China Is Not Ten Feet Tall
How Alarmism Undermines American Strategy
As they watched their vaunted Islamic State (also known as ISIS) lose ground to Kurdish advances over the past month, ISIS fanboys had fewer reasons to cheer or to make their way to Syria and Iraq. But then things started to change. First, in early November, a Russian airliner fell from the sky over Sinai courtesy of an ISIS bomb. Only a few days later, a twin suicide bombing rocked Hezbollah in Lebanon. Then, ISIS’ Paris attacks, an unprecedented multitarget operation, captured the media cycle for days. These events reinvigorated ISIS’ global media machine and sent a clear message to jihadists around the world: “Hurry up!”
In the days since, ISIS terrorists, caught up in a French and Belgian sweep, again detonated suicide belts in Paris. Meanwhile, terrorists loyal not to ISIS but to al Qaeda leader Aymen al-Zawahiri and opaquely connected to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) slaughtered several people at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali. And this past Sunday came the announcement of Boko Haram detonating suicide bombs in Cameroon. Boko Haram was once allegedly connected to AQIM but has since pledged loyalty to ISIS. In short, two rivals, al Qaeda and ISIS, have launched a dangerous new era of terrorist competition, which will only lead to further waves of deadly violence.
Immediately after al Qaeda and ISIS broke up in 2013, the competition between them seemed like a positive development. Their split had been nearly ten years in the making, but things reached a tipping point in August that year when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that the Islamic State of Iraq was officially becoming the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in an attempt to absorb al Qaeda’s freshest and most promising franchise in Syria. Baghdadi publicly rebuffed Zawahiri’s guidance, and foreign fighters previously committed to al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra flooded into ISIS’ ranks.
The rift escalated from bickering to war in early 2014 when Zawahiri officially revoked ISIS’ membership in al Qaeda. The loyal remnants of Jabhat al-Nusra teamed with other Islamist militias and launched attacks on ISIS in Syria. Young jihadists might have lamented online the fitna (discord) between the two groups fighting for men, weapons, and Syria’s eastern oil fields, but for those Western and Arab governments watching from the outside, few things could have been better. Even today, more than two years after the al Qaeda–ISIS split, fighters from those groups’ separate jihadist factions in Somalia continue to kill one another. If the great military author Sun-tzu were alive today, he’d most surely say, “If your enemy is killing another of your enemies, get out of the way!”
But ISIS’ continued rise since then has slowly overshadowed the positive aspects of jihadist competition. After declaring an Islamic state, the group began attracting regional and international affiliates at a dizzying pace. Battlefield gains in Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014 rippled into waves of recruits. An emboldened and strengthened ISIS now operates openly in areas such as Afghanistan, Egypt, and Libya that have traditionally been known for their al Qaeda presence. And internationally, a terrorist attack on the West is now more likely to have been carried out by ISIS than al Qaeda. In turn, al Qaeda has taken the opposite approach. It has used its Syrian arm, Jabhat al-Nusra, as a kinder, gentler force focused on winning over Syrian hearts and minds by countering the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and avoiding direct attacks on the West. Now that the Russians have started pounding Jabhat al-Nusra with air strikes, al Qaeda’s strategy seems poised to leave them wallowing in ISIS’ wake.
Terrorism experts such as Bruce Hoffman and Mary Habeck have repeatedly raised fears of a resurgent “one big al Qaeda,” a monolithic ISIS and singular jihadist grand strategy, but today’s situation is far more dangerous. The world is now threatened by parallel, competing jihadist networks and a host of upstart terror groups on three continents attempting to outpace one another through spectacular attacks.
Four factors contribute to the large number of terrorist attacks during this period of al Qaeda–ISIS competition.
The foremost is that notoriety brings more manpower and resources. Successful attacks inspire recruits. Jihadist fanboys on social media like winners, and these potential foreign fighter recruits are as fickle as they come. Among the droves of experienced foreign fighters that have been produced in Syria, plenty are networked with al Qaeda, ISIS, or both and will, as seen during this past January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, confusingly cite allegiance to al Qaeda or ISIS or both at times. Winners are also better able to win over donors, who seek to back efforts that show promise. Success breeds success; ISIS has it, al Qaeda does not.
This competitive dynamic played out on a smaller scale last decade in Pakistan. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Pakistani terror group principally focused on attacking India and known for its connections to the Pakistani government, found itself struggling to recruit young men. Potential Pakistani jihadists, it seemed, were more motivated to fight alongside the Pakistani Taliban against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Seeking to maintain its relevancy, manpower, and resourcing, LeT selectively deployed fighters into Afghanistan as a way to incentivize young recruits to stay with their group. Competitive pressures with the Pakistani Taliban may have also pushed the LeT to undertake the Mumbai attacks in 2008 despite the obvious strains the operation caused between the Pakistani and U.S. governments.
A second factor is big egos and internal struggles within the terrorist groups. ISIS’ rise has come in part from its social media propaganda machine. The group’s engaging videos showcase foreign fighters, which feed those fighters’ egos and entice their closest friends back home to join in. Particularly in the early days of the Syrian conflict, young foreign fighters relentlessly broadcast pictures and videos of their travails in battle. Upon arriving to fight, foreign fighters were known to turn on the location settings of their phone to verify their participation on Twitter to all those watching.
It’s not surprising, then, that ISIS has its share of narcissism problems. It is not enough to simply participate; fighters must increasingly top one another through barbaric acts. For example, the alleged mastermind of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, bragged of his exploits in ISIS online magazine Dabiq and was a Twitter and Facebook power user. Comparable to the U.S. Army’s “Army of One” campaign, which sought to recruit from the millennial generation last decade, ISIS’ “Jihad of One” now plays to its legions. Young people sign on to jihad more from a desire to be noteworthy than devout; in turn, ISIS showcases its criminality more than its piety.
In this sense, the rupture between ISIS and al Qaeda is more generational than ideological. Older al Qaeda fighters were keen on ideology and showed more loyalty to the group’s leaders, including Osama bin Laden and now Zawahiri. Both bin Laden and Zawahiri were slow to push for a caliphate or execute spectacular attacks, even as the generation of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, started launching its own strikes years ago. Frustrated fighters took the opportunity to join ISIS, which allows for and rewards initiative and action over al Qaeda’s precision and patience.
Al Qaeda preferred directed operations, but ISIS has empowered its networked foreign fighters to plan and perpetrate attacks at will.Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed leader of the cell that allegedly undertook this past Friday’s raid and hostage standoff in Mali, illustrates how ego and internal power struggles play into today’s spate of terrorist attacks. Belmokhtar’s reign in the Sahara has been both inspirational and derisive. Originally earning his al Qaeda stripes in Afghanistan during the 1980s, the Algerian Belmokhtar returned home a key leader of jihadist operations in the Sahel. From the outside, he might be described as jihad’s cross between Han Solo from Star Wars and The Princess Bride’s Dread Pirate Roberts. Belmokhtar sustained himself for decades through smuggling operations and kidnapping schemes. He was reported dead a number of times, only to resurface—most recently this past week.
As a top lieutenant of AQIM, Belmokhtar helped propel the group’s rise in 2012 before he fractured it. Documents uncovered in Timbuktu after the French invasion in early 2013 show Belmokhtar to be a troublesome employee. AQIM leaders describe him as disobedient, egotistic, a loose cannon who fails to communicate and hastily negotiates hostage exchanges at too low a price. Belmokhtar broke away many of AQIM’s best foreign fighters to form his own outfit, al Mourabitoun, which independently pledged loyalty to al Qaeda leader Zawahiri. In response to the French campaign, Belmokhtar launched a successful attack on the Algerian In Amenas gas plant in 2013. And then, spurred by the attacks in Paris this month, he seized the Radisson Blu Hotel. It is doubtful that al Qaeda was fully in the loop or in charge of these operations. If anyone gained from these two attacks, it was Belmokhtar, his legend, and therefore his legion—al Mourabitoun. Any gains to al Qaeda globally or AQIM locally will be small and temporary.
The third factor propelling today’s jihadist competition is that initiative often outpaces command and control. Bin Laden’s al Qaeda sought the precise application of terrorist violence: its targets were symbolic, its plots spectacular, its plans well resourced, and its objectives set from above. Bin Laden’s death removed the lid from the jihadist pressure cooker. He had warned his followers to move slowly toward statehood by first winning over local populations, but under Zawahiri, affiliates began moving aggressively in Yemen, the Sahel, and Somalia. AQIM, for example, complained of insufficient guidance and reciprocal communication from al Qaeda Central. Over time, al Qaeda leaders globally, by necessity, have taken matters more into their own hands.
Today’s ISIS affiliates and inspired masses have taken initiative to an extreme. Al Qaeda preferred directed operations, but ISIS has empowered its networked foreign fighters to plan and perpetrate attacks at will. ISIS appears to be operating under notions of a “Commander’s Intent,” reminiscent of the U.S. military, where high command issues calls for attacks and regional affiliates and local cells in Europe undertake operations. Al Qaeda never excelled under this system. When the group’s central command, authority, and communication were weak, attacks became rushed, sporadic, and prone to error.
ISIS foreign fighter veterans, on the other hand, use their battlefield experience and knowledge of local targets to rapidly generate plots. Rather than al Qaeda’s low-frequency, high-quality plots, ISIS’ networked attacks arrive more frequently and land on a range of soft targets. The result has been surprisingly similar: terrorized populations and nearly endless media coverage.
A final issue is the anticipation of counterterrorism. Al Qaeda’s decline brought a sense of complacency to many countries. The Syrian civil war raged on but seemed to be drawing militants out of countries previously plagued by jihadist militancy. Today, many of these fighters have returned home and now propel angry local boys who don’t have the means or method to travel to Syria.
Although competition has certainly pushed up the pace of attacks, counterterrorism operations have also quickly accelerated. Those, in turn, will likely push terrorists to step things up as well. Terrorists in both networks, al Qaeda and ISIS, rightly expect increased physical and technical surveillance, preemptive arrests, and Special Forces operations. Any extremist previously plotting an attack thus has limited time left to launch or be caught. The choice becomes simple: go to ground to avoid detection or accelerate the plot to prevent being foiled. In an era of terrorism competition, the latter appears more likely than the former.
The coming weeks might bring a brief crescendo of terrorist violence. Those in ISIS or al Qaeda networks may preemptively launch strikes; those inspired by recent terrorist successes may quickly cook up their own schemes. Over the longer term, things look even worse. Today, more than at any other time in history, there are more foreign fighters roaming the streets of failed or failing states and residing in disenfranchised Western neighborhoods. Training and experience combined with ego and zeal will produce another decade of terrorism under the name of al Qaeda, ISIS, or some future brand. By design, terrorism seeks to use violence as a means to provoke a reaction. There will most assuredly be more violence to come, but it is also likely to have a corrosive effect on those communities from which it arises. If Western governments can remain vigilant and responsive rather than emotional and overbearing, they’ll have an opportunity to enlist new sets of allies in local Muslim communities better positioned to quell the violence. If they don’t, the problem could last for many decades to come.