The Dynamics of Change in Global Jihadism


2014-12-18 By Tore Hamming

Risk Intelligence

Sunni militancy has evolved rapidly in recent years and we are constantly trying to keep up with our understanding of trends and developments.

For more than a decade, al-Qaeda (AQ) has been considered the main bad guy. This perception changed briefly in 2005-2006 during the Iraqi civil war as the rebellious al-Qaeda in Iraq stoked fear with its brutality.

However, with the death of its leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and the emergence of AQ branches in northern Africa and in the Arabian peninsula, Osama bin Laden and his cadres once again led the militant struggle against the West.

Challenging AQ hegemony

AQ’s position is now once again threatened and not particularly because of successful counterterrorism campaigns by Western intelligence services (although these have led to an operational demise and the killing of top operatives in Pakistani tribal areas), but rather from internal sources with the establishment of the Islamic State (IS) claiming to constitute the Islamic caliphate.

(IS is previously known as al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (1999-2004), al-Qaida in Iraq (2004- 2006), Islamic State of Iraq (2006-2013), and lastly the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (2013-2014)).

Due to its barbaric actions, operational success on the ground, and radical ideology, IS is normally analyzed from the perspective of the danger it poses to the local populations in Iraq and Syria, and to Western interests and ideas.

While this is certainly true, a more neglected perspective is the danger IS poses within Sunni militancy. Claiming to constitute the caliphate, IS is critically challenging the authority and legitimacy of AQ and thus triggering fissures in the global jihadi movement.

Although understudied, these fissures are important because they can provide us with indications of the trends and dynamics within militant Islamism and, more importantly, what danger they pose locally and from a global perspective.

AQ is more than anything an ideology and a narrative.

Bin Laden did create a loosely connected network of like-minded radicals and succeeded in striking the West, but his most important achievement was that he built up an identity of resistance – resistance against unfaithful

Muslim rulers and against Western liberal ideology and ideas.

Despite sharing objectives, IS’s strategy and ideology differs from that of AQ. The strategic difference is partly to be found in the works of two important jihadi military strategists: Abu Mus’ab al-Suri and Abu Bakr al-Naji. Suri, a Syrian native who spent many years in London and in Spain, is the author of the 1,600-page book The Global Islamic Resistance Call from 2004. In his book, Suri outlines a strategy for how militant groups should organize in the post-9/11 environment. Rather than functioning as a centralized organization, Suri argues that militant groups like the AQ network should function as a loosely connected network not bound by a geographical locality.

ISleaderal-Baghdadi. Source: militant video
ISleaderal-Baghdadi. Source: militant video 

Unlike the normal practice of the time, the training of future jihadists should not necessarily take place in organized training camps in the Middle East, but be structured so everyone could train everywhere.

Hence, Suri’s argument was in favor of an individualization of jihadism and his thoughts have played a central role in the AQ-network in the last decade.

In clear contrast to Suri, Naji in the same year published his book The Management of Savagery, which outlines a strategy for how militant groups can defeat Western powers. According to Naji, militant groups should, besides being a constant threat to the local government, focus on provoking military interaction from the West and, most importantly, seek to conquer territory, consolidate and finally establish an Islamic state. That IS is heavily inspired by the vision of Naji is continuously being confirmed by its action.

Turning our focus to ideology, the main difference lies in the religious references and the contemporary Muslim ideologues on which the two groups are building their legitimacy.

Ideologically, the AQ network is inspired by the ideas of Osama bin Laden and particularly Ayman al-Zawahiri. Initially following a revolutionary approach focusing on local rulers, who were considered unfaithful to Islam, AQ changed to a global focus in the late 1990s. An Islamic state was maybe a dream, but never really a realistic consideration for bin Laden. This was challenged by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, who applied increasingly violent methods to achieve his objective of conquering territory in Iraq in order to establish a state-like entity. Although the Americans managed to kill Zarqawi in 2006, his ideas remained alive and are currently revitalized by IS.

To support their actions, it is essential for militant groups to be considered legitimate and, thus, they depend on Muslim ideologues with authority.

While IS bases its le- gitimacy on Zarqawi and contemporary ideologues like Abu Humam al-Athari from a Bahrain and Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti from Mauritania, the AQ network finds support from the older generation of ideologues like Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada al-Filastini, and Hani al-Sibai. Although none of the above mentioned should be considered moderate Muslims, their differences in interpretation of acceptable actions are indeed important for the behavior of militant groups and the legitimacy of their actions.

Creating Allegiances

To strengthen its position and authority, IS has sought to expand its geographical presence and legitimacy. This has implicitly been an attack on the AQ network as IS has challenged the allegiance of AQ affiliates and of groups sympathetic to AQ.

In a statement from June 2014, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, the IS spokesman, called for jihadi groups to choose side – either they pledge allegiance (bayat) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or Khalifa Ibrahim as the IS leader is known, or they stay allied with AQ and will be considered enemies.

This shows how IS considers the game of alliance as a zero-sum game and Adnani later went out in public stating that support is not enough, but that an oath of allegiance is demanded.

The answer from most jihadi groups turned out to be an indecisive neither nor. Groups tried to position themselves between their allegiance to AQ and support of IS’s cause and its fight against the Shia and later against the international coalition.

This has particularly been the case with Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia and the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. The reactions from jihadi groups to Adnani’s call have presented analysts with problems, as several declarations of allegiance turned out to be only on behalf of individual members of a group and not the group itself.

This dynamic has hindered clear-cut analysis of the alliances within the militant movement and of the assessment of the strength of the two camps.

For instance, members from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia, and even from Jabhat al-Nusra have pledged alliance to Baghdadi at some point, but to assess the numbers of jihadists changing side has proven impossible.

ISIS regulars in Iraq. Source: Leaksource
ISIS regulars in Iraq. Source: Leaksource 

Lately, however, this indecisiveness seems to be changing. Interestingly, in Baghdadi’s latest statement he declares that groups in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, and Algeria have pledged allegiance to IS. Whereas the groups in the last three countries have been identified, the groups in Saudi Arabia and Yemen remain unidentified and thus it seems unclear if such a declaration from the IS leader is simply strategic.

In Algeria, the group Jund al-Khilafa pledged allegiance to Baghdadi in September 2014 and changed its name to Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria. The group was previously part of AQIM, hence the shift was a direct break with the AQ network. The subsequent capture and beheading of the French national Hervé Gourdel was on the order of IS and thus is an example of how the dynamics of shifting alliances can influence the security situation on the ground.

In Libya, a group of jihadists whose background has not been established yet has likewise pledged allegiance to IS. In lawless eastern Libya it has declared Wilayat al-Barqa (Cyrenaica Province), which resembles the organizational structure of IS in Iraq and Syria.

The most important addition to the IS network so far came around 10 November when Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis declared its allegiance to Baghdadi, thus creating the Wilayat Sinai.

This came after several declarations by individual group members, which prompted an untenable situation for the group. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has during the last year been active in targeting the Egyptian army and Israeli interests especially, resulting in an increasingly prominent position on the jihadi scene.

Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, a Gaza and Sinai-based militant group, has showed support for IS recently too and this – adding to its close relation to Ansar Bayt al Maqdis – could indicate that it will shift sides fully and pledge allegiance to IS in the near future.

In Syria and Iraq the picture becomes even more complex as the myriad of militant groups shift allegiances depending on strategic objectives, threats and the local situation. These alliances, however, are of a strategic character and not necessarily ideological and thus present less of a danger outside the theatres of war in which they are engaged.

One example is that of the Chechen Abu Umar al-Shishani. Initially the leader of the Syri- an-based Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, which is allied with Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham, Shishani decided to break away with some of his men, establish the al-Aqsa Brigade and pledge allegiance to IS.

Since his shift, Shishani has been the most prominent military commander within the ranks of IS, first in northeastern Syria and more recently in Anbar Province in western Iraq. Here he is leading what can be best described as a very mobile elite unit of soldiers that has had tremendous effects on the ground.

Rocking the Boat?

What these alliances do is widen the geographical presence of IS and thus broaden its potential area of operations.

From an analytical perspective, however, it is justas important how these alliances affect the internal power balance within the jihadi movement.

Analysts seem to disagree regarding the current status. While some argue that IS is eclipsing the position of AQ both as a source of authority and as a threat against the West, others believe that AQ continues to be the central actor to look out for as they predict IS is already past its peak.

It is interesting to take a look at how AQ has responded to IS’s prominence and caliphate claims. From the AQ central leadership, little besides a few statements from Zawahiri have emerged. His discursive efforts have been supported by the AQ general manager and AQAP leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi and ideologues sympathizing with AQ such as Abu Qatada al-Filastini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.

So far actions have been of mostly symbolic character, although this still indicates how seriously AQ central regards the challenge by IS. An example is the ‘reassignment’ of AQ top operatives to Syria, where they are known as the Khorasan Group and tasked with assisting the efforts of Jabhat al-Nusra. In Iraq, AQ has allegedly established the Murabitoun Front group in February 2014 to counter IS.

Zarqawi was killed by the USmilitary in2006. Source. Strategic Insights
Zarqawi was killed by the USmilitary in2006. Source. Strategic Insights 

Another example is the creation of an Indian branch, Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which is simply the renaming of a group of people already sympathizing with AQ.

The question is, then: who is winning the battle to be the foremost among jihadists?

Looking at the situation on the ground, IS has managed to keep territory in spite of the bombings of the international coalition. Foreign fight- ers are still rushing to the area to fight in the ranks of IS and its economical and organizational structure makes it robust over time and in case of high-level casualties.

Furthermore, despite its radical ideology, it has also managed not to anger local Sunni tribes to the level where they unify and fight back.

So far, it seems AQ is simply trying to hold on – both in Syria and globally.

The symbolic efforts are an attempt to show strength, but in reality Zawahiri depends on the reactions of affiliates. Hence, the shift in allegiance by Jund al-Khilafa and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has been considered significant in the Pakistani tribal areas.

What is next to come?

None of the official AQ affiliates has changed sides, but if IS continues to dominate on the battlefield and presents the ‘best offer’ for striking the  West, this could change in the future. Zawahiri is still supported by the most influential ideologues, but the younger generation seems to prefer IS. This generational gap perspective naturally speaks in favour of IS in the long run, as a large group of young mujahedeen will be on their side.

Future Security Concerns

In the current situation, the international coalition fighting both IS and Jabhat al-Nusra is very unlikely to be successful in their efforts. They need more dedication, a better-defined strategy and, most importantly, united Sunni tribes ready to fight back.

Hence, local populations and business interests will continue to be influenced in the areas where fighting is taking place in the foreseeable future. Recent events in Syria indicate that IS is moving towards Aleppo, while in Iraq it will proceed with its objective of surrounding Baghdad, cementing control of Anbar Province and conquering territory in the Kirkuk and Diyala provinces.

Outside of the Levant, the North African countries of Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt look likely to become the next battlefields for dominance between jihadi groups.

Here, the political opportunity structures offer the groups a window to exert their influence, as vast areas remain ungoverned.

In a recent speech, Baghdadi even threatened the Saudi Kingdom saying that, “First the Mujahedeen must clear the Arabic Peninsula of all Shi’a, then the al-Saud family and their soldiers and in the end the ‘Crusader-forces’.”

As of now, IS is still in the process of establishing provinces around the MENA region and until the group feels more established, its objectives will probably continue to be locally focused. For IS that will be to conquer and hold more territory, while for Jabhat al-Nusra it will be to fight a battle on several fronts to show that it still holds influence. With its geographical expansion, IS will likely seek to provide groups like Ansar Baytal-Maqdis with financial and military assistance in order to increase its hold on a broader scale in the region.

The biggest threat from a Western perspective is the effect of foreign fighters from the West returning home after periods of training and fighting in Syria and Iraq. According to research by Thomas Hegghammer, an expert in Sunni militancy, one out of nine foreign fighters return home with the intention to conduct an attack.

As the number of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq is far higher than hitherto witnessed – even compared to the 1980s in Afghanistan – the subsequent danger of one of these fighters conducting an attack domestically cannot be overestimated.

For both IS and AQ, such attacks would be attractive, although both groups need to be cautious about stirring too much international anger. As a response to the current prolific position of IS, one should not rule out, however, the possibility of the AQ network planning a high-profile attack as a signal of strength.

To a large extent, the competing strategies of Naji and Suri can be expected to continue to define the actions of IS and AQ respectively. These are two rather different philosophies for reaching the same objective, so the danger the groups pose should be perceived differently.

As a more centralized and state-like entity, IS’s future strategy seems more predictable – however, that is not saying less dangerous – while AQ, as a decentralized and loosely connected network with dubious decision structures, presents more of an analytical challenge.

Analysts and policy makers will be watching from the sidelines, while locals in the affected countries are caught in the midst of the jihadi struggle for supremacy. For everyone the focus will be on how the militant groups fare in Syria, Iraq and the wider MENA region, but also whether they succeed in exporting the militant threat outside the region.

Initially the underdog, IS has developed into a dominant force that seriously challenges the authority of AQ – particularly among the youth – and should, despite international military efforts, be considered the foremost threat locally and, in the longer run, globally.

Tore Hamming is an analyst of militant Islamism with a particular interest in the internal dynamics within the global militant trend. Tore has a MA in International Security from Sciences Po, Paris, and is currently conducting research on the struggle for authority within Sunni militancy.

Republished with permission of our partner Risk Intelligence.

The piece originally appeared in Strategic Insights, No. 55, December 2014.

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