Al-Qaeda and ISIS in expansive competition
LONDON - While Western media attention has been engrossed with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have been enjoying something of a renaissance, achieving notable successes away from the Western media glare.
The resulting picture is one of the robust expansion of a pathologically violent Sunni extremism that finds its most prominent expressions in al-Qaeda and ISIS but whose ideas are represented by a wider gamut of jihadi groups that many analysts believe have come to dominate in a number of theatres.
In Syria, a US-led air campaign against ISIS and the al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) has had little discernible impact on either. According to Aaron Zelin, an expert on jihadist movements and fellow at the Washington Institute think-tank, “overall US and Western policy (in Syria) over the last four years has been an absolute failure”.
US-led air strikes were instrumental in saving the Kurdish town of Kobani from the clutches of ISIS, but the city itself was destroyed in the fighting. The terror group, moreover, has largely compensated for territory lost in Iraq through gains in Syria, including in Damascus. Even in Iraq, the retaking of the city of Tikrit has not given the Iraqi government hoped-for momentum and ISIS has managed to launch surprise offensives in Ramadi and to the west of Baghdad.
“If you look at the battle of Tikrit, that took a month and without the US at the last minute pounding them with all these air strikes the Shia militias were having a more difficult time (defeating ISIS) than people thought or realised … Then in Syria they pretty much control the same amount of territory as they did last August when the air strikes started,” said Zelin.
Although they received less media attention, al-Qaeda’s affiliates in both Syria and Yemen made impressive gains in April. al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen seized control of Yemen’s fifth city, Mukalla, and is set to gain further from the chaos of that country’s civil war.
In Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra played a central role in the fall of Idlib and the border crossing of Nasib to forces fighting the brutal dictatorship of President Bashar Assad. Moreover, JN has proved adept at forging alliances with other factions, increasingly playing the role of vanguard to an ideologically Islamist opposition. After four years of warfare in which all sides have committed atrocities, the nature of the anti- Assad opposition has changed to a more extreme Islamist one that may be more sympathetic to the apocalyptic worldview of al-Qaeda.
“Things have changed so much on the ground and the strongest ones are these (Islamist) actors whether it’s Jabhat al-Nusra, whether it’s Ahrar al-Sham, whether it’s Jaysh al- Islam and they believe some pretty radical stuff,” said Zelin.
Many in the political wing of the Syrian opposition however are dismissive of the suggestion that JN is under the control of al-Qaeda in any meaningful sense, insisting that many Syrians fighting under the banner of JN have little interest in al-Qaeda’s ideological project.
“Any comparison between Jibhat al-Nusra in Syria and al-Qaeda in Yemen is completely false,” said an opposition activist close to the political maneuvering in Syria. “Those married to al-Qaeda’s ideological project are a minority, the majority joined for weapons and money and do not want impose al-Qaeda’s project on a moderate Syrian society.”
One area in which ISIS clearly has an edge is in mass media, presenting itself as an all-conquering force that recognises no other group as legitimate. al-Qaeda also pays attention to how it is perceived but has not been able to match its rival in terms of volume and quality of content.
“Islamic State has been able to sort of create a certain perception and try and dominate the news cycle as well as pushing the narratives and being able to be the ones that are defining themselves in a way is definitely helping them too,” Zelin said. “al-Qaeda has not. None of their branches have been on that level in that way.”
Nevertheless, al-Qaeda is a very different organisation to ISIS and its affiliates have not been so reliant on media as a platform for success. Notably, whereas ISIS has been successful in attracting thousands of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, the local al-Qaeda affiliate, JN, is dominated by local, Syrian recruits.
Similarly, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen, Zelin said, is “not just looking for the splashy news, they’re not just looking for all these videos being pushed out, they have more of a patient plan over time”.
Four major growth areas have opened up to jihadist groups since the collapse of many of the revolutions of the 2011 “Arab spring” into civil war: Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. According to Western analysts, ISIS and al-Qaeda are about even in terms of influence in Libya and Syria, with ISIS dominating in Iraq and al-Qaeda dominating in Yemen. Although al-Qaeda has received major blows in the Afghan- Pakistan border areas, the broader al-Qaeda-affiliated network has grown robustly. Across the board jihadist groups and their ideas are gaining traction.
In terms of Western counter-terrorism policy the developments of the past year have been catastrophic, with a pathologically violent anti-Western, anti-minority Sunni extremist supremacism finding its feet across swathes of the Middle East. “The general trajectory is not looking good and it is a major failure of foresight and leadership and actually policy imagination in many ways in the West for not being able to see this playing out,” Zelin concluded.