Gauging the Jihadist Movement in 2016 (I): The al Qaeda Camp

Security Weekly, 31.12.2015
Scott Stewart

Since 2006, Stratfor has published an annual forecast for the overall jihadist movement. For the first several years, the forecast focused primarily on al Qaeda — a fact reflected in the titles we chose — but as the jihadist threat changed, stemming from a larger movement beyond that one organization, we dropped the "al Qaeda" from the title in 2009. In 2013 we changed the format of the jihadist forecast to a multi-part series because it had become too difficult to cover the topic in just one piece.

The 2013 series laid out the goals and objectives of the jihadist movement, as well as terrorist and insurgent theory. These elements were then used as standards to measure the status of various components of the jihadist movement and forecast what to anticipate in the year ahead. We have not repeated the sections on objectives and theory, but readers may find it useful to review these foundational pieces before reading further; they can be found here and here. Last year's analysis on defining the jihadist movement can be found here for reference.

This year, I will focus on three components of the jihadist movement: the al Qaeda pole, the Islamic State pole and grassroots jihadists. This particular piece will examine al Qaeda and its various branches.

Status of the Core

The al Qaeda core organization under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri remains weak. Over the past year it has not conducted any significant attacks, and its ideological clout has continued to wane. Indeed, there is a general sense that statements from al Qaeda franchise group leaders such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Qasim al-Raymi and Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani carry more weight than al-Zawahiri's.

Although some al Qaeda policy documents, such as the 2013 General Guidelines for Jihad, carry al-Zawahiri's name and al Qaeda franchise groups adhere to them, it is important to recognize that the guidelines were discussed and agreed upon by the leaders of the franchise groups before being published: they were not unilaterally promulgated by al-Zawahiri and the al Qaeda core. Thus, rather than ruling by fiat, the al Qaeda core has taken a more consultative approach.

This approach was well reflected in correspondence that emerged during past disagreements between the al Qaeda core leadership and figures such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as well as in the trove of documents recovered by the operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. The weakness of this approach became evident when al-Baghdadi revolted, disregarded al-Zawahiri's recommendations and entreaties, and eventually broke away from al Qaeda to form another pole within the jihadist movement.

The fact that the Islamic State's leaders felt confident enough to defy al-Zawahiri, publicly break away from al Qaeda, and then mock al Qaeda's leadership publicly is also a reflection of how irrelevant the al Qaeda core has become.

Perhaps the most significant loss the al Qaeda core suffered in 2015 was when al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Nasir al-Wahayshi was killed in a U.S. missile strike in Mukalla in June. Not only was the diminutive al-Wahayshi a charismatic and skillful leader of al Qaeda's flagship franchise group, he was also the deputy leader of al Qaeda globally. This made al-Wahayshi the most significant jihadist leader killed since Osama bin Laden.

The loss of al-Wahayshi has been somewhat offset by the re-emergence of Saif al-Adel and four other senior al Qaeda leaders who had been living in Iran with a group of other al Qaeda members under shadowy circumstances. Some reports claim the group was being held under house arrest while others suggest the Iranian government had given them shelter. Whatever the case, following al-Wahayshi's death, the group reportedly was released from Iranian custody. Some reports indicate the group was freed in exchange for an Iranian diplomat held by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but as counterterrorism expert Thomas Joscelyn has pointed out in an article in The Long War Journal, the group had also reportedly been part of a prisoner exchange in 2010. The "release" of the group may have been a way for the Iranians to attempt to present a clean slate as part of their nuclear deal with the United States and their efforts to have the international sanctions against them lifted.

Al-Adel, a former colonel in the Egyptian army and al Qaeda's current military chief, has been indicted by the United States for his role in planning the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings. Al-Adel was also one of the al Qaeda operatives who Imad Mughniyah reportedly taught to construct large vehicle bombs when al Qaeda was headquartered in Sudan. Because of his background and experience, al-Adel is an important repository of transnational terrorist tradecraft for al Qaeda. With new al Qaeda camps reportedly popping up in Afghanistan, al-Adel and other al Qaeda leaders could be attempting to pass their tradecraft skills down to the next generation of terrorist operatives. If they succeed, and the al Qaeda core has some relief from the pressure it has been under, it could re-emerge as a significant transnational terrorist actor.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

As noted above, al Qaeda's most influential franchise group, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, received a heavy blow in June with al-Wahayshi's death. But al-Wahayshi was not the branch's only loss this year. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula also lost Sharia Council member Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari in January. The group's mufti, Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, was killed in April along with spokesman Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi. However, the group has a very deep bench of experienced militant commanders, and its leadership ranks have been greatly augmented by prison breaks during the civil war that has raged inside Yemen since March.

The last of the group's founding members, al-Raymi, has assumed leadership. Augmenting the group's command structure are figures such as bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri and Khalid Bartafi, who was released from prison after al Qaeda overran the Yemeni city of Mukalla. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is perhaps most famous for its attempts to "go long" and attack the United States using an underwear bomb in 2009 and bombs hidden in computer printers in 2010. However, the group has not attempted to strike the United States directly since the disruption of a second underwear bombing plot was announced in May 2012. Instead, the al Qaeda franchise has focused on radicalizing and equipping grassroots jihadists, using tools such as sermons by the now-deceased Anwar al-Awlakiand their English-language magazine, Inspire.

The group has weathered various challenges, including the emergence of an Islamic State provincial or franchise group, started by dissatisfied jihadists in Yemen. The civil war has helped the al Qaeda branch make significant gains in 2015, and despite the loss of al-Wahayshi, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is arguably as strong as it has ever been.

Jabhat al-Nusra

The second most significant al Qaeda franchisee is the Syria-based Jabhat al-Nusra. Although the group was initially a branch of the Islamic State in Iraq (and the reason for the Islamic State's separation from al Qaeda), Jabhat al-Nusra has become a formidable militant force in Syria. After crushing the moderate Western-backed Syrian rebel group Harakat Hazm, Jabhat al-Nusra managed to forge a coalition of Islamist groups that conquered the Syrian city of Idlib. Yet despite its key role in the operation, Jabhat al-Nusra did not impose its brand of sharia; instead, it worked with its allies to rule the city. This policy was in keeping with al Qaeda's guidelines and its efforts to cast itself as a "moderate" alternative to the Islamic State.

Indeed, Jabhat al-Nusra controls significant portions of Syria and the Syrian population, yet this control gets very little attention compared to that given to the Islamic State. For example, scant attention was paid to the conquest of Idlib, whereas the Islamic State's seizure of Palmyra garnered a great deal of media coverage.

Jabhat al-Nusra also scored a major media coup when Al Jazeera aired a two-part special featuring a non-confrontational interview with Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani. This alone has helped advance the group into the mainstream. (Al Jazeera is funded by Qatar's government, which is no coincidence given Qatari sympathies for the Syrian jihadist group.) Unlike Islamic State propaganda, which is self-produced and viewed mostly by Islamic State supporters, the Al Jazeera interviews of al-Golani had a similar format to television interviews of heads of state or important media celebrities, and they were broadcast globally. For the interview, al-Golani sat in a gilt chair in what appeared to be the governor's palace in Idlib city. This was a far cry from the early media interviews of Osama bin Laden sitting in a cave or tent, and it gave al-Golani a tremendous air of respectability.

During the interview, Al-Golani made clear that he is still following orders from al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Jabhat al-Nusra is still al Qaeda in Syria, and individuals and countries that support Jabhat al-Nusra or its Jaish al-Fatah allies are supporting al Qaeda. Despite this, some outside parties consider that empowering al Qaeda's Syrian franchise group is a better alternative to allowing either the Islamic State or the Syrian government to win in Syria.

Other al Qaeda Branches and Allies

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda's Algeria-based franchise, splintered in 2013 and suffered additional losses in 2014 when members defected to the Islamic State. But with the return of Mokhtar Belmokhtar and his forces, the group is leaving 2015 much stronger than it arrived. Moreover, the franchise has retained significant sub-groups in Mali, Tunisia and Libya.

Despite heavy appeals from the Islamic State, al Shabaab in Somalia has remained in the al Qaeda camp, with al Shabaab leaders going so far as to execute several members who defected to the Islamic State. Yet, Somalia and Syria are not the only places al Qaeda franchises are battling Islamic State affiliates. In Libya, al-Qaeda's franchise Ansar al-Sharia and its partners have emerged as perhaps the most effective counter to the Islamic State. These groups ejected the Islamic State from the city of Derna by July. Al Qaeda's Taliban allies are also currently at war with Taliban defectors who declared allegiance to the Islamic State.

Although badly damaged, al Qaeda has thus far managed to survive the focused and prolonged assault by the global coalition attempting to destroy it. It has also weathered the ideological and physical challenges from the Islamic State — a foe that is arguably more dangerous to the group than the U.S.-led counterterrorism campaign.

Survival is the primary goal of any organization pursuing a long war strategy, and al Qaeda has achieved this goal against heavy odds. But beyond mere survival, if pressure on the al Qaeda core and its franchises is eased, the group could recover much of its pre-9/11 terrorist capability.

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