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Threats from Two Fronts: Al-Qaeda and IS Define Their Strategies

In the space of two weeks, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State released separate audio statements that merit comparison. Both statements center on Syria as the emerging nucleus of global jihad, each marking a new way its respective organization operates or sees its long-term future. Each message includes an explicit attack on the other group, a sign that differences between the two are deepening, contrary to speculation that the twin giants of global jihadism might begin to cooperate as they face common enemies in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.

On May 8, al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, mocked the Islamic State as a false caliphate—“the caliphate of Ibrahim al-Badri,” using the real name of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This marked the first time Zawahiri has spoken so aggressively against the group in public; he previously rejected the Islamic State as illegitimate but refrained from outright ridicule. Last August, Zawahiri urged fellow jihadists of all inclinations to refrain from attacking each other in public or making statements that deepen division. “We once conquered the world with our media,” he said in August. “Today, their media has divided us.”

In a statement on Saturday, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani returned the favor by calling Zawahiri “the fool of the Muslim community,” rather than “the sage of the Muslim community,” his epithet among al-Qaeda supporters. Adnani, whose real name is Taha Subhi Fallaha, dedicated much of the recording to attacking al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra, its franchise in Syria, accusing them of working with apostates and compromising sharia principles.

A key theme in the two recordings is that each group claims its approach is more effective than the other’s. Al-Qaeda’s leader sounded more assured than in previous statements about how his organization has avoided the fate of the Islamic State by working closely with other groups and making it hard for Western powers to justify an all-out war against it. Zawahiri seemed less defensive about the fact that his group did not announce an Islamic state, in contrast to previous messages (especially in the wake of the Islamic State’s military and administrative successes in 2014 and 2015).

Adnani indicated that his group would not alter its approach despite territorial losses. “We will not beg people to accept the religion of God or to govern according to his sharia,” he said. “To those who accept it, this is God’s sharia. To those who hate it, complain about it, or reject it, we will force it down their throats, and this is God’s religion. We will excommunicate apostates and distance ourselves from them. We will show enmity and hatred to the infidels and polytheists… even if crops are wiped out, homes are demolished, honors are violated, souls are annihilated, or blood is shed.”

With Jabhat al-Nusra as his focus, Zawahiri’s remarks indicated that al-Qaeda is settled on its current strategy of acting as a wasati (middle-way) jihadi movement. Although he did not use the term in this recording, the middle-way theme has factored prominently in the discourse of al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups, especially since the eruption of the Arab uprisings in 2011. Al-Qaeda seeks to synchronize the work of its franchises ideologically and strategically while working closely with local forces. In other words, it wants its local representatives to act more assertively as al-Qaeda but with closer cooperation with grassroots players.

Adnani, on the other hand, emphasized that territorial losses in Syria and Iraq should not be mistaken for a strategic defeat. He claimed that between 2004 and 2005, his group had just dozens of members, “fluctuating above and below one hundred,” and still survived against the American troops stationed in Iraq at the time. He said the group was driven out of all the Iraqi towns in which it once operated and withdrew to the desert by members of the Awakening, the U.S.-backed popular insurgency against the group that began in 2005. From the desert, Adnani claimed, the group waged a war of attrition against the Awakening militias. A seven-year insurgency then culminated in the Islamic State taking over a third of Iraq and establishing itself as the only major Sunni militia in Iraq.

“Do you think, America, that defeat is by the loss of towns or territory?” he said. “Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and retreated to the desert without a city or a land? Will we be defeated and you win if you’ve taken Mosul, Sirte, Raqqa, or all of the cities and we returned as we were the first time around? No, defeat is when we lose the will and desire to fight…. We are now many, many times stronger than we were at the beginning of your war against us. We march forward with steady steps while you stumble with a failed strategy.”

There is a dangerous tendency in media to portray the Islamic State’s losses as the beginning of the end for the group. The U.S.-led campaign has reduced the organization’s strength from its high point in 2014-15, but the group will continue to be a major actor in Syria and Iraq for the foreseeable future, especially given the deteriorating situations in the two countries politically, economically, socially, and in numerous other respects. The future of the Islamic State depends on how effectively the two countries deal with the issues that fostered the Islamic State’s growth in the first place. As one American official put it recently, the campaign against IS may have been “disastrously successful” in that military gains against the group are ahead of the political, economic, and social changes which are essential to root out the organization.

A noticeable surge in the group’s suicide operations—steadily increasing from 54 in November 2015 to 112 in March—also lends credence to Adnani’s statement. The number went down to 83 in April, almost half of them in Anbar, before a multi-front offensive over two weeks throughout May to mark the killing of al-Baghdadi’s deputy, Abu Ali al-Anbari, by a U.S. airstrike in Deir Ezzor in March. Additionally, the Islamic State’s reach inside its enemies’ strongholds does not seem to have diminished. The group has recently carried out suicide operations inside areas it previously could not infiltrate, such as in Baghdad, Sadr City, Damascus,  Kurdish-controlled Tal Abyad in northern Syria, and most recently in the Alawite strongholds of Tartus and Jableh in western Syria. The attacks in all of those areas follow improved security indicators as a result of the U.S. and Russian interventions. The attacks in western Syria, in particular, are ominous: The Islamic State’s territory is nowhere near those areas, which renders control of territory less critical for its ability to strike in a devastating manner.

The events of the past two weeks should serve as a wake-up call to regional and world powers about the collective danger of two competing models. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are doubling down on their own methods of terrorism and insurgency, as they illustrated in their statements and the Islamic State’s coordinated attacks in Latakia and Tartus. The two groups are unlikely to cooperate against their opponents, but they can still inflict lasting damage to regional order and international peace.


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