By Scott Stewart
On Tuesday, George Friedman laid out his net assessment of the Middle East. In it, he laid out the tectonic geopolitical forces at work in the region, including the shift from secularism to Islamism, and how this shift led to the radical form of Islamism as represented by the jihadist movement.
At the strategic, level, George is right about that shift. However, at the tactical level, I disagree with George's conclusions that al Qaeda is a spent force, that the Islamic State's brand of jihadism is the logical successor to al Qaeda, and that the Islamic State is the only strain of jihadism that will survive.
Perhaps I am at least partially responsible for George's assessment that al Qaeda is a spent force. I have been writing for years about how the al Qaeda core has struggled to remain relevant; even in my January 2015 net assessment of the al Qaeda core, I wrote that it was weak and threatened by the Islamic State.
However, I also wrote in January that the al Qaeda core's weakness and irrelevance were not necessarily permanent. We have seen jihadist groups rebound after experiencing substantial losses on the battlefield; the Islamic State is a prime example of this resilience. Because of this ability to regenerate, I wrote that if the intense pressure on al Qaeda was reduced, and if it were able to find some space in which to operate, the group could regain strength. This is exactly what has happened. The past six months have been very good for al Qaeda, and the group is in fact recovering strength. In addition, the vigorous internal and external efforts to brand al Qaeda as the "more moderate brand of jihadism," and therefore more politically acceptable than the Islamic State, will also help ensure it can receive more foreign support. These factors may help ensure that al Qaeda's ideology will outlast the Islamic State's version of jihadism.
Focus on Ideology
Ideologies are harder to kill than individuals and organizations. As we've seen in the past with an array of other radical ideologies, including Marxism and white supremacy, leaders and groups come and go, but ideology can outlive individual leaders and groups. That said, individual leaders can leave their imprint on an ideology, shaping it in a manner that outlives them. Josef Stalin and Leon Trotsky had very different ideas about Marxism and how to implement it, while the jihadism developed by the Islamic State and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi differs significantly from that of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. And as with the physical and ideological battles between Stalinists and Trotskyites, there are also battles between the Islamic State and al Qaeda jihadists.
Indeed, the Islamic State and al Qaeda are locked in active combat in places like Syria, Pakistan and increasingly, Libya. But beyond physical confrontations, the Islamic State has also attacked al Qaeda's ideology and operational philosophy. The Islamic State's more extreme form of jihadism poses a clear existential threat to al Qaeda's ability to retain its current adherents, recruit new members and solicit funds from wealthy donors. But this extremism is a double-edged sword in that it also serves to alienate many Muslims, and this alienation has constrained the Islamic State's ability to spread beyond its core areas.
Certainly, we have seen some militant groups pledge allegiance to the Islamic State and its self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but so far these groups have operated like al Qaeda franchises rather than true Islamic State provinces operating under a central authority. For example, Boko Haram has changed its name to Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi to reflect that it is an African wilayat, or province, of the Islamic State. But Abubakar Shekau still leads Boko Haram, and we have seen no evidence suggesting the Islamic State has been funneling money, fighters or weapons to the group.
Indeed, the Islamic State has prioritized drawing recruits from these other places to fight in Iraq and Syria rather than pushing fighters out in the other direction. The organization's primary concern is clearly the fight in Syria and Iraq to retain and consolidate control over the core of its self-proclaimed caliphate, and the remote wilayats are really little more than propaganda efforts in support of this primary effort.
While the Islamic State core has traditionally been close to the Libya's Wilayat Barqa, outside of that group, we have not seen evidence suggesting that the core group has close contact with — much less the ability to exercise centralized command and control over — wilayats outside Iraq and Syria. While Islamic State propaganda seeks to portray its wilayats as being centrally controlled, these claims ring hollow. The group's only evident coordination with many franchises has been at the public relations level.
Furthermore, while the emergence of new Islamic State franchises has garnered much attention, it is important to recognize that these groups have all emerged from existing jihadist groups, and that many of them — such as the franchises in Yemen, Pakistan and Algeria — remain overshadowed by the far more powerful al Qaeda franchise groups from which they split.
The past six months have been good to al Qaeda franchises in Syria and Yemen. First, the Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra has been successful in casting itself as a more moderate jihadist alternative to the Islamic State. After crushing the moderate Western-backed Syrian rebel group Harakat Hazm, Jabhat al-Nusra managed to forge a coalition of Islamist groups that conquered the Syrian city of Idlib. Yet despite its key role in the operation, Jabhat al-Nusra did not impose its brand of Sharia, but rather worked with allies to rule the city. The Jabhat al-Nusra led rebel coalition, Jaish al-Fatah, has continued to score victories against the regime. Despite an Islamic State offensive north of Aleppo (that the United States claims the Syrian government aided via airstrikes), the group has just succeeded in crushing a regime and pushing government forces out of nearly all of Idlib province. This victory solidifies its control over the province and gives Jabhat al-Nusra the latitude to continue its offensive in one (or more) of three directions: westward into Latakia, southward into Hama or eastward toward the ongoing battle of Aleppo.
Jabhat al-Nusra controls significant portions of Syria and the Syrian population, yet this control gets very little attention compared to that given to the Islamic State. For example, scant attention was paid to the conquest of Idlib, whereas the Islamic State's seizure of Palmyra garnered a great deal of media coverage.
As Jaish al-Fatah quietly continued to notch up battlefield successes, rumors began circulating that the leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra was considering breaking with al Qaeda to open up the way for more external support in its fight against the Syrian government. These rumors apparently started when contacts from Qatar began urging the group to "mainstream" so that Qatar could openly support it without violating international law. Despite these entreaties, Jabhat al-Nusra did not break with al Qaeda. Nevertheless, efforts to mainstream Jabhat al-Nusra continue, as do efforts to funnel support to the group via its partners.
Jabhat al-Nusra also scored a major media coup that has helped advance its mainstreaming when Al Jazeera aired a two-part special featuring a non-confrontational interview with Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani. (Al Jazeera is funded by Qatar's government, which is no coincidence given Qatari sympathies for the Syrian jihadist group.) Unlike Islamic State propaganda, which is self-produced and viewed mostly by Islamic State supporters, the Al Jazeera interviews of al-Golani had a similar format to television interviews of heads of state or important media celebrities, and they were broadcast globally. For the interview, al-Golani sat in a gilt chair in what appeared to be the governor's palace in Idlib city. This was a far cry from earlier media interviews of Osama bin Laden sitting in a cave or tent, and it gave al-Golani a tremendous air of respectability.
During the interview, Al-Golani made clear that he is still following orders from al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Jabhat al-Nusra is still al Qaeda in Syria, and individuals and countries that support Jabhat al-Nusra or its Jaish al-Fatah allies are supporting al Qaeda. Even so, some parties clearly see empowering al Qaeda as a better alternative to allowing either the Islamic State or the Syrian government to win in Syria.
Breathing Room on the Arabian Peninsula
Syria is not the only place were al Qaeda is seen as the lesser evil. The Saudi-led air campaign against the Houthi rebels and military and security forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen have taken a great deal of pressure off of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Saudi airstrikes have directly targeted what had been the two most effective anti-al Qaeda forces in Yemen: the Houthis and the U.S.-trained Special Security Forces.
In the midst of the chaos now wracking Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken over Hadramawt province. Its conquest has permitted it to seize large quantities of territory and cash, along with military equipment abandoned by government forces.
Like Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is ruling Hadramawt with a soft hand. It has established a subsidiary organization called the Sons of Hadramawt to rule the province, and it has not imposed the type of harsh Sharia that the Islamic State has imposed in areas it has conquered in Iraq and Syria. This is in keeping with the advice that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Nasir al-Wahayshi gave to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to refrain from excessive fundamentalist and brutal behavior in northern Mali.
Al Qaeda has also gained additional favor with conservative Yemeni tribal leaders by sending fighters to assist them in their battles against the forces of the Houthis and Saleh loyalists. In some of these battles, Saudi aircraft have provided close-air support for tribal and al Qaeda fighters. Moreover, the Saudis have not conducted any airstrikes against al Qaeda troop concentrations or the weapons stockpiles and heavy weapons systems the group has captured. And while the United States has conducted a few airstrikes against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula using unmanned aerial vehicles in Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province, these strikes have had no impact al Qaeda's control of the area. Delegations from the Sons of the Hadramawt have traveled to Riyadh to confer with the Saudis. The Saudis accordingly seem to see al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as part of the mainstream anti-Houthi resistance.
Outside of Syria and Yemen, al Qaeda also received a boost in mid-May when high-profile Sahel-based jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar denied that his faction of al-Mourabitoun had joined the Islamic State. In late May, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan issued a 60-page statement rejecting the Islamic State's caliphate and listing errors in al-Baghdadi's claim to be caliph. The statement also reaffirmed the Pakistani Taliban's relationship with al Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Afghan Taliban's Mullah Mohammad Omar. The move by the Pakistani Taliban is important, because it counters the pledge made by a small group of Pakistani Taliban leaders to al-Baghdadi in January and signals that the powerful Pakistani Taliban will not be defecting to the Islamic State en masse.
As George noted in his net assessment, the Islamic State is confined in a cauldron and is trapped between hostile forces. Despite its apocalyptic ideology, the leadership of the Islamic State core group is very worried about its survival, and it is pressing hard to publicize its gains while glossing over its losses. However, despite its propaganda hype, the group has suffered substantial losses of men, resources and territory over the past year. The fight to destroy them will take some time, but it will continue.
In the meantime, the al Qaeda leadership must be relieved that it is no longer the sole focus of the international anti-jihadist campaign. The support it will receive as part of the opposition in Syria and Yemen will help ensure that al Qaeda does not totally fade away. In fact, given these circumstances, it is entirely possible that al Qaeda could outlast the Islamic State and remain the dominant strain of global jihadism.