July 3, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Al-Qaeda’s Next Move: Battling ‘The Islamic State’ & Irrelevancy
As a brand, al-Qaeda has long profited from its image as the most notorious terrorist group in the world, so much so that its name became shorthand for the term "terrorist.” That brand is now in serious decline, even if the violent ideology behind it is spreading. This week’s audacious proclamation by the group now known simply as the “Islamic State” (IS), that it now constituted an Islamic caliphate, might have been met with scorn and derision by moderates and regional leaders but the declaration was never intended for them. Rather, the announcement was aimed directly at al-Qaeda and the pool of potential extremist supporters looking for tangible success over ideological infighting. In a remarkable turnaround, the group that once swore allegiance to Usama bin Ladin (when it was known as al-Qaeda in Iraq—AQI) is now demanding that bin Ladin’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, swear allegiance to it.
Unlike IS, al-Qaeda has long been focused on the “Far Enemy”—which, in the group’s perspective, is the West. Under tremendous global pressure, it has struggled with this mission; and has also struggled with keeping wayward affiliates focused on the real enemy and not fighting and killing fellow Muslims and other extremist groups. To that end, AQ continually tries, through letters and tapes, to keep expansive groups in line while not offering any tangible accomplishments of their own. To younger potential supporters, AQ is increasingly seen as the scolding grandfather of terrorist groups, while IS, with its grandiose if temporary successes and slick online presence is most certainly not your grandfather’s terrorist group.
Al-Qaeda will need to respond to this perception and to the direct challenge of IS and their “caliphate.” It is possible, in a bid to show that while IS merely fights fellow Muslims and inept Iraqi military units, AQ alone remains committed and able to strike at the real enemy, the group might attempt an attack on a Western target. Such an attack, if successful, would not only show the group still has global relevance but, more importantly, would show that IS does not. An AQ attack on IS would be seen by the extremist community as hypocritical, leaving a symbolic Western target as the more likely approach. Again, it is important to note that AQ and IS are not battling for the hearts and minds of the vast majority who reject violent extremism but rather for those potential supporters who want to jump on to a winning team. This puts great pressure on AQ to respond in a meaningful and AQ-identifiable way. With the core of AQ still under great pressure in Pakistan, its affiliate in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) might be the group most able to conduct a near-term attack.
While IS has monopolized media attention with its recent successes, AQ hasn’t really gotten much attention in years. This long decline into irrelevance threatens the group as much as IS does. Even before June, mentions of AQ in English and in Arabic on Twitter were trending only slightly higher than ISIS. Seen in the graph below, after its early June capture of Mosul, ISIS understandably saw a significant spike in mentions, with AQ seeing a much smaller increase. Worryingly for AQ, since then mentions of AQ have fallen nearly to pre-Mosul levels, even as the overall talk of terrorist groups and its main rival has soared. This means AQ is less and less a part of the global terrorism conversation.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the influence of Twitter among the very audience that both terrorist groups and governments seek to influence. For them, Twitter is the source of their information and locus of conversation, and on Twitter, IS is crushing AQ. In a way, it’s a generational shift compounded by AQ’s inability to conduct attacks. Most of the online supporters of violent extremism were quite young in 2001, when AQ achieved infamy. With some notable exceptions, the group has been on the defensive ever since, giving would-be extremists little to support or cheer. For IS, with its use of hashtags and clever videos, Twitter is the perfect tool to reach its target audience. The impulsiveness of the group matches the impulsiveness of its young supporters, who simply don’t care what Zawahiri says about jihadist jurisprudence or protocols.
Al-Qaeda is facing its most existential threat since it was driven from its Afghan sanctuary: a toxic combination of a rising IS and a falling brand reputation due to isolation and generational shifts. How it responds in the near-term will provide insight into how the group operates long-term.
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