Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Islamic State is Troublesome Even for Other Terrorist Groups

     The Islamic State militants have raised the bar for terrorism.  Their unprecedented seizure of territory and disregard for western drawn borders has created an alarming predicament for western governments, and subsequently their former parent organization al-Qaeda.  After being excommunicated from al-Qaeda, the Syrian civil war became much more complicated as rebels who maintained a tactically familiar relationship with official al-Qaeda fighters, Jabhat al-Nusra, to help topple Bashar al-Assad's regime were now also battling militants from what is now called the Islamic State. 

     First, the Islamic State, as their name suggests, has done what senior al-Qaeda leadership has sought to do since its very existence.  This has raised concerns regarding the influence of core al-Qaeda to reign in affiliates and the decision making ability of its leaders for splitting with the Islamic State (then the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or ISIS.)  Given the wide ranging success of the Islamic State, as the Washington Post reported last week, many fighters from other terrorist organizations, namely al-Qaeda, have left to join the Islamic state and pledge intelligence to newly declared Caliph Ibrahim (or better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.)  The Post report noted, though, that "Counterterrorism analysts at the CIA and other agencies have so far seen no indication that an entire al-Qaeda node or any of its senior leaders are prepared to switch sides."

     Second, according to the Post report, the majority of defectors are coming from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  AQAP is considered by US officials to be the most dangerous of the al-Qaeda entities in terms of their capabilities and previous attempts to attack the US homeland.  It has been reported recently that AQAP has possibly been coordinating with fighters from the Islamic State, which caused United States Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to heighten security for US bound flights from abroad for fear militants would attempt to smuggle a bomb aboard an aircraft.  Furthermore, a top AQAP leader has welcomed the success of the Islamic State.  "I congratulate all the Mujahideen on all battlefronts and all Muslims on the victories that our brothers in Iraq have achieved against the puppets of the (Iranians)," stated the leader.

     The proclamation of the AQAP leader is indicative of the vast influence the Islamic State wields and the division it has driven between regional governments and other terrorist entities.  While AQAP still maintains their loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of core al-Qaeda, regional struggles for AQAP against Yemeni tribes, government soldiers, and drone strikes by the US coordinated with the Yemeni government may force them to tactically align with a stronger organization that is better funded and manned.  According to reporting by Reuters, "Yemeni analysts say that AQAP for its part has been trying to imitate Islamic State, which has published images of brutal killings of Shi'ite civilians and soldiers, Christians and members of other faiths.
Last week, the militant group Ansar al-Sharia, affiliated with AQAP, kidnapped 14 Yemeni government soldiers and killed them, some by slitting their throats."

     In terms of AQIM, AFP has reported that they have "rejected the declaration of an Islamist caliphate in Iraq and Syria, saying it had 'defects' that jihadist leaders should rectify," and they have also "reiterated [their] allegiance to Zawahiri."  AQIM has enjoyed marginal success in north west Africa gaining territory in areas of Algeria (where the group originated from) but has been disrupted by French intervention in Mali recently.  Anouar Boukhars, of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, stated at a policy forum on al-Qaeda and their affiliates in May that AQIM does not have the resources necessary to maintain territorial control.  Despite French resistance, Boukhars noted that new hotspots and vacuums have emerged where AQIM has been able to benefit from.  The group specializes in kidnap-for-ransom operations as its main source for funding.  However, combined with French opposition and difficulties controlling territory, AQIM's rigid hierarchical structure, which Boukhars stated undermines their overall strategy as an al-Qaeda affiliate, may find it challenging to keep members from joining the much more bountiful Islamic State.

     The Islamic State has not only caused problems for governments, but fellow extremist groups as well.  AQAP's outspokenness (and al-Baghdadi's defiance of orders from Zawahiri to stay in Iraq and not overstep his bounds in Syria before his group was excommunicated) indicates a potential chink in the armor in terms of al-Qaeda's leadership.  President Obama's assertion that core al-Qaeda has been decimated may hold more legitimacy today with AQAP's outspokenness and core al-Qaeda's inability to control ISIS before they split.  While each al-Qaeda affiliate pledges allegiance to Zawahiri, they each enjoy regional autonomy for the most part.  The Islamic State's terror has created unlikely allies such as the United States and Iran.  If they can gain the full support of groups such as AQAP, the most dangerous of the al-Qaeda affiliates who have experienced bomb makers with the know-how to create undetectable explosives, they will doubtless become even stronger.       

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