Experts Weigh In: What is the future of al-Qaida and the Islamic State?

Will McCants: As we wind down another year in the so-called Long War and begin another, 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 over. The first is Barak Mendelsohn, an associate professor of political science at Haverford College and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is author of the brand new
The al-Qaeda Franchise: The Expansion of al-Qaeda and Its Consequences.

Barak Mendelsohn: Al-Qaida attacked the U.S. homeland on 9/11, unprepared for what would follow. There was a strong disconnect between al-Qaida’s meager capabilities and its strategic objectives of crippling the United States and of bringing about change in the Middle East. To bridge that gap, Osama bin Laden conveniently and unrealistically assumed that the attack on the United States would lead the Muslim masses and all other armed Islamist forces to join his cause. The collapse of the Taliban regime and the decimation of al-Qaida’s ranks quickly proved him wrong.

Yet over fourteen years later al-Qaida is still around. Despite its unrealistic political vision and considerable setbacks—above all the rise of the Islamic State that upstaged al-Qaida and threatened its survival—it has branches in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa.

Down, but not out

Two factors explain al-Qaida’s resilience: changes in the environment due to the Arab revolutions and the group’s ability to take advantage of new opportunities by learning from past mistakes. The Arab awakening initially undercut al-Qaida’s original claims that change in Muslim countries cannot come peacefully or without first weakening the United States. Yet, the violence of regimes against their people in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere created new opportunities for al-Qaida to demonstrate its relevance. Furthermore, involved citizens determined to shape their own future presented al-Qaida with a new opportunity to recruit. 

But favorable conditions would be insufficient to explain al-Qaida’s resilience without changes in the way al-Qaida operates. Learning from its bitter experience in Iraq, al-Qaida opted to act with some moderation. It embedded itself among rebel movements in Syria and Yemen, thus showing it could be a constructive actor, attentive to the needs of the people and willing to cooperate with a wide array of groups. As part of a broader movement, al-Qaida’s affiliates in these countries also gained a measure of protection from external enemies reluctant to alienate the group’s new allies. 

[E]ven after showing some moderation, al-Qaida’s project is still too extreme for the overwhelming majority of Muslims.

At present, the greatest threat to al-Qaida is not the United States or the Arab regimes; it’s the group’s former affiliate in Iraq, the Islamic State. ISIS is pressuring al-Qaida’s affiliates to defect—while it has failed so far to shift their allegiance, it has deepened cracks within the branches and persuaded small groups of al-Qaida members to change sides. Even if al-Qaida manages to survive the Islamic State’s challenge, in the long term it still faces a fundamental problem that is unlikely to change: even after showing some moderation, al-Qaida’s project is still too extreme for the overwhelming majority of Muslims.

Up, but not forever

With the United States seeking retrenchment and Middle Eastern regimes weakening, the Islamic State came to prominence under more convenient conditions and pursued a different strategy. Instead of wasting its energy on fighting the United States first, ISIS opted to establish a caliphate on the ruins of disintegrating Middle Eastern states. It has thrived on the chaos of the Arab rebellions. But in contrast to al-Qaida, it went beyond offering protection to oppressed Sunni Muslims by promoting a positive message of hope and pride. It does not merely empower Muslims to fend off attacks on their lives, property, and honor; the Islamic State offers its enthusiastic followers an historic chance to build a utopian order and restore the early Islamic empire or caliphate.

ISIS opted to establish a caliphate on the ruins of disintegrating Middle Eastern states. It has thrived on the chaos of the Arab rebellions.

The Islamic State’s leaders gambled that their impressive warfighting skills, the weakness of their opponents, and the reluctance of the United States to fight another war in the Middle East would allow the group to conquer and then govern territory. The gamble paid off. Not only did ISIS succeed in controlling vast territory, including the cities of Raqqa and Mosul; the slow response to its rise allowed the Islamic State’s propaganda machine to construct a narrative of invincibility and inevitability, which has, in turn, increased its appeal to new recruits and facilitated further expansion.

And yet, the Islamic State’s prospects of success are low. Its miscalculations are threatening to undo much of its success. It prematurely and unnecessarily provoked an American intervention that, through a combination of bombings from the air and skilled Kurdish proxies on the ground, is limiting the Islamic State’s ability to expand and even reversing some of the group’s gains. 

ISIS could settle for consolidating its caliphate in the territories it currently controls, but its hubris and messianic zeal do not allow for such limited goals. It is committed to pursuing military expansion alongside its state-building project. This rigid commitment to two incompatible objectives is perhaps the Islamic State’s biggest weakness. 

[T]he slow response to its rise allowed the Islamic State’s propaganda machine to construct a narrative of invincibility and inevitability.

Rather than pursue an economic plan that would guarantee the caliphate’s survival, the Islamic State has linked its economic viability to its military expansion. At present, ISIS relies on taxing its population and oil sales to support its flailing economy. But these financial resources cannot sustain a state, particularly one bent on simultaneously fighting multiple enemies on numerous fronts. Ironically, rather than taming its aspirations, the Islamic State sees conquest as the way to promote its state-building goals. Its plan for growing the economy is based on the extraction of resources through military expansion. While this plan worked well at first—when the Islamic State faced weak enemies—it is not a viable solution any longer, as the self-declared caliphate can no longer expand fast enough to meet its needs. Consequently, this strategy is undermining ISIS rather than strengthening it. 

Unfortunately, even if the Islamic State is bound to fail over the long run, it has had enough time to wreak havoc on other states in the neighborhood. And while its ability to govern is likely to continue diminishing, the terror attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Sinai suggest that the Islamic State will remain capable of causing much pain for a long time.