ISIS and al-Qaeda battle for soul of jihadism
Beirut - When the Islamic State (ISIS) stormed onto the world stage in 2013 in a savage, lightning offensive that conquered large areas of Iraq and Syria, proclaiming a new Islamic caliphate, it swiftly overshadowed its parent organisation, al- Qaeda, and assumed the mantle of leader of radical Islam and won the allegiance of jihadist groups from Morocco to Indonesia.
In doing so, it caused a fratricidal split within the jihadist movement that was widely seen as the death knell of al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda, still grappling with the assassination of Osama bin Laden by US special forces in Pakistan in May 2011, lost ground across the Middle East and North Africa as ISIS embarked on a dazzling military and propaganda campaign meticulously planned by its leader, a small-time Iraqi cleric who called himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and a group of Saddam Hussein’s former intelligence and military commanders.
The caliphate Baghdadi declared in June 2014 was part of a narrative of restoring Islam’s glory days, when Muslim conquests stretched from Spain to the borders of India and China, and a claim of dominion over the jihadist movement founded by bin Laden, demanding every jihadist pledge allegiance to it or face death.
Even his choice of name was intended to evoke those days of might: Abu Bakr was the first caliph to rule the Muslim world following the death of the Prophet Mohammad in 632AD.
Two years on, the latter-day caliphate runs from Raqqa, its de facto capital in north-eastern Syria, to Mosul in northern Iraq, a territory the size of Britain with a population of about 9 million. ISIS has since suffered one setback after another at the hands of forces in both countries backed by Russia, Iran, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Al-Qaeda, having restructured to combat ISIS, is showing signs of winning back adherents who defected to the all-conquering upstarts, helped by strategic US blunders in a resurgence of operations intended to restore the primacy of the jihadist trailblazers who carried out the world’s most spectacular terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001.
This emerging rivalry has been triggered in part by a series of terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda affiliates, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the staunchest and most tenacious of the groups that stayed loyal to the parent organisation.
North Africa and the Sahel form one of the centres of this ideological struggle and currently it is centred on Libya, where ISIS is steadily building power in a possible effort to establish a new headquarters there if it is driven out of Syria and Iraq.
Already both groups are increasingly moving south into the heart of Africa, a continent torn by tribal rifts and poised on the cusp of an economic boom built on newly discovered oil and gas resources.
“Both organisations want to claim North, and increasingly Western, Africa as their own sphere of influence,” observed Jason Burke, an expert on jihadist terrorism and author of The New Threat: The Past, Present and Future of Islamic Militancy.
“There is much else fuelling Islamist violence in the broad belt from Nigeria to Somalia, of course; flows of weaponry from Libya and elsewhere, uncontrolled criminality, huge lucrative drug and people trafficking networks, as well as demographics and desertification.
“And there is, of course, the new energy surging through the global extremist movement following the emergence of ISIS as a major force in 2014. This wave of violence looks set to intensify in the months, possibly years, ahead — both in Africa and further afield.”
One of the consequences of the savage ISIS war and its brutal propaganda is that al-Qaeda has come to be perceived as more moderate than its apocalyptic offspring with its videotaped beheadings, crucifixions, burnings and stonings.
This is not necessarily the case. The carnage of 9/11 is testimony to that. But al-Qaeda has a more pragmatic strategic vision that is aimed primarily at those considered Islam’s enemies, not other Muslims, regardless of sect.
While bin Laden’s organisation adamantly opposes ISIS’s ferocious hatred of Shia Islam, which it sees as counterproductive to its core objective of driving out Western influence on the premise that slaughtering other Muslims, regardless of sect, splinters Islam and reduces its power, ISIS goes out of its way to provoke the Shias and the embodiment of its power, Iran, into religious war.
It relentlessly persecutes Middle Eastern minorities in an apparent effort to eradicate their ancient cultures. All this points to the eradication of what Lebanese novelist and historian Amin Maalouf called Islam’s “protocol of tolerance” and an inter-Muslim war.
And that may in the end bring about ISIS’s defeat by drawing Shias and Sunnis together to obliterate Baghdadi’s proto-caliphate. That may sound far-fetched with Tehran and Riyadh snarling at each other but ISIS is everyone’s bogeyman.
Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s wing in Syria, has made significant gains in recent months both on the battlefield and in the propaganda war with ISIS. Al Jazeera, which is funded by Qatar, broadcast a two-part television special with its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, whose forces are seen in the context of the Syrian war as more nationalist than jihadist — a shift in emphasis, in substance as well as form that fits al-Qaeda central’s more moderate line these days, clearly to undercut the apocalyptic savagery of ISIS.
“Some outside parties consider that empowering al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise group is a better alternative to allowing either the Islamic State or the Syrian government to win in Syria,” analyst Scott Stewart of the US-based global intelligence consultancy Stratfor observed in recent assessment of the ISIS-al- Qaeda confrontation.
Libya is shaping up to be the next major conflict zone between ISIS and its enemies in what Stewart calls “the war for the soul of jihadism”. The build-up by both jihadist groups is a growing threat. ISIS holds much of the central coastline around the town of Sirte and is attacking oil installations, the country’s economic lifeline.
Libya, with the largest oil reserves in Africa, is a lure to replace the fields ISIS is having to relinquish in Syria and Iraq, and may lose altogether, which would cut off a major source of its revenue.
Also Libya lies at the apex of all major smuggling routes, including refugee ratlines, into southern Europe just across the Mediterranean. These could provide ISIS with an alternative revenue flow. Libya also offers a potential springboard for attacks on Western Europe such as the recent bloodbaths in Paris and Brussels.
It is also a launch point for a push into Egypt, where an ISIS offshoot is operating in the Sinai peninsula and the military-backed government is facing growing internal unrest that might be exploited. The worst-case scenario is that ISIS takes over in Libya while holding out in Syria and Iraq amid the chaos engulfing both collapsing states.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group’s Algeria-based North African wing, suffered a major setback in 2013-14 when a large number of members defected to ISIS. But it has recovered and now, largely due to the depredations of the notorious Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed Afghan war veteran whose Mourabitoun group has carried out savage bombings and other attacks intended to demonstrate his group can be just as effective as ISIS. AQIM has also held onto sub-groups in Mali, Tunisia and Libya.
Stratfor’s Stewart acknowledged that al-Qaeda’s Libyan franchise, Ansar al-Sharia, “and its partners have emerged as perhaps the most effective counter to the Islamic State”. They pushed ISIS out of the strategic city of Derna in July 2015.
“Although badly damaged, al- Qaeda has thus far managed to survive the focused and prolonged assault by the global coalition attempting to destroy it,” Stewart noted. “It has also weathered the ideological and physical challenges from the Islamic State — a foe that is arguably more dangerous to the group than the US-led counterterrorism campaign.
“Survival is the primary goal of any organisation pursuing a long war strategy and al-Qaeda has achieved this goal against heavy odds. But beyond mere survival, if pressure on the al-Qaeda core and its franchises is eased, the group could recover much of its pre-9/11 terrorist capability.”