How ISIS' Strategy Differs From Al-Qaida's

The objective for the Islamic State is not the West, but uniting the various Islamic groups under its leadership. It isn’t working out so well in Syria.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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People watch as smoke rises from the town of Kobani, northern Syria, on October 26, 2014.
People watch as smoke rises from the town of Kobani, northern Syria, on October 26, 2014.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A unique weekly supplement, bearing the title The Entanglements of Terror, was launched last month in the international Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat. In it, Saudi researchers and others try to sketch out the characteristics of the Islamic terror organizations and the phenomenon of modern Islamic terrorism.

The latest magazine included an article analyzing the speech by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State (also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL), a short time after he was reportedly seriously injured in a U.S.-led air strike.

Researcher Yusuf al-Dini states that, in addition to Baghdadi’s intention of proving that he not wounded in the attack, the ISIS leader also used his speech to present his new strategy, which will characterize ISIS from now on. Baghdadi is attempting to build bases all over the Middle East, then the entire world, with his main objectives being Arab regimes and countries – first of all, Saudi Arabia.

It seems the effort to capture more territory in Iraq and Syria, which has been blocked for now, will be accompanied by terror attacks in other Arab countries, with the aim of recruiting more and more supporters, who will establish movements that will conquer territories within those countries. According to this analysis, the difference between the strategies of ISIS and Al-Qaida is that Western nations are not at the top of ISIS’ list – at least, not at this stage.

Baghdadi is investing large efforts to bring dozens of radical organizations under his wing, including Islamic rebel militias operating in Syria, terrorist organizations in Sinai and North Africa, and Al-Qaida cells in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In some cases, he has succeeded. For example, the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis organization that operates in Sinai has sworn allegiance to Baghdadi, as has Al-Qaida’s branch in Morocco and some Taliban groups in Pakistan. But he is actually having a hard time uniting the Islamic militias in Syria under his leadership.

The Chechnyan connection

One of the less well-known organizations operating in Syria is part of Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz (the Caucasus Soldiers’ Group), whose main base is in the Latakia province of northern Syria. This is an independent group of volunteers from Chechnya and Dagestan, who previously fought against the Russian army in Chechnya. This group is a remnant of the Muhajireen Brigade (the Army of Emigrants and Supporters), which was founded in 2012 by Chechnyan Abu Omar al-Shishani to fight the Assad regime in Syria. This group was attached to what is known as the Caucasus Emirate, which was established in 2007 by Doku Umarov, who headed the separatist anti-Russian government in Chechnya.

Despite its name, the organization that operates in Syria does not include all the Chechnyan volunteers fighting there, some of whom are fighting in the ranks of the Nusra Front (also known as Jabhat al-Nusra). But most have joined the Muhajireen Brigade, and a few small groups are also part of another group, the Islamic Front.

This month, the commanders of the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al-Qaida, tried, along with the commanders of the Chechnyan group, to reach understandings with the heads of ISIS – in an attempt to prevent mutual attacks by these militias on each other, which would damage their struggle against the Assad regime.

However, the “deputy secretary of defense” of ISIS demanded his guests first swear loyalty to Baghdadi as a precondition for an agreement – a demand that was rejected by the Chechnyan commanders, who explained that they had already sworn allegiance to the Caucasus Emirate.

This is just one example of the complicated entanglement of relationships and rivalries between the various militias in Syria, where each zealously guards its hold on its own territory and own unique organization, partly because they are also dependent on these supporters for donations.

The differences between the militias are based on ideological conflicts, too. For instance, the ruling of Issam al-Barkawi (also known as Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi), the leader of the Jordanian salafi-jihadi stream, forbade jihadist organizations from swearing allegiance to ISIS. Barkawi, a Palestinian originally, was the spiritual disciple of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaida’s commander in Iraq during the first years of the American occupation there.

Barkawi sent a letter to the Islamic militias fighting in Syria last August, in which he warned against murdering Muslims. “You only have one soul, and you must know very well where to leave it. You will not return to this world after it leaves ... Do not agree to blow yourselves up in Muslim centers since that is not jihad, but aggression and crime.” Such words are from someone who was once considered a spiritual leader of Al-Qaida, a man who has stopped preaching killing in Iraq and Syria and is now actually fighting the spread of ISIS – the greatest enemy of Al-Qaida.

Given these conflicts between the organizations, one can only wonder at the term “moderate rebel organizations” that the U.S. government has granted to the Islamic groups it is willing to provide aid to. It seems this definition of moderate will lead the Obama administration to see even the Al-Qaida branches as “moderate organizations” compared to the Islamic State. After all, Al-Qaida and the United States have already cooperated in Afghanistan and Bosnia.

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