Jihadi rivalries: ISIS, Al-Qaeda and moving the Overton Window

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It seems only logical that for a group struggling for funding, to communicate, and to keep its leaders alive, the emergence of a bigger and more successful rival is bad news. And certainly, the conventional view is that the emergence (or re-emergence) of ISIS has been bad news for Al-Qaeda (AQ). But what if instead, the rise of ISIS benefits AQ in the long-term?

The Overton Window

The Overton window refers to the policies or opinions that are acceptable to the general public at a particular time. The window – which can be applied to everything from gay marriage to gun reform – shifts over time. And as it shifts, views previously outside the range of socially acceptable positions can become main-stream.

What does this have to do with AQ? Well in terrorist terms, ISIS appears to have shifted public expectations of how terrorist groups behave and the threat that they pose. As a consequence, AQ are no longer at the extreme end of the terrorist spectrum. Have they moved into the Overton window by sheer virtue of ‘not being ISIS’?

AQ and ISIS – key differences

Much has been written about how and why ISIS was able to re-emerge with such impact in 2013. Their military successes, media strategy, and declaration of a Caliphate in 2014 has seen thousands of Islamist extremists flood to Iraq and Syria and dominated the political and news agenda ever since.

But the nature and scale of success is not the only difference between ISIS and Al-Qaeda. In contrast to AQ’s long-term strategy and focus on the ‘far enemy’, ISIS has brought the fight directly to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt. Yet simultaneously, it has provoked intervention from an alliance of Western Powers, Russia, and Arab and Gulf States, and inspired and now directed attacks in the West. All while demonstrating an insatiable appetite for sectarian violence, brutality and graphic imagery.

It is this brutality that appears to have made the greatest impact on public perceptions. AQ has had no qualms about indiscriminately killing civilians, including Muslims, in large scale attacks against soft Western targets. But this has paled into insignificance in comparison to the frequency of ISIS’ choreographed and public violence, their lack of ‘shame’ and glorification of brutality.

AQ’s response to ISIS – repositioning

As in politics, terrorist groups facing a rival that has re-shaped the narrative have two broad choices. To mimic and compete, or to contrast. At least for now, AQ appears to be focusing on these contrasts. They are re-branding.

Al Nusra

In official media releases, interviews given by Al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani, and in the behaviour of AQAP in the Yemeni conflict, the message has been one of (relative) moderation. And that Al Nusra is in Syria to remove Assad and protect Sunni Muslims, not to target the West. Or at least not yet.

Now this is a tricky path for AQ to take. They are defined by their ability to launch spectacular attacks against Western targets, and are typically reluctant to get drawn into nationalist struggles at their expense. And in a competitive jihadist market-place, moderation doesn’t attract funds and recruits.

But there are indications that if the Al-Qaeda threat to the West is not immediate, it is latent. Witness the (albeit rapidly reducing) presence of the Khorasan Group in Syria, significant (albeit disrupted) training activity in Afghanistan, and recent AQAP gains in Yemen. Despite the interviews and public pronouncements, the group remains committed to launching attacks against Western targets.

The success of the AQ rebrand

Fortunately for AQ, the signs are that ISIS has shifted the Overton window far enough for even this concerning activity to be greeted with ambivalence. They might be terrorists, but at least they’re not ISIS.

Last month, the mother of British Al-Nusra fighter, Lucas Kinney admitted “I’m glad he’s associated with Al-Qaeda rather than ISIS.” Similarly, reports on British mother Shukee Begum’s escape from ISIS-controlled areas contrasted their brutality with her current hosts, “Syrian rebels from the Nusra Front”.

This characterisation isn’t entirely inaccurate. Al Nusra does appear to have successfully inserted themselves into a Syrian opposition forced by ISIS and Russian bombing raids to make pragmatic choices.

But this is why the shift in the Overton Window matters. The comparison and contrast with ISIS, and characterisation of Al-Nusra as ‘rebels’ has and will impact on public opinion and policy makers. Indeed, just last month, former CIA Director General Petraeus suggested that to defeat ISIS, the US should cooperate with parts of Al-Nusra.

Let’s be clear. Al-Nusra is part of Al-Qaeda. They are a terrorist group. And ultimately, AQ and ISIS share the goal of an Islamic caliphate forged by jihad. Where they diverge is on how and when this goal can be achieved.

The future

Between them, ISIS and Assad have succeeded in polarising the Syrian conflict into two extremes. Sectarianism is rife. Millions have been uprooted. And in the Western failure to intervene against Assad but willingness to bomb yet more Sunni Muslims, Islamist extremists have fresh ammunition to support their extremist narrative.

If (or perhaps when) ISIS is defeated as an organisation through military force, what will happen to the new generation of jihadists left behind?

Many foreign fighters will be unable or unwilling to return home. Others will seek to export their skills and experience to an alternative venue in the Middle East or North Africa. And with the Assad regime buttressed by its Russian and Iranian allies, what next for local fighters seeking Assad’s removal? The Al-Nusra networks currently being developed should leave them well-placed to pick-up the pieces in the wake of an ‘ISIS defeat’.

So despite losing their position as the pre-eminent terrorist organisation, Al-Qaeda remains a smart and strategic organisation, capable of adapting, regenerating and remaining a threat in the years to come. And shifting public perceptions of the organisation, particularly in relation to ISIS, is a key part of their strategic vision.

Indeed, in a late October interview, Usama Hamza Australi, a veteran jihadist, spelt out this very point. “ISIS is a blessing in disguise… Before people saw Al-Qaeda as the extremists. But now AQ is on the correct and ‘moderate’ path, ISIS are the extremists.”

ISIS should rightly be the top priority for the US and her allies. But it is too simplistic to view a gain for ISIS as a loss for AQ. Because when ISIS proves to be unsustainable as a State, other jihadi organisations will reap the benefits of their brutal reign. The question is whether a revitalised AQ will be best placed to pick up the pieces, or whether the baton will be passed on to a new organisation.

David Wells worked for UK and Australian intelligence agencies between 2005 and 2014, specialising in counter-terrorism.

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