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Islamic State’s Loss of Territory Creates Opportunity for its Rival

By Robert Swift | The Media Line

March 16, 2017

Fighters from the former Al-Nusra Front -- renamed Fateh al-Sham Front after breaking from Al-Qa’ida -- listen to a speech at an armament school after they recaptured two military academies and a third military position south of Aleppo on August 6, 2016, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. (OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

Is Al-Qa’ida operating from the shadows or disappearing altogether?

In the shifting sands of today’s Middle Eastern security politics, a year is a long time. The Islamic State, not so long ago famed for its territorial caliphate, is steadily losing ground and will likely be pushed out of Mosul, its Iraqi capital, within weeks, or at most months. Raqqa, the organization’s headquarters in Syria, is also looking vulnerable as groups opposed to ISIS make advances on the battlefield.

At the start of 2016 The Media Line published a story examining the differences between the Islamic State (ISIS) and its mentor turned rival, Al-Qa’ida. Now TML takes another look at the rivalry to see how ISIS’ loss of territory – its unique selling point – has affected the bitter competition to be the banner holder for global Sunni Jihadism.

Previously, it was noted that strategy, and not ideology, differentiates the two organizations. The key difference between them was the prestige ISIS acquired when it declared its caliphate, its Islamic state, in 2014 as it swept across north-western Iraq. A territory of its own was something Al-Qa’ida never achieved, so ISIS’ pronouncement represented the moment when the protégé eclipsed its rival to become the master. Recruits to ISIS flooded in as a result.

But the caliphate did not endure. With assistance from various international forces the Iraqi government is clawing back its territory, shattering ISIS’ claim to sovereignty. So where does this put Al-Qa’ida? Will they gain from the upstart’s loss of its crowning achievement?

First of all, it must be noted that few are suggesting ISIS is on the verge of destruction. Like so many insurgent groups before it, the forces commanded by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will likely slip away to lick their wounds. As the Taliban has proven, if an armed group has a safe space to retreat into, a state can injure it but never truly kill an insurgency.

Hilal Kashan, a professor of political studies and department chair at the American University of Beirut, suggested that for ISIS this space will be the “shelter [of] the vast Iraqi and Syrian desert.” A number of analysts and military planners have concurred with this assessment, articulated by Kashan, that the fall of Mosul and Raqqa will simply lead to a new phase in the life of the Islamic State.

In the meantime, attention has returned to the architects behind the September 11th hijackings. “In the West, the near consensus is that… Al-Qa’ida is going to be resurgent in the next 12 to 18 months,” Patrick Johnston, a US based analyst with the RAND corporation told The Media Line. The United States – and its allies – have a, “tendency to focus on one adversary, often in isolation from the rest of the environment and context,” and this had given the group time to recover from its loss of face at the hands of ISIS.

A slew of strikes against Al-Qa’ida targets in recent months suggests that the US is attempting to rectify this by turning one eye towards the group even as it continues to degrade ISIS personnel. But the feeling among some Middle Eastern commentators is that this is missing the point.

“Actually, Al-Qa’ida is finished. Daesh is the younger movement,” Otail Al Jaffal, an Iraqi journalist told The Media Line, using ISIS’ Arabic title. “Al-Qa’ida was finished [globally] with the death of Osama Bin Laden and [finished] in Iraq with the death of Zarqawi,” Jaffal opined. This view flies in the face of Western analysts’ thinking, but Al Jaffal is not alone in believing it.

“As far as we know Al-Qa’ida is a thing of the past, events since the beginning of the Syrian uprising have overtaken them,” Hilal Kashan said. Al Qa’ida is merely a brand name anybody can subscribe to, and has no real presence on the ground anymore, Kashan argued, pointing to the lack of leadership demonstrated by the group’s nominal head Ayman al-Zawahiri in recent years.

Western analysts seem unconvinced. The older Jihadist group might not be capitalizing as well as it could on ISIS’ losses but it is by no means old news, Matthew Henman, the head of the Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in the United Kingdom, suggested.

“The group is highly focused and has not changed its intentions, though it is changing the way it operates,” Henman told The Media Line, adding, “the big thing they are focusing on is disguising the Al-Qa’ida name.”

Throughout different areas of the Middle East, whether it be in Yemen, Syria or in north Africa, Al- Qa’ida affiliates have rebranded themselves and formed close alliances with local armed groups. As an example, Henman pointed to Al-Nusra – Al-Qa’ida’s front in the Syrian war – and its many attempts to demonstrate its local focus, distancing itself from the legacy of Osama Bin Laden and global Jihad. After yet another round of altered allegiances, and another name shift, the group is identifying itself as Tahrir al-Sham, as of January this year.

“They’ve watched what the Islamic State has done and they’re learning from it,” Henman argued. Shouting your name from the roof tops and claiming responsibility for attacks taking place in Europe and the US might garner prestige but it also attracts a strong counter-terrorism response. Al-Qa’ida might be operating while wearing camouflage but they are still operating, Henman explained, pointing to a string of suicide attacks in Damascus, the Syrian capital, claimed by Tahrir al-Sham in recent days.

The explosions in Damascus, aimed at Shia pilgrims and the Syrian military, are acts of frustration suggesting Al-Qa’ida is vulnerable, unable to attack the Syrian regime head on, Hilal Kashan from the American University of Beiruit countered, noting that such attacks will increase but are, “militarily insignificant.”

“Al-Qa’ida is a spent force and it is fizzling. Militancy is likely to take new labels [but] Al-Qa’ida is a thing of the past,” he concluded.

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