An article in today’s Guardian – based on a series of interviews with AQ ‘spiritual leaders’ – concludes that the rise of ISIS has “pushed AQ to the margins” and that as a result, AQ lacks the resources to properly function as an organisation.
Interviews designed to influence, not inform
To examine the validity of this claim, it is worth asking why these interviews have taken place, and why now? Why have individuals variously described as “the intellectual godfather of AQ”, an “individual at the centre of terrorist activities associated with AQ” and “a veteran of the jihad in Afghanistan” agreed to share opinions that on the face of it, appear to hinder AQ’s mission further.
It seems to me that while their insights, as with the recent interview with al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani, contain grains of truth, they are a conscious attempt by a beleaguered organisation to buy time with a hasty corporate re-branding. Given the recruitment and funding issues highlighted in the article, this is undoubtedly high risk.
In al-Julani’s interview, he stated that al-Nusra would not be conducting attacks against the West (or at least, not for now). Aside from the obvious implication that if you were planning attacks, you probably wouldn’t broadcast it, al-Julani’s stance appears to deny AQ their primary recruitment advantage vs ISIS; large and impactful attacks against the West.
Yet media coverage of, and in the wake of, al-Julani’s interview suggests that if this is the strategy, it may be working. Al-Nusra are now officially part of the so-called ‘rebel alliance’, bravely fighting against both ISIS and Assad.
AQ’s re-branding should not kid us into thinking they’ve changed
Now perhaps it’s true that our enemy’s enemies are our friends. And given the direction things are going in Syria and Iraq, the coalition will probably need all the help they can get. But while I agree with Derek Harvey’s comment that ISIS and AQ are very different organisations structurally (and need to be targeted in very different ways), we should resist a narrative that transitions AQ towards respectability.
What do the differences highlighted by Maqdisi and Abu Qatada really boil down to? ISIS disloyalty, lack of respect, and undue influence of those without sufficient experience or theological background. Is it surprising that US officials have characterised the dispute as a squabble?
ISIS and AQ tactics do differ markedly. As the article highlights, ISIS (and previously AQI) are focused on sectarian violence, particularly targeting Shia Muslims, in contrast to AQ’s focus on attacking ‘the infidel’. So to be clear, we should not view this as a “squabble within”; ISIS are not AQ.
But equally, AQ have not suddenly become our friendly neighbourhood jihadis. They share ISIS’ goal of an Islamic caliphate upholding sharia law, created by jihad, disagreeing with ISIS on timescales and the tactics most likely to achieve this goal. And even now in Syria, al-Nusra fighters are showing themselves capable of carrying out atrocities of their own, albeit on a much smaller scale.
AQ – in decline but not finished yet
It is hard to disagree with the central point that AQ is struggling to maintain relevance and currency within jihadi circles. And another Harvey claim – that US and counter-terrorism agencies more generally have been wedded to AQ as a target post-9/11 – is also accurate. Failure to move on from this obsession could have dangerous consequences.
But that does not mean that the intelligence agencies should put all of their eggs in the ISIS basket. AQ is a resilient organisation that retains an admittedly shrinking number of highly skilled and experienced individuals. The ongoing conflict in Yemen in particular, offers AQ the type of conflict-ridden, failed state that it has successfully used to its advantage in the past.
And while the AQ senior organisational structure as we know it may be dead or dying, the Syrian conflict provides AQ (via al-Nusra) with the opportunity to create a new cadre of battle-hardened veterans, with the skills and expertise to target the West again in the future.
The reality for AQ, as with many other terrorist groups, is that they are competing for funds, recruits and publicity with ISIS. Short of making an unlikely (and perhaps now impossible) truce with ISIS to focus on a common enemy, a spectacular attack against the West would appear to be their best way of achieving all of these. Whether or not the short-term softening of AQ’s image will help them in this pursuit remains to be seen.
David Wells worked for UK and Australian intelligence agencies between 2005 and 2014, specialising in counter-terrorism.