MERG­ING WORST AND THE WORST

Hard­ened Is­lamic State fight­ers are wel­come re­cruits for al Qaeda

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CAR­LOS MUNOZ AND GUY TAY­LOR

It’s the ter­ror­ist mar­riage made in hell. The Is­lamic State group and al Qaeda, long ri­vals for supremacy in the ji­hadi strug­gle, are feel­ing more pres­sure to com­bine as the Is­lamic State loses its ter­ri­to­rial base in Syria and Iraq and the still-po­tent ter­ror­ist net­work founded by Osama bin Laden pre­pares to wel­come le­gions of for­eign fight­ers flee­ing the ad­vanc­ing U.S.-backed coali­tion, an­a­lysts and of­fi­cials in the re­gion say.

“The dis­cus­sion [on com­bin­ing forces] has started now,” Iraqi Vice Pres­i­dent Ayad Allawi warned this month in an in­ter­view with the Reuters news agency.

Born out of al Qaeda’s Iraqi fac­tion that bat­tled U.S. and coali­tion forces dur­ing the bloody years of the Amer­i­can com­bat mis­sion, the ji­hadis fa­mously broke with the Pak­istani-based ter­ror­ist group in 2012 to form the Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria, also called the Is­lamic State in Iraq and the Le­vant.

Two years later, the group would de­clare a “caliphate,” re­name it­self the Is­lamic State and rule a wide swath of the Mid­dle East stretch­ing from its

self-styled cap­i­tal of Raqqa, Syria, to the out­skirts of the Iraqi cap­i­tal of Bagh­dad.

But with its fight­ers near de­feat in Mo­sul and U.S.-led coali­tion forces pre­par­ing for the fi­nal as­sault on Raqqa, the Is­lamic State is poised to go un­der­ground and re­vert to a clas­sic guer­rilla force, an­a­lysts say. That opens an av­enue for re-es­tab­lish­ing links with al Qaeda, which has fo­cused on de­vel­op­ing a global net­work of ter­ror­ist “fran­chises” rather than seek­ing to con­trol and ad­min­is­ter its own ter­ri­to­rial state.

The Is­lamic State group briefly did what al Qaeda couldn’t do in seiz­ing and hold­ing un­governed space for a “caliphate,” said one U.S. of­fi­cial who spoke anony­mously with The Wash­ing­ton Times. That de­vel­op­ment helped draw thou­sands of for­eign fighter re­cruits who likely would have been re­jected by al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda “al­ways wanted these im­mac­u­late re­cruits, while ISIS wanted to take any­body will­ing to join,” the of­fi­cial said. “But now we have this next gen­er­a­tion of for­eign fighter ji­hadists who have been trained on the ISIS bat­tle­field.”

The flow of bat­tle-hard­ened ji­hadis flee­ing the black ban­ners of the Is­lamic State in the face of the coali­tion on­slaught in Syria and Iraq, seek­ing to re­join their broth­ers in arms in al Qaeda, is al­ready un­der­way, a top na­tional se­cu­rity an­a­lyst said.

“We have a dis­persed ISIS and a stillpo­tent al Qaeda net­work to reckon with, and we may even see some­thing of a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween the two groups,” said Thomas San­der­son, di­rec­tor of the Transna­tional Threats Project at the Wash­ing­ton-based think tank Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

How­ever, al Qaeda is not the only ex­trem­ist group that will ben­e­fit from the pool of re­cruits built by the Is­lamic State, said Richard Burchill, di­rec­tor of re­search and en­gage­ment at Trends Re­search and Ad­vi­sory, an Abu Dhabibased think tank.

“Var­i­ous ji­hadist in­sur­gency groups and ter­ror­ists will be able to ben­e­fit from the de­feat of Daesh as they can con­tinue to re­cruit to the cause through the politi­ciza­tion of re­li­gion,” said Mr. Burchill, us­ing the Ara­bic name for the group. “Un­for­tu­nately, due to the ideas of po­lit­i­cal Is­lam be­ing pur­sued, there is a wide au­di­ence for ex­trem­ism and many groups look­ing to ex­ploit in­di­vid­u­als.”

Talks un­der­way

Dis­cus­sions about an al­liance have al­ready be­gun be­tween Is­lamic State chief­tain Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi and al Qaeda leader Ay­man al-Zawahri, bin Laden’s suc­ces­sor, via en­voys and mes­sen­gers from the ter­ror­ist groups, Iraq’s Mr. Allawi said.

“I can’t see ISIS dis­ap­pear­ing into thin air. … They will re­main covertly in sleep­ing cells, spread­ing their venom all over the world,” likely with weapons, fund­ing and sup­port from al Qaeda’s net­work, he said.

Al-Bagh­dadi re­mains in hid­ing within the Is­lamic State group’s ter­ri­tory in Syria af­ter re­port­edly flee­ing Raqqa in March. Mean­while, al-Zawahri re­port­edly re­mains in hid­ing along the AfghanPak­istani bor­der and has just re­leased an au­dio­tape to fol­low­ers.

Al-Zawahri did not di­rectly re­fer to the Is­lamic State in his re­marks, but urged fight­ers in Syria to “pre­pare your­selves for a long bat­tle with the cru­saders and their al­lies the Shi­ites and Alaw­ites,” a ref­er­ence to the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad and his ally Iran.

The di­vi­sions be­tween al Qaeda and the Is­lamic State over strat­egy and tac­tics have played out on the ground in con­flicts far be­yond Syria. Ri­val Is­lamic State and al Qaeda fac­tions op­er­ate in Ye­men, Afghanistan, Nige­ria and Bangladesh. In So­ma­lia, the ji­hadi al-Shabab group is di­vided into camps pledg­ing al­le­giance to ei­ther al-Bagh­dadi or al-Zawahri.

Aside from dis­putes over the value of hold­ing ter­ri­tory, the Is­lamic State and al Qaeda show clear dif­fer­ences on tac­ti­cal de­tails. Is­lamic State op­er­a­tives are typ­i­cally pre­pared to in­flict far more civil­ian ca­su­al­ties in their ter­ror­ist strikes than is al Qaeda.

De­spite the con­tentious pub­lic splin­ter­ing of al Qaeda and its Iraqi fac­tion in 2012, signs of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­gan to emerge in the wake of the Is­lamic State’s spec­tac­u­lar vic­to­ries in Iraq and Syria.

CIA Di­rec­tor John O. Bren­nan said in 2015 that while there was sig­nif­i­cant com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the Is­lamic State and “core al Qaeda” un­der al-Zawahri’s con­trol, he was not sur­prised by a call for unity by al-Zawahri be­cause “an em­pha­sis of al Qaeda through­out the course of its his­tory has been that Mus­lims — they call them­selves Mus­lims — should unite as part of what they see as a holy ji­had.”

“That call for unity has al­ways been part of al Qaeda’s mantra,” Mr. Bren­nan said. “I think they point to al-Bagh­dadi and [the Is­lamic State] as be­ing al­most an aber­ra­tion and as not be­ing, in fact, true to the cause.

“What [al-Zawahri], I think, is say­ing is that there needs to be the uni­fi­ca­tion of these ef­forts un­der the right­ful sort of ban­ner of al Qaeda,” Mr. Bren­nan said.

His 2015 com­ments sug­gested that the CIA’s view is that once the charis­matic al-Bagh­dadi is ul­ti­mately killed by a U.S. or al­lied airstrike, al Qaeda will swoop in and claim the loy­alty of tens of thou­sands of for­eign fight­ers and other young ji­hadis who have flocked to Syria and Iraq to join the Is­lamic State.

But as the end draws near for the Is­lamic State’s phys­i­cal caliphate in the Mid­dle East, one of the big ques­tions is whether al Qaeda’s old-guard lead­ers — in­clud­ing al-Zawahri — are poised to draw in and re­brand Is­lamic State re­cruits as global al Qaeda op­er­a­tives.

“There’s a lot of un­cer­tainty about the way for­ward and the ex­tent to which al Qaeda and its af­fil­i­ates will be­come a mag­net for these for­mer ISIS guys who’ve man­aged to slip away and go back home,” said an­other U.S. of­fi­cial, speak­ing on back­ground. “But it re­ally re­mains an open ques­tion how and whether core al Qaeda could ben­e­fit once ISIS lead­er­ship and [the] caliphate are taken out.”

Killing the ide­ol­ogy

All sides in the de­bate agree that the ex­pected de­feat of the Is­lamic State on the bat­tle­field — per­haps by the end of the year — won’t end the larger war.

“The de­feat of [the Is­lamic State] on the bat­tle­field will not bring a de­cline in ter­ror­ists and fight­ers,” said Trends Re­search and Ad­vi­sory Pres­i­dent Ahmed Al-Hamli.

Dis­torted un­der­stand­ings given to Is­lam by ex­trem­ist ide­o­logues in al Qaeda and the Egyp­tian-based Mus­lim Brother­hood con­tinue to in­spire vi­o­lent move­ments in the name of re­li­gion, he said in an in­ter­view. “They are de­fined by the idea of rul­ing in the name of God, and this dan­ger­ous ide­ol­ogy will con­tinue to be a threat,” he said.

But killing an ide­ol­ogy is not as sim­ple as car­ry­ing out a drone strike or night raid, as Pen­tagon and the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity have dis­cov­ered. The De­fense De­part­ment last year launched a se­cre­tive cy­ber­cam­paign to dis­man­tle the Is­lamic State’s vast on­line re­cruit­ing net­work.

Tout­ing the use of cy­ber­bombs, then-De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter her­alded such ef­forts as in­valu­able to break­ing the group’s ide­o­log­i­cal aura on­line, which had drawn thou­sands of young ji­hadis to the cause. But at­tacks con­tin­ued, fur­ther frus­trat­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

What has made the Is­lamic State so dan­ger­ous is that it is of­ten the ide­ol­ogy alone that ties the group’s ter­ror­ist cells and op­er­a­tives world­wide, a top U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cial said.

While al Qaeda has planted in­di­vid­ual op­er­a­tives in­side the U.S. to plan, co­or­di­nate and launch at­tacks, those sleeper cells main­tained ties to the group’s chain of com­mand that U.S. and al­lied in­tel­li­gence agen­cies could ex­ploit, said Army Lt. Gen. Michael K. Na­gata, head of strate­gic op­er­a­tional plan­ning at the Na­tional Coun­tert­er­ror­ism Cen­ter.

The lack of such link­ages, es­pe­cially by “lone wolf” at­tack­ers and re­turn­ing vet­er­ans of the Is­lamic State wars in Iraq and Syria, means that the po­ten­tial re­cruit­ing pool of for­eign fight­ers threat­en­ing the U.S. and the West is stag­ger­ing.

“A lot of what comes out of ISIS is just, ‘Go where you can and kill who you can,’ ” Gen. Na­gata said. “There’s an in­her­ent dan­ger to this, be­cause their use of for­eign fight­ers [is] more un­pre­dictable.

“Even though they acted to save their skin by flee­ing Iraq and Syria, there’s still a la­tent de­sire to wreak havoc. And they’ll find an out­let for that.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

FREN­E­MIES: With the Is­lamic State’s self-styled “caliphate” shrink­ing in Iraq and Syria, the ter­ror army faces mount­ing pres­sure to po­ten­tially unite with al Qaeda de­spite the two groups’ his­tory of an­tipa­thy.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Al Qaeda and Is­lamic State dif­fer on tac­tics, with Is­lamic State will­ing to in­flict greater civil­ian ca­su­al­ties ver­sus the ter­ror­ist group Osama bin Laden founded. But lead­ers from both fac­tions have been com­mu­ni­cat­ing about how to achieve their com­mon goals.

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