Why al Qaeda might be the biggest winner of America's airstrikes on the Islamic State.
- By Daveed Gartenstein-RossDaveed Gartenstein-Ross is senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and lecturer in world politics at the Catholic University of America. He is author of several books and monographs, most recently Bin Laden's Legacy.
Washington says its air war on the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Syria is part of a strategy to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the organization. It may have another effect: swelling al Qaeda’s ranks and giving the jihadist group that Osama bin Laden founded a new lease on life.
In the first round of airstrikes that began last night, IS wasn’t the only target. The United States also hit positions belonging to the Khorasan Group, an al Qaeda-linked group that intelligence agencies allege has been planning an imminent attack in Europe or the United States. Warplanes also hit targets affiliated with al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s recognized affiliate in Syria.
But those strikes may not be enough to stop an al Qaeda resurgence — and may not even be intended to. Statements from both U.S. Central Command and President Barack Obama suggest that the strikes against non-IS targets were designed exclusively to disrupt this planned attack and that future U.S. strikes will be more narrowly focused on the Islamic State. Underscoring the limited scope of anti-al Qaeda bombing, the initial round of strikes against Khorasan didn’t attempt to take out the group’s leaders.
If the United States, satisfied with having disrupted the Khorosan Group’s plot, moves forward with a narrow focus on IS targets, it may create an incentive for individuals and groups within IS, an al Qaeda offshoot, to defect back to the mother organization. Al Qaeda’s leadership seems to understand this: In a series of moves that have flown below most analysts’ radar, al Qaeda appears to be deliberately positioning itself to snap up as much of its rival’s manpower as possible in the event of a continued air campaign that focuses on IS.
The Islamic State has put itself in a very vulnerable position, fighting on at least three fronts simultaneously in Iraq and Syria. But the Obama administration is in its own kind of bind: Openly aligning with Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime is regarded as a non-starter — as it should be. In scrambling for allies on the ground, the administration has committed to training and arming moderate rebels.
Many rebel factions in Syria, moderate and extremist alike, are eager to fight IS. Prior to its dramatic June offensive that captured several Iraqi cities, all of IS’s major gains in Syria came from defeating other rebels rather than regime forces. IS has fought several battles with Nusra, and is believed to be responsible for the February suicide bombing in Aleppo that killed Abu Khalid al-Suri, al Qaeda’s chief representative in Syria. More recently, many observers, including jihadists, believe IS was responsible for the dramatic car bomb attack in Idlib this month that killed more than a dozen senior leaders in the jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham. IS has also fought the Kurds and moderate Syrian opposition factions like the Free Syrian Army.
In contrast, the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra has forged strong ties with Syrian rebels across the spectrum. Part of the reason for this approach is the lessons al Qaeda took from its disastrous experience in Iraq from 2006 to 2009, when IS’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, massively overplayed its hand by brutalizing the population in areas it controlled while ruthlessly enforcing its draconian version of Islamic law. Al Qaeda in Iraq suffered humiliating losses at the hands of the resulting local resistance, helped by a surge of U.S. troops. To avoid a repeat of that experience, al Qaeda’s leadership developed a greater ability to cooperate with other groups — essentially its own variation on counterinsurgency.
Various media outlets have reported Nusra’s success in building cooperative relations with more moderate rebel groups. Voice of America noted in July that Nusra "cooperates with other rebel groups — both moderates and Islamists," a statement echoed by other reports. Nusra even works with rebel groups that are backed by the United States, a fact the Wall Street Journal exposed in May, but that probably should have been obvious long before. After all, moderate U.S.-backed rebels were quick to express outrage when the State Department designated Nusra a terrorist group in December 2012.
Since Nusra works closely with other rebels, and as the United States is going to build up moderate forces to counter IS on the ground, extending the air campaign to long-term targeting of Nusra could result in the incoherent policy of simultaneously arming, training, and bombing the same people. Nusra is embedded with groups that Washington will be supporting, and likely cannot easily be distinguished for the purposes of airstrikes.
Crafting a strategy for Syria is difficult. After an initial battery of strikes that targeted both IS and the Khorasan Group, policymakers may choose to more narrowly focus on IS moving forward. There are certainly advantages to that narrow approach. Focusing on the primary target of this campaign rather than opening up other fronts keeps the operation limited and, policymakers might hope, victory achievable. But an emphasis on degrading and destroying IS while giving a pass to other jihadist groups in Syria could have serious consequences that could leave al Qaeda in the catbird seat.
The potential for the air campaign to cause defections away from IS and to al Qaeda is based on two factors: First, a narrowly focused campaign creates an incentive for those within IS to defect because they will be less likely to find themselves on the receiving end of a Tomahawk missile. Yes, there are points of disagreement between the two groups — al Qaeda prefers a strategic use of violence over IS’s indiscriminate slaughter, and pro-al Qaeda scholars believe IS’s caliphate declaration failed to satisfy sharia requirements — but returning to al Qaeda wouldn’t be like joining a synagogue. Both are Salafi jihadist organizations committed to re-establishing the caliphate.
Al Qaeda is reportedly making an aggressive attempt to bring IS factions back into the fold already. Nusra has launched attacks against the Lebanese town of Arsal in cooperation with IS. In Damascus, meanwhile, Nusra brokered a truce between IS and the rest of the opposition earlier this month. There are signs that such efforts may be paying off: In late August, IS’s affiliate in Homs province handed its headquarters over to Nusra.
The potential for defections is no secret to IS or al Qaeda. The Syrian opposition newspaper Zaman al-Wasl has reported that local sources, and seemingly IS itself, have "strong expectations" that Syrians will defect. Al Qaeda, through its leaders and affiliates, has been setting the stage for these defections: The recent joint statement from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), both of which are in touch with al Qaeda’s central command, calling for jihadist unity in the face of the impending U.S. intervention is a good example of the strategy al Qaeda is trying to execute.
Many observers have interpreted the statement in a manner similar to the Financial Times, which not only described it as supportive of IS, but actually claimed that it "appears to break with the line taken by al Qaeda’s official leadership in Pakistan" by doing so. But there is a very different way to understand the statement, given that the document both begins and ends with indirect yet clear criticism of IS.
The statement’s first paragraph contains a thundering condemnation of infighting among the jihadists, stating that this dynamic helps only the "Zionists, Cross worshipers, Rejectionists [a derogatory term for Shiites], and Nusayris [referring to the Alawite regime]." Note: Al Qaeda holds IS responsible for this devastating infighting. And the statement concludes by returning to that infighting, offering "sincere condolences" to the Ahrar al-Sham leadership whom IS is believed to have killed.
The statement speaks to several audiences, one of which is members of IS, as it directly addresses "our mujahedin brothers in Iraq and the Levant." The statement is designed to reassure them that, despite the differences between the two groups, al Qaeda believes in jihadist unity. It implores the mujahideen to "end the infighting among you and stand as one front against America’s campaign." Rather than a statement of support, the AQAP-AQIM statement may well be a bid to gobble up IS’s ranks under the pretext of jihadist ecumenicism. Read between the lines and it’s a condemnation of IS’s leaders, who have brought the Syrian jihad to the brink of ruin. Only al Qaeda offers a solution.