Analysis

ISIS' Defeat Brings Al-Qaida Back to the Center of the Terror Scene

Al-Qaida appears to be a leader among terror groups in Syria and Egypt that compete for manpower, money and influence. Unlike ISIS, Al-Qaida is capable of mobilizing popular support

Kurdish fighters with an Islamic State prisoner in Kobani, Syria, July 2017.
Hussei Malla / AP

Two former Nusra Front commanders made their way to a town on the Syrian-Turkish border this week for reconciliation talks with Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the head of the Syrian militant group Tahrir al-Sham.

But when they reached the al-Sham roadblock they were arrested. Now they’re awaiting trial for “trying to foment civil war,” as Julani’s people put it. Meanwhile, Julani’s people raided the homes of dozens of activists belonging to a rival organization in Idlib in northwestern Syria, and took them into custody.

On the face of it, this looks like another of the disputes during the seven-year Syrian civil war, which has generated dozens of militias. But Julani’s move marks the beginning of a new chapter in the organizations’ strategy, stemming directly from the Islamic State’s defeats in Iraq and Syria.

The two commanders who were arrested had split from the Nusra Front – which is described as Al-Qaida in Syria – in July 2016 and set up a separate militia. This militia and Julani’s Tahrir al-Sham are united in their fight against the Islamic State and the Syrian regime, but disagree over affiliating with Al-Qaida. Julani, who split from Al-Qaida, wants to preserve his group as a local Syrian organization with religious-national goals, while Al-Qaida’s goal is to fight against all “infidels” everywhere.

Julani built up his group as a legitimate rebel organization that deserved to take part in Syria’s peace process. He has reached agreements with Turkey to help Ankara rule in the Idlib province in exchange for participating in the peace moves while receiving the assistance Turkey is allegedly giving him.

The arrest of the two senior commanders upset Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who said the move contradicted all the fighting’s goals and hurt the chances of the reconciliation he proposed among the radical groups. Zawahiri even said he planned to return Al-Qaida to Syria in full force, making it clear to Julani that a new front had opened between them.

Julani said in response a few days ago that “there is no place for Al-Qaida in Idlib.” Harsh criticism was also voiced in Julani’s organization following the arrest of the two commanders, who until a year ago were brothers in arms.

Not targeting Muslim civilians

This round of confrontations, which isn’t limited to Syria, reflects the uncertainty among radical groups after the Islamic State’s defeats and the chance of its disappearance in Iraq and Syria and weakening in Libya and Yemen. An example of the indecision can be found in the conduct of some of the groups operating in Sinai and other parts of Egypt.

After the Islamic State’s massive assault on the al-Rawdah Mosque in north Sinai on November 24, at which at least 300 people were killed, the Al-Qaida affiliate Jund al-Islam denounced the massacre and called the perpetrators infidels who weren’t acting on the basis of “true Islam,” which prohibits the targeting of Muslim civilians.

Jund al-Islam also sent condolences to the victims’ families and promised to avenge the dead. The group focuses its attacks in Egypt on military targets and the security forces.

But a bedfellow of Jund al-Islam, which calls itself Ansar al-Islam and is also affiliated with Al-Qaida, carried out the attack against an Egyptian military patrol in the al-Wahat region on October 20, killing 16 officers. Ansar al-Islam is probably an old-new organization operating in the Western Desert. These are only two of about a dozen smaller organizations acting under the Al-Qaida umbrella in Egypt.

The proliferation of groups stems from Al-Qaida’s compartmentalization tactic designed in part to avoid trouble if members of one organization are captured by the Egyptian army.

The upside is these organizations’ activity against the Islamic State. In October, Jund al-Islam attacked an ISIS force in Sinai and called on its fighters to turn themselves in. In another incident, Jund ambushed an ISIS unit, intending to take the combatants alive, to no avail.

Arab experts on radical groups believe that Al-Qaida will step up its operations against the Islamic State in Sinai to restore the dominance it enjoyed before ISIS forces entered Sinai and set up the group’s largest bastion there.

Sissi warmer to Hamas

At the same time, Al-Qaida groups in Egypt haven’t declared themselves Al-Qaida yet, waiting to see how the Islamic State will act after withdrawing from Syria and Iraq. Plus they’re keeping the option of acting independently without subordinating themselves to Zawahiri’s orders. But it’s not clear whether they’ll be able to finance themselves without Al-Qaida’s help.

These groups’ organizational fluidity and their battle against the Islamic State seem to give Egypt a chance to support one group of organizations to wipe out another. But compared to the situation in Syria, where Al-Qaida’s deserters, like Julani’s group, can make covert diplomatic alliances with countries like Turkey or even Saudi Arabia, the situation in Egypt is very different.

It’s hard to see President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi coordinating military moves with Al-Qaida organizations against the Islamic State. To him, they’re all terror groups that should be eliminated.

On the other hand, Sissi, who until a year ago waged an all-out war on Hamas as the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood, found an ally in Hamas in fighting the Sinai jihadis and recognized it as a legitimate Palestinian representative, albeit not an exclusive one.

In Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is fighting the Houthis, Iran’s proteges, the monarchy refrains from attacking Al-Qaida bases in the south, as it sees the organization as a helper in blocking the Houthis’ spread to the southern desert region.

The Nusra Front also enjoyed this status when it was Al-Qaida’s leading organization in Syria. It received assistance from several Arab states that saw it as an effective force in the war against the Islamic State and the Syrian regime.

If Egypt’s tactic to wipe out the Islamic State fails, there’s a possibility that Al-Qaida’s groups will join forces there and resume the strategy they had before ISIS’ entry and Hosni Mubarak’s fall in 2011. This could entail mustering greater public support for Al-Qaida.

Sissi may be trying to conduct a campaign to root out the radical elements from schools, mosques and publications, but the initiative is very vague and seen as a means to purge political rivals more than a plan to curb religious excess. It’s doubtful whether this new approach can deal with Al-Qaida’s radicalism if the group chalks up new achievements.