By Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security
At the end of the day, it is all about power, command and control. Al Qaeda corporate has severed ties to its ex-Syrian counterpart, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) because the group continues to defy their influence, orders and strategic objectives.
“[Al-Qaeda] has no connection with the group called the ISIS, as it was not informed or consulted about its establishment. It was not pleased with it and thus ordered its suspension. Therefore, it is not affiliated with al-Qaeda and has no organizational relationship with it…Al-Qaeda is not responsible for ISIS’s actions.”
ISIS was instructed to refrain from killing rebel fighters and civilian supporters in the Syrian Opposition; Islamic fighters who also want to oust President Bashar al-Assad and his government.
Last Sunday, 16 rebels from the Opposition were killed by a suicide bomber in Aleppo .This came after twin suicide bombings took out 26 Islamist Tawhid Brigade fighters and a senior commander. Attacks like this have been going on for a while, even before al Qaeda’s attempt to steer their affiliate and reign in control and direct attacks at the common enemy.
All of the infighting no doubt slowed the overthrow of the Syrian government and led to Geneva II. The distance of jihadists on the ground in Syria and al Qaeda central is part of the problem. This was not the first time the group ISIS defied their overlord. The al Qaeda was against the merger of Islamic State of Iraq with al Nusra front in Syria.
There is no formal command structure. Anybody who wants to join al Qaeda and follows its tenants of faith becomes a member. Yet while this is true, the group’s fame alone and popularity for ‘standing up against America’ alone has made them the de facto leaders of this new transitional Islamic extremism. The group demands allegiance and obedience to their core objectives flowing from their top leadership, which is now, Ayman al-Zawahiri (who is by some miracle of Satan, still in the wind).
But Zawahiri is not ruling any kingdoms; instead, he is operating an international criminal jihadist militant movement somewhere in hiding. If he cannot control the movement he has no purpose or relevance and most importantly, he looks weak. In the past, he has dealt with disloyal members as traitors of the faith and had them eliminated.
Zawahiri also has had a long road out of Egypt, with the planning of high profile assassinations from Anwar Sadat to suspected involvement in Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto; and of course the ‘mastermind’ behind September 1 and previous attacks against the US embassies and other foreign assets for decade prior.
A decentralization process of al Qaeda has been going on since Spring 2001 and the ongoing US military and intelligence offensives. However, loose al Qaeda affiliates have spread all over and al Qaeda jihadist ideologies even affect people in Western states through an international extremist Islamic interpretation. Europeans can count hundreds of volunteers, while it was just reported that 50 Americans, for example, have gone to participate as jihadists in the Syrian Civil War.
This latest action to disown groups that do not hold their allegiance highlights the vulnerabilities and opportunities of divide and conquer counterterrorism tactics that should not prove too difficult to apply, given the nature of the enemy and the fixation and fascination with regional political openings. Still, it should not be read into too far. The difference is that ¨disowning¨ allows Zawahiri a coup de grace, versus the responsibility of having to eliminate a common ideological militant.
Moreover, Zawahiri knows that direct control is not really the issue, since the groups virtually believe the same thing. His main concern is his image, which is the only weapon that he has and which interestingly has not been internationally attacked or discredited by Western and global intelligence agencies and appears unscathed. More incidents like this among the affiliates will weaken his grip, but what happens to the international jihadist movement when it does not even have a voice of influence?
The fire for extremist Islamic militancy and targeting innocents Muslims and non-Muslims indiscriminately, which has been a preferred tactic, becomes less about this side of terrorism and more than ever about political vacancies and weaknesses. Al Qaeda is trying to step up in the world, not only with the power to influence but also with the infiltration of traditional power centers in weakened states and their conflict’s aftermath.
A recent key objective of al Qaeda is to secure greater political control of states while driving up a sectarian jihad between Sunni and Shia Muslims. In the long-run they will try to incorporate their influential power to try to seize Central Asia with the resurrection of a Caliphate still in mind.
While this seems far off and impossible right now, it has many believers in the al Qaeda faith and there are many moderate Islamic and even Sunni state voices that would like some modern variation of a Caliphate structure or theocratic union, so long as they had influence there. The Organization for Islamic States might be one contender. In the end, it might not be all that different in appearance as a theocratic Central Asia Union decades ahead; to which al Qaeda hopes to come out on top and one in which the Arabian monarchs, if still around, will also have a rising challenger in which to spar.
Also what is easily forgotten for us Westerners is that al Qaeda’s core tenant is that all things Islam should dominate Muslim life, and all else should be hated, destroyed or converted.
The proper strategic counter-jihadist efforts must focus on psychological and ideological warfare and use new windows of opportunity of their own. Also they must maintain and create clear channels of security cooperation from regional players and Arabian and Iranian governments.