​The ‘al-Qaeda rising’ narrative risks downplaying Islamic State threat

Over the past year and half, as Islamic State experienced several military defeats in Iraq, Libya and Syria, many renowned terrorism experts presented a new theory: a steadily resurgent al-Qaeda poses a greater and longer-term threat than its jihadist rival and former affiliate, Islamic State. This theory rests on two key observations.

First, Islamic State’s strategy of capturing territories, and then governing local populations by means of the rule of fear, is not sustainable. Under pressure from localised military campaigns and international airstrikes, the group lost almost a quarter of its territories in Iraq and Syria in 2016, as well as its Libyan stronghold, Sirte.

The deaths of tens of thousands of fighters and diminished finances took a major toll on Islamic State. Its use of extreme violence and its intolerance of alternate Islamist ideologies or groups make it less appealing to local populations and groups. Although several militant groups in the region and in Africa and Asia have sworn allegiance to the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, its physical “caliphate” failed to expand beyond the Middle East and North Africa.

Second, although al-Qaeda was severely challenged by the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, and the dramatic rise of Islamic State in 2014, it has demonstrated resilience. The group shifted the role played by its affiliates, focusing on co-opting local causes and populations; direct attacks in the West or against Western interests were no longer a priority. Nevertheless, there are uncertainties regarding how much influence al-Qaeda’s core leadership has on its affiliates. These affiliates – including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, al-Shabab and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham – have carried out hundreds of terrorist attacks in their respective areas of operation in recent years. With Islamic State attracting the bulk of Western counterterrorism efforts since June 2014, al-Qaeda has been slowly regrouping.

It is plausible that al-Qaeda poses a greater, long-term threat – as many terrorism observers are stating – but this assessment relies heavily on the flaws of Islamic State’s current model, and its waning fortunes on the battlefield. Although uncertain local dynamics and geopolitical instability complicate any assessment of the evolution of global jihad, it is important not to be a prisoner of the moment. After all, less than two years ago, many analysts and United States policymakers were prematurely writing al-Qaeda’s obituaries. Similarly, most people – including Western intelligence – simply failed to predict Islamic State’s dramatic rise in mid-2014. As far as the evolution of Islamic State is concerned, several considerations should be taken into account.

First, although Islamic State suffered major defeats and territorial losses over the past two years, it has not been comprehensively defeated. Although the Iraqi military offensive to recapture Mosul appears to be progressing, Islamic State remains in control of its Syrian stronghold, Raqqa, and recaptured Palmyra in December 2016.

Its fighters carried out several attacks against Syrian government forces in January this year, including in Deir ez-Zor and Damascus. It is likely that, as Islamic State’s presence wanes in Iraq, it will seek to strengthen its position in Syria. Even if it loses all of its territories in the Middle East, a combination of weak central governments, multi-layered civil conflicts and security vacuum that enabled its rise in the first place, is likely to ensure its presence in future.

Second, there are already signs of Islamic State adapting to the new, unfavourable circumstances. As the group’s territories started shrinking in 2015, and foreign fighters found it increasingly difficult to join the “caliphate”, Islamic State directed, inspired and claimed a series of terrorist attacks in several countries, including France, Belgium, Germany, Turkey, Lebanon, Tunisia and the US. These attacks were staged by domestic sympathisers and, in some cases, returning fighters. Al Baghdadi specifically urged his followers to carry out operations in their home countries. The attacks also highlight ther fact that Islamic State’s ideology is extremely powerful, including among lone actors. Thus, Islamic State will probably continue to pose a threat to the West, and other countries outside its immediate theatres of operation, in the coming years.

Third, though what happens to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will undoubtedly have an impact on the group’s presence and support elsewhere, we should not rush to conclusions about Islamic State’s long-term potential. There are too many variables in play. Even if the group loses all its territories, there are several potential, partially interconnected scenarios: from engaging in an insurgency in Iraq and Syria, to relocating to another area (such as the Sahel), from focusing more on global expansion, to being splintered into multiple factions, to becoming largely irrelevant.

In an increasingly volatile jihadist landscape, there are significant uncertainties about, for example, availability of terrorist financing and resources, militants’ loyalty, the impact of counterterrorism operations, and the core leadership’s ability to control members and affiliates – all relevant factors in shaping the trajectory of a group.

Most importantly, although Islamic State’s high-risk and momentum-driven strategy is facing major setbacks, there is nothing to suggest that the group will not adjust to the adverse conditions it presently finds itself in, just as al-Qaeda did. Islamic State has already demonstrated notable organisational flexibility and, thus, any verdict on the group’s terminal decline would be premature.

Saif Islam is a political risk analyst at S-RM, a Cape Town-based business intelligence and risk consultancy

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