In its effort to sustain a pro-Western regime in Afghanistan, the United States might instead take advantage of an opportunity already in place… it still be might be far less costly in life and treasure to safeguard the area and gather intelligence, rather than to leave and then have to go back. Pictured: U.S. soldiers on patrol near Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2014. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
While the world’s two most prominent and competing jihadist networks, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), share the ultimate objective of establishing a global Islamic caliphate and ushering in the apocalyptic age of the Mahdi. Their intermediate goal seems to be replacing the liberal nation-state system with a worldwide Muslim Ummah. Their immediate aims are different.
In the short term, Al-Qaeda evidently wants to pressure the United States to withdraw from direct involvement in the Middle East. ISIS, on the other hand, wants to cleanse the region’s Arab regimes of secular dictatorships, corrupt ruling elites and insufficiently devout Muslim intelligentsia.
Al-Qaeda and ISIS also differ in strategy, tactics, relations with fellow Muslims, treatment of non-Muslims and methods of proselytization.
According to “Twenty-fourth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” which was submitted to the UN Security Council in July, al-Qaeda is resilient, adaptive and more patient than ISIS. This makes sense: al-Qaeda is older and more experienced than ISIS, and therefore more familiar with the vicissitudes of terrorist operations and comfortable with long-term planning. That determination could be seen in the 9/11/2001 attacks, which, after a failed attempt damage the World Trade Center in 1993, were years in the making.
Most al-Qaeda members are a generation older than their ISIS counterparts. The oldest of the al-Qaeda cadre, the “Arab Afghans,” are veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad during Moscow’s occupation of Afghanistan from December 1979 to February 1989. In addition, most of al-Qaeda’s leaders were trained in the organization’s own camps in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda, once a top-down command organization, has since metamorphosed into a more loosely connected network. Al-Qaeda itself initiated this transformation, after many of its leaders were killed or captured in U.S. counterterrorist operations.
ISIS, in contrast, tends to have younger members than al-Qaeda, as can be seen in the tens of thousands of young foreign volunteers, who in 2015 flocked from more than 100 countries to fight for the group. Many ISIS recruits are romantic zealots ready to sacrifice themselves to kill others, without hesitation. They are not, as a rule, as educated or sophisticated as their al-Qaeda counterparts, and they seem less tolerant of Muslims who are not as committed as they are to jihad.
ISIS adherents also largely ignore the Koranic dictum that allows “infidels” who pledge to pay the jizyah (poll tax) to remain within the Islamic community, even as “tolerated,” second-class citizens. A tragic example of this was on display when ISIS fighters forced Iraqi Christians, who had lived in the Nineveh Valley for centuries, to flee to Iraqi Kurdistan or face execution.
The intra-jihadist conflicts in Afghanistan, West Africa, Syria, Tunisia and Indonesia illustrate the divergent trajectories of al-Qaeda and ISIS.
One key element in the strife in Afghanistan is the Taliban. They claim, or appear to believe, that, in the event of a massive U.S. troop withdrawal from the war-torn country, and due to their continued close alliance with al-Qaeda, they will be able to defeat ISIS. Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan remain dependent on the Taliban for a safe haven and mobility, while the Taliban have access to al-Qaeda’s network of training camps.
There is, however, a serious complication. The Taliban-al-Qaeda coalition is now being challenged by increasingly strong ISIS forces in several Afghan provinces. The United Nations recently estimated that ISIS still have roughly $300 million at their disposal. Moreover, some “disaffected” or hardline Taliban fighters opposed to ongoing negotiations with the U.S. are defecting to ISIS.
In February 2018, the ISIS in West Africa Province (ISWAP) — more commonly known as Boko Haram (which translates roughly as “Westernization is forbidden”) — kidnapped scores of young Muslim women in the northern Nigerian state of Yobe. Surprisingly, senior ISWAP leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, ordered from prison, where he has been since 2010, that the girls be released “because ISWAP does not kidnap Muslim girls.”
Bashir’s “magnanimous” gesture might have been generated by a decision not to repeat the public relations disaster occasioned by the 2014 kidnapping of more than 200 school-girls in Chibok, Nigeria, followed by Boko Haram’s subsequent use of some of the girls as suicide bombers.
Meanwhile, ISWAP continues to suffer military and other setbacks. In recent months, for instance, Nigerian Air Force jets repeatedly bombed ISWAP encampments, killing many terrorists. This negative trend in ISWAP’s fortunes provides Nigeria’s shadowy al-Qaeda cells with an incentive to develop more quickly their nascent network in the country’s Muslim north. The uptick in al-Qaeda’s presence there may soon draw Nigeria, along with its considerable military capabilities, more fully into the multinational counterterrorist campaign to destroy various terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM); AQIM cells already operate along Nigeria’s northern border with Niger.
Syria’s eight-year civil war, after reaching a crescendo with the elimination of ISIS’s territorial Caliphate, provided al-Qaeda the incentive to demonstrate that it was a more durable resistance force against the “apostate” regime of President Bashir al-Assad.
The brutality of ISIS terrorists had apparently contributed to the downfall of their caliphate. Al-Qaeda, in spite of its own harsh governance of territory under its control, is less maniacal than ISIS in administering conquered populations. One can see the way it has tried to manage Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, the only area of the country still in rebel hands.
The significance of al-Qaeda’s choke-hold on Idlib cannot be underestimated. The province and nearby lands include parts of Latakia, where Russia has had naval and air facilities for decades. This is a huge boost for al-Qaeda’s image among Syrian rebels, especially when they compare it to the collapse of ISIS in Raqqa.
Most al-Qaeda members in Tunisia are veterans of the mujahedeen (1979-1989) war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. The number of the country’s ISIS fighters is increasing, due to the recruitment of Tunisians who returned home after volunteering in the struggle against the Assad regime in Syria. Some of these recruits joined ISIS while they were in Syria. Others migrated to Libya to establish bases from which to commit cross-border attacks on Tunisia.
Although al-Qaeda has long been the dominant jihadi faction in Indonesia, operating under the Southeast Asian terrorist coalition, Jamiyat Islamiyah, ISIS has established a considerable foothold in the island nation. This apparently prompted Indonesia’s military chief, General Gatot Nurmantyo, in 2017, to warn that ISIS “has cells in almost every province of the country.” Nurmantyo’s alarm was, in part, occasioned by the seizure of the city of Marawi in the neighboring Philippines by ISIS-allied terrorist factions.
The West should take no pleasure in the global competition between al-Qaeda and ISIS. It is a competition that incentivizes each terrorist network to upgrade its recruitment appeal for the next generation of jihadists. Both organizations, as a result of having been targeted by the U.S. military, have honed their survival skills. Both also continue to improve their propaganda capabilities on social media, which will doubtless lead to more young Muslims becoming radicalized.
In its effort to sustain a pro-Western regime in Afghanistan, the United States might instead take advantage of an opportunity already in place. In an area of such unrest, and where it is still unclear what the word of those making promises is worth, it might be wise to keep a modest footprint rather than withdraw all troops. To abandon the area totally, as President Obama abandoned Syria and Iraq, and then find it overrun with terrorist groups, would be, as one saw, a catastrophic mistake. The choice would then be either to live with an even more threatening failed state, or having to go back again to contain it, as President Trump, had to do with ISIS in an abandoned Middle East. Although admittedly less than ideal, it still be might be far less costly in life and treasure, as with the Middle East, to safeguard the area and gather intelligence, rather than to leave and then have to go back. It is an opportunity that would be foolhardy to give up.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.