Experts weigh in (part 2): What is the future of al-Qaida and the Islamic State?

Will McCants: As we begin another year in the so-called Long War, it’s a good time to reflect on where we are in the fight against al-Qaida and its bête noire, the Islamic State. Both organizations have benefited from the chaos unleashed by the Arab Spring uprisings but they have taken different paths. Will those paths converge again or will the two organizations continue to remain at odds? Who has the best strategy at the moment? And what political changes might happen in the coming year that will reconfigure their rivalry for leadership of the global jihad?

To answer these questions, I’ve asked some of the leading experts on the two organizations to weigh in. First was Barak Mendelsohn, who contrasts al-Qaida’s resilience and emphasis on Sunni oppression with the Islamic State’s focus on building a utopian order and restoring the caliphate.

Next is Clint Watts, a Fox fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He offers ways to avoid the flawed assumptions that have led to mistaken counterterrorism forecasts in recent years. 

Clint Watts: Two years ago today, counterterrorism forecasts focused on a “resurgent” al-Qaida. Debates over whether al-Qaida was again winning the war on terror ensued just a week before the Islamic State invaded Mosul. While Washington’s al-Qaida debates steamed away in 2013, Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaida suffered unprecedented internal setbacks from a disobedient, rogue affiliate formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). With terror predictions two years ago so far off the mark, should we even attempt to anticipate what the next two years of al-Qaida and ISIS will bring?

Rather than prognosticate about how more than a dozen extremist groups operating on four continents might commit violence in the future, analysts might instead examine flawed assumptions that resulted in the strategic surprise known as the Islamic State. Here are insights from last decade’s jihadi shifts we should consider when making forecasts on al-Qaida and the Islamic State’s future in the coming decade. 

Loyalty is fleeting, self-interest is forever. Analysts that missed the Islamic State’s rise assumed that those who pledged allegiance to al-Qaida would remain loyal indefinitely. But loyalties change despite the oaths that bind them. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State’s leaders used technicalities to slip their commitments to al-Qaida. Boko Haram has rapidly gone from al-Qaida wannabe to Islamic State devotee. 

In short, jihadi pledges of loyalty should not be seen as binding or enduring, but instead temporary. When a group’s fortunes wane or leaders change, allegiance will rapidly shift to whatever strain of jihad proves most advantageous to the group or its leader. Prestige, money, manpower—these drive pledges of allegiance, not ideology. 

Al-Qaida and the Islamic State do not think solely about destroying the United States and its Western allies. Although global jihadi groups always call for attacks on the West, they don’t always deliver. Either they can’t or they have other priorities, like attacking closer to home. So jihadi propaganda alone does not tell us much about how the group is going to behave in the future. 

Zawahiri, for example, has publicly called on al-Qaida’s affiliates to carry out attacks on the West. But privately, he has instructed his affiliate in Syria to hold off. And for most of its history, the Islamic State focused on attacking the near enemy in the Middle East rather than the far enemy overseas, despite repeatedly vowing to hit the United States. Both groups will take advantage of any easy opportunity to strike the United States. However, continuing to frame future forecasts through an America-centric lens will yield analysis that’s off the mark and of questionable utility.

[J]ihadi propaganda alone does not tell us much about how the group is going to behave in the future.

Al-Qaida and the Islamic State don’t control all of the actions of their affiliates. News headlines lead casual readers to believe al-Qaida and the Islamic State command and control vast networks operating under a unified strategic plan. But a year ago, the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris caught al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) completely by surprise—despite one of the attackers attributing the assault to the group. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) recent spate of attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso were likely conducted independently of al-Qaida’s central leadership. While the Islamic State has clearly mobilized its network and inspired others to execute a broad range of international attacks, the group’s central leadership in Iraq and Syria closely manages only a small subset of these plots. 

At no time since the birth of al-Qaida have jihadi affiliates and networks operated with such independence. Since Osama bin Laden’s death, al-Qaida affiliates in Yemen, the Sahel, Somalia, and Syria all aggressively sought to form states—a strategy bin Laden advised against. Target selections and the rapid pace of plots by militants in both networks suggest local dynamics rather than a cohesive, global grand strategy drive today’s jihad. Accurately anticipating the competition and cooperation of such a wide array of terrorist affiliates with overlapping allegiances to both groups will require examination by teams of analysts with a range of expertise rather than single pundits. 

At no time since the birth of al-Qaida have jihadi affiliates and networks operated with such independence.

Both groups and their affiliates will be increasingly enticed to align with state sponsors and other non-jihadi, non-state actors. The more money al-Qaida and the Islamic State have, the more leverage they have over their affiliates. But when the money dries up—as it did in al-Qaida’s case and will in the Islamic State’s—the affiliates will look elsewhere to sustain themselves. Distant affiliates will seek new suitors or create new enterprises. 

Inevitably, some of the affiliates will look to states that are willing to fund them in proxy wars against their mutual adversaries. Iran, despite fighting the Islamic State in Syria, might be enticed to support Islamic State terrorism inside Saudi Arabia’s borders. Saudi Arabia could easily use AQAP as an ally against the Iranian backed Houthi in Yemen. African nations may find it easier to pay off jihadi groups threatening their countries than face persistent destabilizing attacks in their cities. When money becomes scarce, the affiliates of al-Qaida and the Islamic State will have fewer qualms about taking money from their ideological enemies if they share common short-term interests. 

If you want to predict the future direction of the Islamic State and al-Qaida, avoid the flawed assumptions noted above. Instead, I offer these three notes: 

  1. First, look to regional terrorism forecasts illuminating local nuances routinely overlooked in big global assessments of al-Qaida and the Islamic State. Depending on the region, either the Islamic State or al-Qaida may reign supreme and their ascendance will be driven more by local than global forces. 
  2. Second, watch the migration of surviving foreign fighters from the Islamic State’s decline in Iraq and Syria. Their refuge will be our future trouble spot. 
  3. Third, don’t try to anticipate too far into the future. Since bin Laden’s death, the terrorist landscape has become more diffuse, a half dozen affiliates have risen and fallen, and the Arab Spring went from great hope for democracies to protracted quagmires across the Middle East. 

Today’s terrorism picture remains complex, volatile, and muddled. There’s no reason to believe tomorrow’s will be anything different.