Zawahiri's Revenge

Why al Qaeda, not the Islamic State, is still the most dangerous terrorist organization on Earth.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham -- which has now rebranded itself "the Islamic State" (IS) -- is trying to position itself as the new leader of the global jihadist movement. After being expelled from al Qaeda's network in February, it released several blistering critiques of al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri's leadership -- then launched a stunning offensive against the Iraqi government, and subsequently declared that it had re-established the caliphate.

IS has continued its headline-grabbing exploits even after its initial explosive territorial gains, expanding its holdings in both Iraq and Syria. As the Iraqi government pushed to retake Tikrit from IS and other Sunni insurgents, the jihadist group rallied a counteroffensive that temporarily captured an airfield at Camp Speicher, a former U.S. military base that supported the Iraqi government operation. Other IS advances were accompanied by the group's characteristic over-the-top brutality, for example its capture of the Shaar gas field in Syria's Homs province, after which the group killed an estimated 270 people. In a departure from its previous tendency to target rival rebel groups, IS has also recently begun taking the fight to Assad: On July 25, its fighters ambushed and killed over 50 Syrian soldiers in northern Syria -- several were beheaded, and IS proudly displayed its grisly trophies on social media.

The success of IS has led to a widespread belief among Western observers that the group has eclipsed al Qaeda. In Newsweek, writer Kurt Eichenwald described IS as "the biggest threat" to al Qaeda, and wrote that al Qaeda "faces a growing risk of irrelevance" because of it. In Foreign Affairs, Barak Mendelsohn argued that IS's success "could be a harbinger of a tectonic shift" in which IS "could supplant al Qaeda as the [jihadist] movement's leader"; others have claimed that the shift has already occurred.

IS's blood-soaked gains represent a real transnational challenge. It is currently a more formidable force than al Qaeda in both Iraq and Syria -- the latter being a theater that will fundamentally shape a new generation of jihadists. That alone will make the group a force to reckon with for years to come.

Nevertheless, commentators appear to be overestimating IS's strengths and underestimating al Qaeda's. It is Zawahiri's organization, not the Islamic State, that will most likely pose the top jihadist threat to the United States and other Western countries in three to five years. Despite its rapid gains, the Islamic State is already showing its weaknesses -- notably in its failure to attract a deep network outside Iraq and Syria and its propensity to alienate potential partners through its brutality and refusal to compromise.

Al Qaeda's network is still intact

IS has tried on three separate occasions to woo al Qaeda's regional branches to pledge allegiance to its self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Its attempts failed every time.

In November 2013, Baghdadi began to quietly feel out whether these branches would be willing to switch their oaths of loyalty to him, according to al Qaeda sharia official Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir. In May 2014, IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani publicly made the call for defections, asking for all of al Qaeda's branches to issue "an official statement" about the group and its approach to jihad. No public affirmations of IS were forthcoming -- and the Caucasus Emirate, a jihadist group opposed to the Russian government, went even further, publicly declaring Zawahiri to be its emir for the first time.

IS's June announcement of the caliphate was the most explicit challenge to al Qaeda yet. Resurrecting the caliphate is a goal shared by most jihadists -- it is a concept not only about projecting power, but is also about establishing a legitimate ruling authority. Sayyid Qutb, one of the intellectual forefathers of jihadist thought, believed that Islam could not truly be practiced without a caliphate unifying the Muslim world and implementing Islamic law. Because this imagined caliphate would usurp the authority of all other bodies, IS's caliphate announcement was a bold attempt to claim unilateral authority over the entire Muslim world, including other jihadist groups. Its official statement announcing the caliphate made this clear, declaring that "the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliphate's authority."

However, not one of al Qaeda's official branches elected to join Baghdadi's caliphate. While the Islamic State certainly has supporters within all of al Qaeda's branches -- particularly among disgruntled elements or lower-level foot soldiers -- this support hasn't translated into a shifting of loyalties or widespread personnel defections.

The branches of al Qaeda's international network responded to IS's announcement of the caliphate in different ways - but none of them came close to pledging loyalty to Baghdadi. On July 1, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) released a statement praising the Sunni advances in Iraq and calling for IS to reconcile with its jihadist rivals in Syria -- a message that echoes that of Zawahiri and al Qaeda's central leadership. When that announcement was widely misinterpreted as a signal that the group was on its way to defection, AQIM released a new statement on July 14 declaring that it remained loyal to al Qaeda and that it rejected the Islamic State's caliphate. In Tunisia, Ansar al-Sharia first publicly denied rumors that it had joined IS's enterprise, then reposted on its official Facebook page AQIM's statement condemning the caliphate announcement.

Though al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is often considered the jihadist group's most dangerous branch, hasn't directly addressed IS's caliphate announcement, its recent messages have hardly been subtle. In early July, the jihadist group released a poem from Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who serves as both AQAP's emir and also al Qaeda's general manager, praising Zawahiri, whom he described as the "sheikh father" and the "apple of the eyes of jihadists of this time." Shortly afterward, AQAP released a video from two of its most prominent ideologues rebuking those who "slander" veteran jihadists. The video was clearly aimed at IS's officials and supporters, who have become increasingly hostile toward Zawahiri.

The Islamic State's problems in expanding its network will likely continue, as the group has already alienated the most influential jihadist ideologues. For example, two of the most credible jihadist authorities, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, are both highly critical of IS and Baghdadi's caliphate. In late May, while still in a Jordanian prison, Maqdisi released a stinging assessment calling IS a "deviant organization" -- and then reiterated that criticism in another statement in June, following his release, in which he wondered aloud if Baghdadi would use the caliphate declaration as a pretext to kill jihadists who refused to offer their allegiance.

Abu Qatada, who has been imprisoned in Jordan since 2013, has reinforced Maqdisi's criticisms. A pamphlet containing Abu Qatada's denunciation of IS has been circulating online, arguing that the caliphate announcement is "void and meaningless because it was not approved by jihadists in other parts of the world." Abu Qatada's critique resonates in the jihadist community, and has been echoed by prominent clerics.

With its network still intact, al Qaeda maintains a deeper and more capable global organization than IS. Baghdadi and IS have attracted a large number of followers, but the A-list jihadist talent remains in al Qaeda's camp. Not only have they failed to grab the reins of the global jihad, but they are now in the process of repeating Iraqi jihadists' prior strategic errors, which will further hamper their ability to become the movement's new leader.

A tale of two strategies

This isn't the first time observers believed an Iraq-based jihadist group had eclipsed al Qaeda.

From 2005 to 2007, some argued that IS's predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and its emir, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had eclipsed Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda. Zarqawi, after all, was extraordinarily popular with young jihadists. He reveled in the brutality he inflicted, releasing videos of his victims being beheaded, and slaughtering Shiite Muslims, whom he called "a sect of treachery and betrayal." And like IS, Zarqawi succeeded in controlling territory in one of the region's critical countries: An assessment written by Col. Peter Devlin in August 2006 found that AQI had become the "dominant organization of in?uence" in Anbar province.

But al Qaeda was not happy with Zarqawi's approach. Zawahiri, who was then al Qaeda's deputy emir, reprimanded AQI's leader in a letter urging him not to "be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the sheikh of the slaughterers." He warned that these fanatics "do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq."

Zawahiri was right, and Zarqawi was wrong. Although Zarqawi captured the imagination of young zealots who romanticized his violence, AQI not only met defeat but also weakened the broader al Qaeda organization by diminishing its brand. An academic review of how AQI lost Iraq provides a lengthy account of the group's failings: It wrongly assumed that other insurgent groups would accept its primacy, employed brutality that earned it the enmity of the region's tribal groups, and implemented its extreme version of Islamic law, thereby alienating local groups. These mistakes are all strikingly familiar in light of IS's recent conduct.

AQI's rise and fall aren't perfectly analogous to the case of IS. For starters, the United States invested much blood and treasure in a "surge" of forces that buttressed local uprisings against AQI. America is less invested in the fight for Iraq today, and Baghdad is in disarray. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is widely despised outside of his corrupt patronage network, which nurtures cronyism at the expense of a truly representative government -- his failures, coupled with the poor performance of Iraq's military, make IS's job considerably easier.

While the Islamic State appears to be making the same mistakes all over again, AQI's high-profile collapse -- and the revolutions of the Arab Spring -- caused al Qaeda to significantly shift its approach. Al Qaeda ideologues began to emphasize that the old regimes had kept citizens from knowing true Islam, and thus argued that it was important to reintroduce people to the faith relatively slowly rather than by simply exerting their will through force. Groups associated with al Qaeda in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia began to expand their dawa (proselytism) efforts, which were intended to win popular support for jihadist ideology. Even some of the most hard-line parts of al Qaeda's international network have recognized that they need to implement their version of Islamic law gradually. AQIM emir Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud (aka Abdelmalek Droukdel), for example, wrote a letter to his fighters in northern Mali after they captured territory there, warning that one of their "wrong policies" was "the extreme speed with which you applied sharia, not taking into consideration the gradual evolution that should be applied in an environment that is ignorant of religion."

Al Qaeda's base is back

There's no denying that IS has a number of significant strengths, especially its military prowess in Iraq and Syria. Its exploits, however, are sometimes overstated -- or made up out of whole cloth. For example, after IS overran Mosul, media outlets reported that the group had captured over $400 million from the city's central bank, making it the richest terrorist group on the planet. Less noticed was a careful follow-up report in the Financial Times revealing that, according to Iraqi officials and bankers, there was no evidence that any bank robbery had occurred at all.

Similarly, the Islamic State is reportedly making $1 million a day from the sale of crude oil from fields it controls. The reality, however, is more complex: Though $1 million changes hands from these transactions, the claim that IS reaps all the benefit is misleading because the group does not control all the proceeds, which are shared with tribes and other rebel groups. And while IS has an impressive amount of income, it is also spending a great deal of money holding the territory that it has come to control. The group lacks skilled professionals to maintain even basic governance functions, such as electricity, trash collection, and pre-existing social services, so it has to spend money to ensure that those functions continue.

The Islamic State's present might be bright, but its future looks dim. It has done nothing but make enemies in Syria, and the coalition of Sunni groups it managed to cobble together in Iraq is quickly descending into infighting. Further, while IS's brutality may yield some advantages in the region - namely, increasing Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions, which plays to IS's advantage -- its brand, like AQI's before it, is bound to take a hit internationally.

In contrast, al Qaeda can expect a significant boost in the near term. Though the group's senior leadership in Pakistan has been disrupted by drone strikes for several years, the U.S. drone campaign has already been significantly reduced. And as the United States pulls out from Afghanistan, al Qaeda will find new safe havens in the country. The remote provinces of Kunar and Nuristan are home to significant cadres of al Qaeda fighters, and al Qaeda continues to operate side by side with its allies in other parts of the country. This provides al Qaeda's senior leadership, which has in the past proven quite resilient to the loss of personnel, an opportunity to increase its international reach in the coming years.

While the Islamic State has antagonized would-be allies, al Qaeda has long operated in South Asia as part of what former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called a jihadist "syndicate." It has long-standing and close ties to groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Pakistani Taliban, among others. And al Qaeda-aligned factions in South Asia have grown over the past two months with the public announcements of loyalty to Zawahiri from Junud al-Fida and Ansar ut-Tawheed, both of which are active in Afghanistan. The increasing strength of these groups will redound to al Qaeda's benefit: As Gates put it, "What we see is that the success of any one of these groups leads to new capabilities and a new reputation for all."

It's tempting to write off Afghanistan as largely irrelevant to the dispute between IS and al Qaeda. But just as IS has gained momentum from its gains in Iraq, al Qaeda and its allies are likely to do the same in Afghanistan in the coming months. Al Qaeda recently reaffirmed its loyalty to Mullah Omar, the Taliban's reclusive emir. This may be an attempt to undermine Baghdadi's claim to be the caliph by portraying Mullah Omar as the jihadists' rightful leader, as well as an effort to cement al Qaeda's place in a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan should Mullah Omar's forces conquer parts of the country once again.

Furthermore, there is a very real risk that IS's brutality, even toward its fellow jihadists, will help al Qaeda gain the upper hand. In Syria, the population and other rebel groups have deemed al Qaeda's local branch, the Nusra Front, to be a more moderate alternative to IS. In the short run this hasn't stopped IS from achieving tactical victories over Nusra -- but over the longer term, the Nusra Front may have the more viable strategy.

But even if al Qaeda can't best the Islamic State in Syria, it will likely remain the top jihadist threat globally. As with AQI during its heyday, the Islamic State is comprised of brilliant tacticians with no strategic vision -- they are seemingly unable to envision where the group will be next year, let alone five years down the line. Al Qaeda's vision, on the other hand, promises to keep counterterrorism analysts up at night for years to come.

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The Xinjiangistan Connection

With terror attacks on the rise, officials in Beijing are increasingly worried that Pakistan is an incubator of Islamic radicalism across China.

When the Pakistani army launched its campaign in the militant-riddled tribal region North Waziristan in June, it was tempting to attribute the operation to U.S. pressure. For many years, Washington has been urging Pakistan to move against this terrorist haven, situated in the northwest corner of the country on the Afghan border. Indeed, only weeks earlier, the U.S. Congress made the initiation of operations there -- which involved tens of thousands of Pakistani troops and the evacuation of nearly half a million people -- a precondition for future military assistance. But the security needs of China, Pakistan's "all-weather friend," probably proved even more important than Congress in Islamabad's calculations.

China is struggling with its worst series of terrorist attacks in decades. Xinjiang, a Muslim region in China's northwest bordering Pakistan, has long been wracked with tension between the Chinese government, the swelling ranks of Han Chinese migrants, and the native population of Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people. Especially over the last year, disgruntled Uighurs -- often acting in armed groups demanding greater autonomy or a fully independent state of East Turkistan -- have been a thorn in Beijing's side. Chinese state media reported that on July 29, dozens of people were killed or injured after a knife-wielding gang attacked a police station in Xinjiang -- only the latest in a long series of deadly incidents in that region.

Worryingly, the violence has started to spread to China's urban centers. In October, a suicide attack in Beijing's Tiananmen Square killed six and injured 39; in March 2014, black-clad, knife-wielding assailants killed 29 and left scores more injured at a railway station in the southwestern city of Kunming. An April visit to Xinjiang by President Xi Jinping, intended to show China's resolve in the battle against terrorism, was punctuated by a bomb attack on Urumqi's railway station.

While the Uighurs' closest ethnic and political links are with Central Asia and Turkey, Pakistan is their connection to militant Islam. And ground zero for Uighur militants is the anarchic Pakistani tribal areas. For years, Beijing has been pressing Pakistan to take action against Uighur militants and their Central Asian supporters, the militant group the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), for whom North Waziristan has been an operational hub. The recent campaign notwithstanding, Pakistan's failure to deal with Uighur militants operating from its territory has become the single greatest sore point in the relationship.

It's a potentially expensive problem for Pakistan: since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to power in June 2013, China has vastly increased its level of economic commitment to the country, from 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plants to major infrastructure projects connecting Xinjiang to the Chinese-run port at Gwadar. The scale of the ambitions, which run to tens of billions of dollars, is potentially transformative. Yet realizing these projects -- and maintaining the deep trust that has been built over decades -- hinges on Islamabad handling its militancy issue in a way that successfully accommodates Chinese concerns. The Chinese political and military leadership has decided to expand investments in Pakistan, but security is still a big problem, explained one Chinese official who works on counterterrorism issues. Earlier this year, Islamabad reportedly decided to provide "army-backed security" for Chinese companies working in Pakistan. It is the Pakistan-linked threats to the Chinese mainland, however, that are Beijing's greatest concern.

The rise of the Pakistani tribal areas as an incubator of Uighur militancy is a relatively new problem. Until roughly 2008, Islamabad generally responded with alacrity to Beijing's requests, whether deporting Uighur students, closing down Uighur community centers, or killing purported terrorists. Despite the presence of a well-established Uighur population of roughly 3,000 in Pakistan, the East Turkistan cause there has at best been a peripheral one -- even sympathetic religious parties have relegated it to the margins for the sake of the country's relationship with China. And unlike the United States, which wanted to see action against a long list of extremist groups -- some of which Pakistan's intelligence services viewed as strategic assets -- China's limited objectives were relatively comfortable for Islamabad to accommodate.

The threat to China, in any case, was minimal. Although Beijing continued to invoke the "East Turkestan Islamic Movement" (ETIM), which the United Nations listed as a terrorist organization in 2002, it was unclear that such an organization even existed after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Dozens of Uighur militants had arrived in Pakistan's tribal areas among the wave of foreign fighters who fled the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, but it was a sorry band, entirely dependent for survival on larger, more capable Central Asian outfits such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In 2003, the Pakistani army killed ETIM's long-time leader, Hasan Mahsum, and in 2007 one of the Waziri tribal leaders expelled the Uighurs and their Uzbek hosts, after growing tensions over their tactics. China had by then gone nearly a decade without any notable militant attacks.

But since 2008, a group calling itself the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), largely based in North Waziristan, has claimed the ETIM mantle. After announcing itself with a series of video messages threatening attacks on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it has maintained media visibility ever since. According to sources present at the conversations, Chinese officials have told their Pakistani counterparts that they estimate TIP's numbers to be as little as a few dozen, though some Pakistani sources put it at a few hundred. While TIP has eagerly claimed responsibility for several bombings in China, even officials in Beijing -- normally eager to pin the blame on nefarious overseas forces -- have refused to give the group credit for probably unrelated incidents. 

With the scale of the terrorist violence escalating, however, Chinese officials have started to point to the pernicious influence of jihadi ideology and tactics, even in the absence of operational support. Since 2008, TIP's training camps have released a worrying amount of jihadi propaganda, including videos and statements. Beijing has also grown concerned about the degree to which TIP has become networked within the array of organizations operating in North Waziristan and beyond. The propaganda material from TIP is notable for being coordinated by Al Fajr, the jihadist media forum run by al Qaeda, giving them a reach -- including Arabic translations -- they had previously lacked. Beijing's fear is not just for the impact in Xinjiang, but that the Uighur cause will attract support from a wider array of jihadi sympathizers. TIP leaders are already believed to have taken leadership positions in al Qaeda, and Uighur fighters have reportedly shown up as far afield as Syria, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates.  

As the Uighur militant movement has assumed greater prominence over the last few years, Pakistan has grown less successful in addressing their operations. While Islamabad continues to hand over low-level operatives to the Chinese, TIP's top leadership has gone virtually untouched since the killing of Mahsum more than a decade ago. In fact, the deadliest threat to Uighur militants has not been the Pakistani army but U.S. drones, which thinned out TIP's top ranks during a series of missile strikes in North Waziristan between 2010 and 2012.

China understood Pakistan's hesitation to launch a full-scale assault in North Waziristan -- the presence of militant groups backed by its intelligence services, the risk of blowback, and the sheer numbers of troops required weighed heavily in Islamabad's calculations. But Beijing has started to question whether the resilience of the Uighur militant groups might also be tied to religious sympathies among Pakistan's armed forces.

Beijing appears to trust the top ranks of the Pakistani army -- including the new Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif -- but worries about the younger generations that have come through the system since the "Islamization" of Pakistani society and the army over the last 35 years. "We're not worried about the generals, we're worried about the brigadiers," one Chinese analyst put it. In other words, top officers are sufficiently secular for Chinese tastes; the lower ranks are not.

Privately, Chinese officials and experts complain that the Pakistanis have given Uighur militants a heads-up. "When we provide them with intelligence on ETIM locations they give warnings before launching their attacks," groused a Chinese analyst familiar with intelligence issues. Foreign intelligence services have even provided material to Chinese officials that purports to show Pakistani intelligence agents at TIP training camps. "We certainly think there's a strong chance [Pakistani intelligence] has contacts and relationships with ETIM and the Uzbeks," said a Chinese official familiar with intelligence issues.

In public, Beijing has been careful not to blame Pakistan for recent developments in Xinjiang. Only officials in the Xinjiang cities of Urumqi and Kashgar -- many of whom are seeking to deflect responsibility from their own political failings -- have directly criticized Pakistan. But behind closed doors, there have been serious tensions.

During Sino-Pakistani military exchanges, while the public announcements focused on new defense deals, Chinese demands for further moves against ETIM took up a large part of the bilateral agenda, according to several current and former Chinese officials familiar with the talks. And Chinese analysts note a visible lack of willingness among some Pakistani officers to respond to Beijing's requests. "We see it in their eyes when we're sitting in the meetings," said a Chinese analyst with ties to China's People's Liberation Army (PLA). "They're not comfortable with what we're asking."

The campaign in North Waziristan will help remedy China's concerns. The Pakistani press has been full of stories about IMU and ETIM fighters killed in the first wave of attacks, and Pakistani lawmakers and officials have directly linked the operation to Chinese security interests. The plans for a longer-term army presence in the tribal agency mean that the prospects of militants re-establishing their training camps there in the next couple of years are slim. But China may be realizing -- as the United States has over the last decade -- that partnering with Islamabad in a war against terror is a frustrating process.

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