What happens when you’re the meanest player on a team with a history of violence (say, the Philadelphia Flyers from the 1970s), but you disobey the coach too many times? No matter how good on the field, pitch or ice you may be, the head office has no choice but to cut you from the roster.
This happened recently in the world of international terrorism, where al-Qaida Central became fed up with one of its franchises and disavowed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, or ISIS. This is the first time al-Qaida cut ties with one of its regional groups — surprisingly so since ISIS has been successfully driving the jihadist agenda in the heart of the Middle East.
This split is good news for the U.S. and its allies. Here’s why:
The breakup might degrade ISIS’ desire to strike globally: Losing al-Qaida’s seal of approval calls into question ISIS’ rationale for existing — that is, to eventually expand the jihad beyond Iraq and Syria’s borders.
Branding matters. Some organizations claim the mantle of “al-Qaida affiliate” or “al-Qaida linked” because it provides a degree of international notoriety. It must now be very disconcerting for the group’s members — one day you’re part of the global jihadist vanguard, and the next day you’re no longer part of the elite club.
Furthermore, what differentiates ISIS from other groups has been its reliance on “foreign fighters.” These are usually hard-hearted individuals who wage jihad not for local, parochial reasons, but rather to drive the wider civilizational conflict. For many jihadists and jihadist-wannabes, losing al-Qaida’s brand calls into question whether the group really wanted to fight the broader war. They might now look elsewhere to pursue their goals.
The breakup damages ISIS’ capacity to strike globally: Without willing and capable individuals, it’ll be harder for ISIS to carry out operations outside of Iraq/Syria. Since Syria has been described as the training ground for the next generation of global jihadists, starving the group of recruits is critical in order to reduce future terrorist violence elsewhere.
After all, ISIS’ predecessor organizations, al-Qaida in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq, wanted to exploit the conflict within Iraq for international operations. After pledging allegiance to Osama bin Ladin in 2004, the group carried out numerous strikes, such as November 2005’s horrific hotel bombings in Amman, Jordan. The same year, it tried to hit the U.S.S. Kearsarge and the U.S.S. Ashland while they were docked in Aqaba. (They missed.) Finally, the group was linked to two attempted car bombings outside London nightclubs and a botched strike on Glasgow International Airport in 2007.
In more recent times, the U.S. in mid-2011 charged two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky for ties to the Iraqi group. Even worse, Jordan thwarted a major attack in 2012 when the group tried to hit the U.S. Embassy in Amman. Turkey has been so concerned with the metastasizing threat that its air force recently bombed ISIS convoys within Syria itself.
After al-Qaida’s statement, however, ISIS might think twice about attacking outside Iraq/Syria since it will be operating outside of long-established terror networks. After all, what would be the purpose of external operations if al-Qaida — the top Sunni group that supports this “far jihad” type of mission — explicitly disavows the effort?
Al-Qaida’s disavowal hurts ISIS within Iraq/Syria: Jihadists are continually concerned with fitna, or discord “among the brothers,” and al-Qaida’s dismissal underscores what many jihadists already believe: ISIS is run by uncompromising jerks who attack civilians and who don’t play well with others.
Removing al-Qaida’s brand hurts ISIS in other ways. Well-established al-Qaida financiers might deny ISIS assistance. Other al-Qaida franchises and jihadist groups could denounce ISIS as traitors to the cause. Finally, future ISIS recruits may consider the organization too doctrinally toxic or too incompetent to join.
It’s still early in the game — one al-Qaida Central press release will not fatally undermine ISIS, at least in the short run. The group has shown its military prowess lately, reconquering areas in Syria that it lost a few months ago. Furthermore, ISIS has always been operationally, if not ideologically, separate from al-Qaida Central. And the group still remains a formidable force—its latest wave of carbombs throughout central Iraq killed more than two dozen people.
It will take time to
determine whether this break up will translate to hard numbers on the ground. But
permanent banishment from al-Qaida’s clubhouse may well be the beginning of the
end for an organization that has inflicted so much misery in the region — and has
the terrible intent and capacity to export and inflict so much chaos outside
its borders. This is a good news story.