Al Qaeda and ISIS' Jihad for the Long Haul

by ANDREW E. HARROD October 20, 2016

Al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State in Iraq and (Greater) Syria (ISIS) have troubling potentials to withstand recent significant defeats and conduct long-term jihad campaigns, particularly absent any political stabilization greater Mesopotamia.   So analyzed policy experts before an audience of about 60 at the Hudson Institute's September 13 panel "ISIS:  On the Verge of Defeat or Transforming Itself for the Long Haul?" in Washington, DC.

Hudson Institute Adjunct Fellow Michael Pregent noted that ISIS is "quickly learning, if you don't have the ability to shoot down an American aircraft, you shouldn't plant a black flag, because you are likely to lose territory."  If ISIS' ambition to maintain a caliphate state within a certain territory became untenable, ISIS could then emulate AQ as a covert jihadist terrorist organization.  Foreign Policy Research Institute Senior Fellow Nada Bakos stated that ISIS has "already metamorphosed into another type of organization where they are inciting and directing attacks outside the territory they control."

ISIS' caliphate currently crumbling in the face of conventional military assault appeared to validate the strategy of AQ, a jihadist group "in this for the long haul" and "still there as a long-term threat" for the West, Bokos stated.  AQ "is still very focused on the West and the United States.  They are still very focused on various stages before they get to a caliphate" while ISIS "jumped about six of those steps."  AQ founder Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri evinced such a strategy in AQ documents recovered during the May 1, 2011, killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  The AQ leaders had argued "don't establish a caliphate until you can pay everybody in the caliphate and you can give them a job and you can feed them," Pregent noted.

In an "obvious competition between the two organizations," AQ "has a much more sophisticated and coherent ideology" and a "much more sophisticated structure" than ISIS, Bokos noted.  Pregent noted that AQ's Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, was much more selective in recruitment than ISIS, placing higher ideological and military training demands upon inductees.  Similarly, Zawahiri had previously advocated making Nigeria's Boko Haram jihadist group, currently an ISIS affiliate, an AQ affiliate, but met opposition from bin Laden, who distrusted Boko Haram's discipline and qualifications.

Bokos suggested that AQ could eventually absorb an ISIS bereft of its caliphate territory and lacking AQ's covert expertise.  Although tempted to go covert, ISIS' "central effort is still holding the caliphate together.  That is what they centered and built this whole organization around.  They lose face if they lose that territory."  Yet extortion, now a leading ISIS revenue source, alienates ISIS' subject population of Sunni Muslims, recalling a similar alienation under ISIS' predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).  Pregent noted speculation that bin Laden had tolerated lax communication security with AQI's leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in order to allow his 2006 killing by American troops in Iraq given his refusal to heed bin Laden's opposition to AQI's brutality.

Nonetheless, Pregent worried that current strategy against ISIS affiliates from Libya to Iraq is "simply resetting the conditions that led to ISIS to begin with" and allowing for a future iteration of the organization.  Anti-ISIS coalition nations are "willing to commit an air force, commit a fighter jet, maybe commit some special operators on the ground, some snipers, but the default has been to use a proxy force."  Often distrusted by local Sunnis, such proxies "depopulate a Sunni area that ISIS controls, disperse ISIS, replace the ISIS flag with an Iraqi flag, a Syrian flag, a Libyan flag, whatever flag that may be," then "call it a PR event."  Yet in Iraq ISIS cells have continued to operate in towns taken from ISIS such as Fallujah, Ramadi, and Tikrit, while ISIS attacks have plagued Iraq's capital Baghdad itself.

Considering Iraq's Shiite militias and Shiite-dominated central government, both supported by Iran, the "last thing the United States should do is provide air cover to Iranian Shia proxies as they take back these towns from ISIS," Pregent stated.  Northwestern Iraq's "Sunni population is more distrustful than ever of Baghdad, now more distrustful of us" after the United States' 2011 Iraq troop withdrawal left Iraqi Sunnis alone amidst sectarian repression under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.   Continuing Shiite-Sunni animosity therefore provides fertile soil for ISIS to reestablish itself as a defender of Sunnis, meaning that after ISIS' impending loss of Mosul "June 2017 will be June 2014 all over again," he fears.

Pregent's alternative strategy is an "intelligence-driven operation where we decapitate ISIS key leaders, bring in Sunni recruits, put pressure on Baghdad to basically bring back the US-trained Sunnis that Malik purged" from Iraqi security forces.  While the CIA has estimated that ISIS has 8,000 fighters, most of them foreigners, 350,000 military-age Sunni males in Mosul have not joined ISIS, allowing for an operation in which "Mosul turns on ISIS."  Beyond Mosul, Iraq's lasting pacification requires getting "Baghdad to be a government Sunnis trust" while Bokos noted the need to replace Jabhat al-Nusra's provision of municipal services, a key element of its popularity among Sunnis.

Pregent's strategy necessitated renewed American leverage in Iraq's region, something desired by many Sunni refugees he had met in camps in Iraq and Turkey.  Yet Sunni tribes who had helped defeat AQI during the Iraq War's Anbar Awakening were weary of renewed alliance with America after facing both Baghdad's repression and retaliation from AQI members who later joined ISIS.  "Our strategy is based on hope, and the tribal strategy is based on pragmatism," he noted, while Bokos warned that ISIS had co-opted many Sunnis who once served Iraqi security forces.

Lack of a political settlement in Iraq would only give rise to future, greater dangers, Pregent worried.  The fall of ISIS' caliphate would lead to an ISIS "2.0, Al Qaeda version, in the interim."  Then "ISIS 3.0 comes back with an ability to shoot down an American aircraft."

A version of this piece also appeared on http://www.religiousfreedomcoalition.org/

Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School.  He is admitted to the Virginia State Bar.  He has published over 400 articles concerning various political and religious topics at the American Thinker, the Blaze, Breitbart, Capital Research Center, Daily Caller, FrontPage Magazine, Institute on Religion and Democracy, Independent Journal Review, Investigative Project on Terrorism, Jihad Watch, Mercatornet, Philos Project, Religious Freedom Coalition, Washington Times, and World, among others. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies.  He can be followed on twitter @AEHarrod.


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