July 16, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Challenge to al-Qaeda: Some Good and Bad News

• Despite the challenge to its authority from the nascent Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda has seen some ‘good news’ recently, including acknowledgement from US Attorney-General Holder and explicit denouncement of IS by two influential ideologues

• Additionally, few of its senior members have switched their support to IS
• However, image problems persist for al-Qaeda, especially in attracting young recruits.

There are two recent pieces of good news for the Qaeda leadership, even though more recently it has floated in a sea of bad news. The first is that al-Qaeda has managed to steal some of the Western world’s attention away from the Islamic State (IS), and the second is that there have been few major defections of al-Qaeda members to the rival group. On the negative side, al-Qaeda is still stuck in its rut and has limited appeal to potential new recruits.

On July 13, US Attorney General Eric Holder, appearing on ABC’s This Week described the threat from a possible ‘marriage’ between highly motivated Western recruits to al-Qaeda in Syria and technical experts in bomb-making from one of AQ core’s official affiliates, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as “in some ways … more frightening than anything I think I've seen as Attorney General."  As it’s safe to assume the US attorney general has seen a great deal of scary stuff since he took up his position in early 2009, including the rise of the Islamic State, this is pretty good advertising for al-Qaeda. It conveys the impression that, despite whatever young extremists may think, al-Qaeda remains “something that gives us [United States authorities] really extreme, extreme concern.” As terrorists aim to terrorize rather than simply kill, this widely reported conversation is already a good result for al-Qaeda. It has helped consolidate for some, and reconfirm for others, its reputation as a global threat.

The other piece of good news for the Qaeda leadership is that few supporters have switched allegiance to IS, and key ideologues such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini have declared its declaration of a Caliphate illegitimate. Although elements of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) declared support for IS at the beginning of the month, on July 15 the organization officially rejected IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s demand that all groups swear allegiance to him as the new ‘Caliph.’ The same pattern has occurred elsewhere, with a few members of AQAP declaring for IS, but the majority have held back, such as with al-Shabab, and the Pakistani Taliban, where only one small group has gone over to IS. A few minor figures in Central Asia have sworn allegiance to al-Baghdadi, but their influence is minimal. In fact the only group that has come out clearly in support of IS is Boko Haram, which may have done so in part because al-Qaeda has consistently refused to recognize it as an affiliate.

But while the failure of IS to generate much enthusiasm among existing al-Qaeda affiliates may be a source of comfort to its amir Ayman al-Zawahiri, this does not solve a much more fundamental problem: how to attract new recruits, especially young ones from Western countries. IS has come out far ahead of al-Qaeda in terms of its appeal to a new generation of ‘jihadists.’ It is active, dynamic, successful, and of the moment, both in its operations and presentation. It has made a particular bid for non-Arab recruits, producing snappy recruitment videos in English, French, German and Russian, and reaching its target audience through savvy exploitation of social media. It has made joining relatively easy, in that one reference from a recognized contact is generally sufficient, and has offered abundant opportunity to all sorts of people, including those with technical or administrative skills who may not wish to fight. It has managed successfully to mask its ruthless intolerance of dissent once a person has joined.

Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, looks stale and static, an image that is paradoxically not a totally accurate reflection of its reach and ability. Its presentation is uninspiring, and despite its need to attack the West in order to improve its image and credibility, all its affiliates, including in Syria, are currently focused on local issues. A further piece of bad news is that the Pakistan army operation to clear militants from North Waziristan may now extend all the way north to Bajaur, threatening those remnants of al-Qaeda that are still in the border area. It is hard to know where they can now safely go.

It may be that al-Qaeda has now reached the point that whatever it does it will lose support. Its allies in Syria, the various members of the Islamic Front, will drop it immediately if it launches an attack elsewhere; and although it is widely seen as providing effective shock troops for combined rebel attacks, its cautious approach to new recruits, who need to find a trusted rebel commander to vouch for them, limits its growth. Its position has also not been helped by the confusion arising from a recorded speech by Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader on July 11, in which he declared a peculiar four-part Islamic Emirate in Syria. This drew immediate criticism and some backtracking.

So all is not well for al-Qaeda, but it is still alive even if not kicking very hard. IS also suffers problems of sustainability, so the fight for primacy is still on. Unfortunately, whichever group prevails, it will continue to visit misery on everyone else around it.


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