Foreign Policy Essay

The Foreign Policy Essay: ISIS’s Rejection of Al Qaeda—The End of an Era?

By Tricia Bacon
Sunday, February 16, 2014, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note:  Cooperation among terrorist groups is dangerous, making them far more flexible and lethal in their operations. Yet such cooperation is rare, and when it occurs it can be fraught with problems. Such difficulties are apparent to all now that the senior leadership of Al Qaeda Core has officially severed ties with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a prominent jihadi group in Syria. Tricia Bacon, a former State Department counterterrorism specialist who now teaches at American University, offers her thoughts on these complex interactions, explaining both why Al Qaeda leaders have sought alliances and the difficulties this has created for their organization.

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Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has had a huge problem in Syria recently:  his supposed local followers wouldn’t listen to him. His patience finally expired, and he publicly dissociated Al Qaeda from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) last Monday. Prior to the break, Zawahiri made one last-ditch effort to admonish ISIS, but ISIS refused to alter course and re-enter the Al Qaeda fold. While Al Qaeda seems to have gotten the last word in last week’s announcement, the reality is that Al Qaeda Core no longer possesses the assets it once used to entice ISIS. Even worse from Zawahiri’s point of view, the Core leadership has lost many of the qualities that elevated it to the epicenter of alliances within the Sunni jihadist community. In recent weeks, Al Qaeda Core leaders have been forced to sit back and watch with dismay while ISIS targeted rivals, alienated the Syrian people with its harsh treatment, and tarnished the reputation of jihadists in the premiere jihad of the day.

Even if it wanted to (and it very well may not), Al Qaeda would almost certainly be unable to salvage its relationship with ISIS, at least under ISIS’s current leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Baghdadi’s public rejection of Zawahiri’s edicts in June and subsequent declaration of himself as the caliph all strongly suggest that the alliance was over long before Zawahiri’s declaration.

It is a fitting ending for this alliance. The public falling out between Al Qaeda Core and ISIS is the culmination of a relationship that has been plagued with problems since its inception. Al Qaeda has tried in vain to deal with these problems privately for years. Zawahiri and his number two, Atiyah al-Rahman (killed in 2011), wrote letters demanding that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who rose to fame by leading the jihadist movement in Iraq, modify his group’s indiscriminate attacks, cease its divisive behavior, and coordinate its activities more closely with Al Qaeda. Documents recovered from bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad reveal intense frustration within Al Qaeda over the group’s—then known as the Islamic State in Iraq—conduct, particularly its targeting of Iraqi civilians and failure to consult with Al Qaeda. Some in Al Qaeda Core are almost certainly relieved by Zawahiri’s decision to publicly disassociate from ISIS, given the damage the group’s actions have done to Al Qaeda’s reputation.

This is not the first time one of Al Qaeda’s alliances has ended acrimoniously. The Algeria example is instructive:  Al Qaeda’s relationship with the notorious Armed Islamic Group (GIA) also ended rancorously at a time (the 1990s) when Algeria was arguably the most promising possibility for an “Islamic” state, and it ended for strikingly similar reasons. In that case, Al Qaeda and other jihadists’ concerns with the GIA’s conduct were ultimately borne out when the GIA subsequently killed several members of the allied Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and finally self-imploded, engaging in large-scale massacres of Algerian civilians.

But is The New York Times’ recent declaration that ISIS’s defection was “a watershed moment in the vast decentralization of Al Qaeda and its ideology since 9/11” correct? Not quite. The defection codifies the status of an alliance that has long been broken. However, ISIS’s willingness to publicly reject Al Qaeda does expose Al Qaeda’s weakened alliance position.

Since its inception, Al Qaeda has placed a premium on forging alliances with fellow Sunni terrorist groups to position itself as the vanguard of a broader movement. It developed into an “alliance hub,” a rare but dangerous situation in which a terrorist group becomes the nexus of connections among fellow terrorist organizations and then creates an allied cluster of groups that are linked to one another primarily through the hub. Hubs facilitate cooperation and exchanges within the alliance clique, thereby magnifying the threat that the allied groups pose. Partnering with another terrorist organization, particularly an alliance hub like Al Qaeda, creates opportunities for groups to bolster their operational effectiveness, range, and efficiency, as well as to enhance their legitimacy and stature.

Terrorist groups with allies tend to conduct deadlier attacks, resulting in a higher average number of fatalities and injuries to both victims and attackers alike. For example, the lethality of the attacks by the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat—a breakaway from the GIA—increased when it allied with Al Qaeda and adopted its modus operandi of suicide attacks. Allied groups are also less likely to engage in negotiated settlements. Fittingly, Al-Qaeda’s affiliates and allies have largely eschewed negotiations with adversary governments and have used peace deals as a ploy to gain temporary breathing room.  Terrorist groups with allies are also 50 percent less likely to disband or collapse following leadership decapitation than those without allies. Thus Al Qaeda’s alliance hub position elevated the threat from all of the Sunni jihadist groups in its alliance cluster.

However, Al Qaeda may now find it increasingly difficult to maintain its position as a hub, and the problem goes deeper than its recent issues with ISIS. During its time in Sudan from 1992-1996, Al Qaeda leveraged Osama bin Laden’s fortune to entice partners, attracting prospective allies with its vast infrastructure of training facilities and safe haven in Afghanistan. After 9/11, Al Qaeda lost many of these tangible assets. But the scale and success of the 9/11 attacks produced a new and invaluable asset: its reputation. Groups that Al Qaeda anointed as affiliates widened their appeal and became more significant threats, while Al Qaeda projected itself—and perhaps more important, its far more ambitious, globally focused ideology—beyond the Afghan-Pakistan arena.

But, by Al Qaeda’s own admission, the Al Qaeda brand has gradually lost its cachet. In documents found in the Abbottabad compound, Al Qaeda leaders even debated changing the group’s name—its biggest remaining alliance asset—because they worried it “reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them, and allows the enemies to claim deceptively that they are not at war with Islam and Muslims, but they are at war with the organization of Al Qaeda, which is an outside entity from the teachings of Islam.” Tellingly, when Al Qaeda acquired al-Shabaab—the only new affiliate since bin Laden’s death—the Somali organization did not adopt the Al Qaeda name. ISIS, formerly Al Qaeda in Iraq, was the first to drop “Al Qaeda” from its name, and it apparently did so without consulting Al Qaeda leaders.

So, without even a compelling brand name to bestow anymore, what does Al Qaeda have left to offer its partners these days?

For over a decade, policy makers and terrorism analysts have used association with Al Qaeda to gauge the threat a group poses. But Al Qaeda Core is no longer in a position to offer its alliance partners much beyond its sporadic counsel and advice—and even that has been damaged by ISIS’s flagrant defiance of Al Qaeda’s authority. Therefore, it may be time for U.S. officials to adopt a revised rubric that focuses on a group’s commitment to Al Qaeda’s ideology and worldview—particularly whether or not it is considering attacks against the United States—rather than its degree of association with Al Qaeda Core, thereby reflecting the reality that Al Qaeda Core is not the alliance hub that it once was.

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Note:  The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. Government.

Tricia Bacon is a professor at American University in the School of Public Affairs. Prior to her employment at American University, Bacon worked on counterterrorism for over ten years at the U.S. Department of State, including in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the Bureau of Counterterrorism, and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. She earned her Ph.D. at Georgetown University in 2013.