Al-Qaeda group reclaiming lethal role after ISIS retreat

'If Western policymakers continue on their current course… al-Qaeda will continue to advance along its path towards an emirate,' Charles Lister, a Gulf-based expert on jihadist groups.
Sunday 17/12/2017
A fighter with Kurdish Peshmerga forces watches over detained ISIS members in Iraq, last October

Beirut - Thirty years after al-Qae­da was founded during the Afghanistan war of 1979-89 to fight invading Soviet forces, the jihad­ist group refuses to give up its war against the West and its Arab cohorts. Now, after being eclipsed by its sav­age offspring, the Islamic State (ISIS), for the last three years, al-Qaeda is steadily reclaiming dominance of the global jihadisphere.

Amid the upheaval spreading across the greater Middle East and into South-east Asia and the heart of Africa, ISIS is in decline after losing the Islamic caliphate it proclaimed over large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014. Al-Qaeda’s resurgence at this time was largely expected by analysts who have observed the terror group exploiting the anarchy of the Middle Eastern bloodbath.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement in December to draw down his forces in Syria, while keep­ing the airbase and naval port they acquired since their September 30, 2015, intervention in Syria, should bolster the jihadists’ determination to establish control of parts of war-wracked Syria.

“The old order in the Middle East is, unmistakably, breaking down. It will never return,” said Nafeez Ahmad, an international security scholar whose knowledge of regional politics and international terrorism contributed to the US “9/11 Commission Report” in 2004.

“It’s not just Syria and Iraq who sit in the path of systemic state failure,” Ahmad warned. “The Gulf states are next in line.”

There is another possibility for al- Qaeda: The disappearance of ISIS’s caliphate in Syria and Iraq could lead to a merger of the jihadist move­ment’s two strongest forces with a dozen affiliates or wilayats (provinc­es) in the Arab world, Asia and Africa.

“Such a revival will likely hinge on the ability” of the jihadist groups “to take advantage of opportunities that emerge, such as the collapse of one or more Arab governments,” observed Seth G. Jones, director of the Inter­national Security and Defence Policy Centre at the RAND Corporation.

Other factors, outside of al-Qaeda’s ability to control, may work in its favour. “Another ‘Arab spring’ might allow al-Qaeda to strengthen,” Jones speculated in a RAND paper issued in August.

Another possibility is a US military build-up in Middle Eastern countries that would, in all likelihood, play into al-Qaeda’s hands.

The Americans’ counterterror strat­egy of overwhelming — and often in­discriminate — force has invariably driven the people the United States was supposed to be protecting into the arms of jihadist organisations.

The March 2003 invasion of Iraq — a large-scale military operation launched in part under false pretenc­es by the George W. Bush administra­tion — and the bungled 8-year occu­pation that followed, undoubtedly radicalised many Iraqis and pushed them towards the resistance.

The Americans and now the Rus­sians face an older and seemingly wiser enemy: a resurgent al-Qaeda that has exploited the critical revers­es suffered by ISIS and the repeated failures of US diplomatic and military strategy.

In this, the US withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011 was a turning point because it allowed ISIS to emerge as jihadist ideology flourished across the Middle East, fuelled by US atroci­ties at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad and other miscalculations.

Al-Qaeda’s resurgence has been underlined by an increase in US air strikes against the organisation over the last year and the tempo is likely to intensify now that ISIS has, for the most part, been removed from the battlefield.

One area that has seen a sharp rise in US and allied operations is Af­ghanistan, where al-Qaeda is helping to try to resurrect the Taliban’s state through its affiliate al-Qaeda in the In­dian Subcontinent (AQIS), underlin­ing the parent group’s growing focus on Asia.

That marks a full circle for al-Qae­da, as it was in Taliban-ruled Afghani­stan in the 1990s that it launched its first attacks against the West, includ­ing 9/11, after which the Americans ended Taliban rule.

AQIS, whose formation was announced by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in September 2014, said that reviving the Tali­ban state — the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — is one of al-Qaeda’s primary objectives, for which it is re­portedly training thousands of Tali­ban fighters.

That would restore a major new front in the war against terror just as the Americans and their allies cel­ebrate the expected demise of ISIS.

The US build-up in Afghanistan — America’s longest war, which began with a US invasion weeks after 9/11 — underlines how se­riously the Americans are taking the revival of the Taliban and their jihad­ist allies. They reportedly include for­mer ISIS fighters.

In recent weeks, the Afghan Na­tional Directorate of Security and its allies have pounded three Afghan provinces, reportedly killing sev­eral senior jihadist figures, including Oman Khetah, a deputy of AQIS com­mander Asim Umar.

In Syria, a powerful jihadist group known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is dominated by Jabhat Fateh al-Islam (JFI) and considered to be part of al-Qaeda’s coalition, con­trols Idlib province in the north-west. Idlib, which Syrian rebels have con­trolled since 2015, witnessed intense factional fighting between HTS and JFI in the summer, which culminated in HTS’s domination.

Russia claimed on October 4 it had critically wounded HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani in an air strike and that he had lost an arm. The Rus­sian Defence Ministry said 12 of his senior commanders were killed in the assault. Jolani, an ISIS crossover who is one of the most successful jihadist leaders in Syria, has a $10 million US bounty on his head. His condition re­mains unclear.

Despite its gains, HTS faces exter­nal and internal challenges to its rule in Idlib amid mounting tensions with rival groups and political inroads made by Russia, Iran and Turkey in the Astana peace process. HTS has been growing stronger in that region as it exploited intra-rebel discord and it appears to be seeking to establish a similar sustainable haven along the Syrian borders of Jordan and Israel by exploiting the US decision to cut back arms supplies to thousands of oppo­sition fighters in the region now that ISIS has been neutralised.

That’s a prime example of al-Qae­da’s tactic of turning its enemies’ mis­calculations to its advantage. The US cutback on support for non-jihadist groups is likely to embolden al-Qaeda further in the south.

From August 5-November 21, the Institute for the Study of War in Wash­ington determined that in 55% of the 42 attempted assassinations opposi­tion commanders, judges or govern­ment officials were killed — a chilling echo of HTS’s takeover in Idlib.

HTS, however, may find itself fac­ing a redoubled offensive by the Unit­ed States and its allies to eradicate jihadist enclaves in Syria, just as ISIS, its bete noire, did. The signs are that this is happening.

US intelligence has long insisted that al-Qaeda, its leadership hiding from US air strikes in the Pakistani badlands, has infiltrated hard-core veteran operatives into Syria to mas­termind terror attacks in Western Eu­rope and the United States.

“If Western policymakers con­tinue on their current course… al- Qaeda will continue to advance along its path towards an emirate,” said Charles Lister, a Gulf-based analyst who has spent years studying jihadist factions.

“Only by empowering local groups opposed to its transnational jihadi agenda can we avoid gifting north-western Syria to al-Qaeda on a silver platter,” he wrote in a 2016 assess­ment.