What do we know about the Islamic State? We know that I.S. came from al-Qaida and then broke off to form its own jihadi organization. How do the strategies of these two Islamic organizations differ? Are the differences important?
Understanding the differences between the two will help us understand their motives, actions and futures. My source is Stratfor’s Scott Stewart in a series of articles in the “Security Weekly” beginning June 11, 2015.
In his first article, Stewart argues that while al-Qaida has been beaten down by U.S. airstrikes and drone attacks and much of its leadership has been killed, including Osama Bin Laden, al-Qaida is down but not out.
According to Stewart, I.S. has taken some of al-Qaida’s support away because I.S. was able to take large chunks of territory in Iraq and Syria and proclaim a caliphate—a new nation with a new leadership of all Muslims. These victories have brought both money and jihadis (holy warriors) from all over the world to fight for I.S.
Because the Islamic State has grabbed the headlines, pressure against al-Qaida has diminished. Recent successes in eastern Yemen have also given them a base of operations. Additionally al-Qaida has worked to rebrand itself as the “more moderate form of jihadism.”
Bin Laden, understanding geopolitics better than the leaders of I.S., was strongly against grabbing territory and then proclaiming a caliphate. He knew that the U.S. and its allies would bring destruction on such a state and declaration. Bin Laden counseled patience by first weakening the United States coalition, making them unable or unwilling to attack before proclaiming either a caliphate or an Islamic state. This approach is one of the key differences between al-Qaeda and I.S.
According to Stewart in his second article, Bin Laden, shortly before his death in May 2011, warned in a memo to the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: “We should stress on the importance of timing of an Islamic state…We have to continue with exhausting and depleting them (the U.S. and its allies) until they become so weak that they can’t overthrow any state that we establish. That will be the time to commence with forming the Islamic state.”
Previous proclamations of Islamic states under a caliphate were soundly defeated in Somalia by an international coalition and in Mali by French forces. Boko Haram also lost most of its captured territory in northeastern Nigeria after proclaiming itself allied with I.S.
While Boko Haram in Nigeria has claimed allegiance to the Islamic State, there is no evidence of any support from them – not money or weapons or recruits or direction. I.S. is too busy fighting for its own survival to aid Boko Haram.
Apparently, having an address invites destruction. It is what Stewart calls “the trap of place.” I.S. has lost land because of U.S. airstrikes and victories by allied ground troops. Obama’s strategy is working, despite the criticism he received, although his plan will take years to bring to completion.
Stewart predicts that I.S. will eventually follow in the footsteps of the Afghan Taliban, of al-Shahaab in Somalia, of al-Qaida in the Magreb (northwest Africa), and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen).
In order to survive, I.S. will have to return to amorphous statelessness, as it did after the U.S. surge in Iraq drove I.S. to war-torn Syria to regroup and heal before returning again to take over parts of Syria and Iraq last year.
Thus we can see the major differences between al-Qaeda and IS: al-Qaeda is the more patient jihadist group while I.S. is the impatient upstart. Al-Qaeda has branded itself as the more moderate of the two jihadist groups, playing the long game. According to Stewart, al-Qaeda is more likely to survive than the Islamic State.
It seems Bin Laden understood the U.S. and her allies much better than I.S. does. The United States does better when it has a concrete enemy to attack. We don’t do as well against a stateless foe.