deviation from the tough position directed against the Shia, whom, according to some statements, IS has yet to face before fighting Jews and Christians.
By contrast, al-Qaeda leaders have tried to moderately influence their Iraqi branch, but to no avail. The researcher calls the al-Qaeda approach “jihadist ecumenism.” From the point of view of security policy, it is more dangerous, but it allowed the leaders of al-Qaeda to find temporary refuge in Shiite Iran.
The strategic objectives of the groups also differ significantly. Al-Qaeda initially sought to expel the distant enemy, primarily the United States, from the central region of the Middle East, in order to subsequently create an Islamist caliphate, which in the long term should spread to the whole world. IS turned out to be more pragmatic: it prioritized the creation of a caliphate. In future, the caliphate should expand in the region, and then around the world.
Presently, both strategic approaches should be seen as failing. However, the leaders of the groups should not be expected to recognize this. Rather, they will stick to their approaches more persuasively in order to avoid losing motivation among their supporters in the long run.
Their social structures are also different. Al-Qaeda uses a long-term recruitment strategy that primarily focuses on members of the middle class; those who attacked New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, were mostly college educated. IS, which has arisen in dungeons, is less selective. For them, it is preferable that recruits have a criminal record and have served a sentence. As an example, the expert cites the rapist and petty criminal Anis Amri, who committed a terrorist attack Breitscheidplatz square in Berlin. Even if al-Qaeda is increasingly resorting to people from this range, for example in the 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper office in Paris, nevertheless, its expectations regarding the ideological beliefs of a potential candidate are higher, while IS is accused of populism.
Based on the similarities and differences between al-Qaeda and IS, the researcher suggests that in the foreseeable future, their merger is out of question. From a security policy point of view, this should be welcomed as the quality and number of attacks is likely to decrease. However, the question arises about the future of bilateral relations between these groups. Possible scenarios for the further development of both organizations are as follows:
Status quo: both organizations continue to exist in parallel. In this scenario, al-Qaeda remains strategically weakened, and only capable of carrying out attacks in the Middle East. IS, on the other hand, maintains a worldwide network structure and develops it primarily in the Middle East. According to the expert, from the point of view of security policy, this would be the most desirable option for the West.
Converting Al Qaeda into a militia with regional state territories. This process was seen in Mali, Somalia, Syria, but especially during the civil war in Yemen. Al-Qaeda units occupy large areas and establish Islamist rule there. Al-Qaeda is definitely more skillful than IS because they take into account local tribal relations and also to some extent integrate them into the established governing structure. Thus, Al-Qaeda, along with a territorial power base, can gain greater legitimacy among the local population, and in the medium term, establish an operational foothold for larger terrorist attacks. The weak point of this scenario for the group is its greater vulnerability to military operations of regular armies (air strikes and attacks by combined arms units).
A good example is the Tanzim Hurras al-Din, an association of several groups and individuals close to al-Qaeda in the northern Syrian province of Idlib. The proclaimed goal is to “liberate” Syria from the Assad government and create an Islamist state. Currently, it is promoting the development and strengthening of its own structures, as well as an increase in the number of militants through their recruitment on the ground from other groups. In the future, the jihadist component in the young organization may acquire more and more importance due to its ideological proximity to al-Qaeda.
Separation of the regional groups of IS and Al-Qaeda from the parent structures and turning them into independent ones, claiming succession. For example, Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), originally associated with al-Qaeda, seeks to create an Islamist state in “Greater Syria”. Regionally, the group is currently concentrated in north-western Syria, around Aleppo and Idlib province. Since 2017, HTS has increasingly moved away from Al-Qaeda. It strives to be considered an independent entity in Syria, without any visible influence from al-Qaeda. The group exercises control in the area it occupies through structures that are formally independent, but in fact subordinate to the HTS. In the struggle for control over the occupied territory in 2019-20, there were repeated clashes between HTS and other Islamism supporters.
From the point of view of security policy, disintegration according to this scenario is considered by the analyst to be the most unpredictable and risky event for the West. Now it seems most likely, since the leaders of both organizations have long lost control over their numerous cells.
Thus, the author in his work showed three scenarios for the evolution of the global terrorist organizations “Al-Qaeda” and IS. It is obvious that the proposed scenarios are highly probable. On the other hand, although being an expert in the field of security policy, the researcher does not offer any options to prevent terrorist activity, which may indicate a crisis in the concept of combating terrorism in the Western expert community.