In recent weeks, I have found myself spending a lot of time thinking about the jihadist strategy of al Qaeda and how it compares to that of the Islamic State. Earlier this month, I wrote about the possibility that the al Qaeda brand of jihadism could outlast that of the Islamic State. Last week, I wrote about how ideologies are harder to kill than individuals, focusing on the effect that the death of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Nasir al-Wahayshi will have on the group and the wider global jihadist movement.
But beyond the impact of leaders like al-Wahayshi, there are other facets of strategy that will influence the war for the soul of jihadism. Specifically, I am talking about time and place. Both al Qaeda and the Islamic State seek to establish a global caliphate, but both differ quite starkly in how to accomplish this task and how soon it can be achieved.
Al Qaeda argues that the caliphate can be established only after the United States and its European allies have been defeated, to the extent that they can no longer interfere in Muslim lands — either because of a lack of ability or a lack of desire. The organization pursues a long-war approach that emphasizes the need to attack the United States, "the far enemy," before focusing on overthrowing local governments. The Islamic State takes the opposite tack. It has adopted a more urgent "why wait?" approach and concentrates its efforts on immediately taking, holding and governing territory. This strategy banks on being able to use any conquered territory and resources for the purposes of continued expansion. The direct approach explains the Islamic State's decision to quickly proclaim a caliphate at the beginning of Ramadan last year, after it had captured a large portion of Iraq and Syria. The group's message to the Muslim world is that the caliphate is here and now, and there is nothing the world can do to stop its inexorable expansion.
Since the fall of the Taliban's emirate in Afghanistan, several jihadist organizations have attempted to create Islamist polities, with the current attempt by the Islamic State (the organization's second try) being the most recent. So far, each of these attempts has ended in a spectacular failure and in each case, including the Taliban's emirate, western military intervention has played a key role in the downfall of the jihadist polity — and it will do so again in the case of the Islamic State's so-called caliphate.
Recent Jihadist Polities
In 2006, an array of jihadist groups led by al Qaeda in Iraq announced that they were forming an Islamic state in Iraq. They even began to refer to themselves as the Islamic State in Iraq. While the group initially eclipsed the al Qaeda core in terms of attracting foreign fighters, outside funding and publicity, the U.S. surge in Iraq and the Anbar Awakening greatly weakened the group. By 2010, when a U.S. airstrike killed Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri — the group's top two leaders — the organization had become only a shadow of its former self. The 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the sectarian policies of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government allowed the group to survive, and the civil war in Syria helped the organization recover its strength and grow into what it is today.
In 2011, as Yemen was struggling through a crisis that pitted elements of the military against each other, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seized the opportunity afforded by the chaos to grab large quantities of weapons, while also extending its influence over large areas of territory in Yemen's south. However, by mid-2012, Yemeni forces aided by U.S. intelligence and training (and some air support) were able to recapture most of the territory taken by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
A unique window into the thoughts of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula during this period was revealed with the discovery of letters sent by al-Wahayshi to Abu Musab Abdel al-Wadoud, the leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In the letters, which journalist Rukmini Callimachi discovered in the Malian city of Timbuktu, al-Wahayshi shared some of the lessons he learned — and mistakes his organization had made — so that al-Wadoud and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb would not repeat them.
According to one of al-Wahayshi's letters, his group suffered significant losses of men, materiel and money in 2012, far surpassing what they had gained in 2011. The group's higher profile and level of operational activity also resulted in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula losing a number of important members to U.S. airstrikes, including Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan.
In another of the letters, al-Wahayshi explained why his group purposefully did not proclaim an emirate in southern Yemen: "As soon as we took control of the areas, we were advised by the General Command here not to declare the establishment of an Islamic principality, or state, for a number of reasons: We wouldn't be able to treat people on the basis of a state since we would not be able to provide for all their needs, mainly because our state is vulnerable. Second: Fear of failure, in the event that the world conspires against us. If this were to happen, people may start to despair and believe that jihad is fruitless."
He encouraged al-Wadoud to also refrain from proclaiming an Islamic polity, but his advice went unheeded. Shortly after receiving the letter from al Wahayshi, jihadists aligned with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb declared an Islamic state called Azawad in northern Mali in April 2012. But the French intervention in Mali in January 2013 rapidly pushed the jihadists out of the territory they had conquered, ending the short-lived jihadist state of Azawad.
Past attempts to create an Islamic polity in Somalia were also thwarted by an international coalition. And in recent months Boko Haram, which now calls itself Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi after pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, lost most of the territory the group had previously seized in northern Nigeria.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula made another land grab in 2015 as the country fell into chaos. In April, the group took control of Mukalla, Yemen's fifth largest city and the capital of Hadramawt province. Meanwhile, jihadist groups in Libya, such as Ansar al-Sharia, the Mujahideen Shura Council and the Islamic State's three Libyan Wilayats (or provinces) are all fighting with secular, nationalist and tribal forces for control of the country.
And of course, the Islamic State took control of large portions of Iraq and Syria last year and declared the re-establishment of the caliphate there. The group's theatrical, genocidal violence resulted in the formation of the coalition that began an air campaign against it in September 2014. Since then, the group has lost much of its strategic momentum, as well as a great deal of its economic infrastructure and many weapons and personnel. The Islamic State also lost control of a good deal of territory in Iraq and Syria, including places such as Tikrit, Kobani and, most recently, Tal Abyad. Still, the Islamic State has taken control of the cities of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, though the group is under attack from the international air campaign, as well as local ground forces.
Bin Laden's Strategy
The United States and the West played a critical role in the downfall of recent jihadist polities in Iraq, Yemen, Mali and Somalia. This fact would certainly not surprise Osama bin Laden, who lived to witness such events. From the beginning of his public campaign to establish the caliphate, and in his 1996 "Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places," bin Laden warned that the United States had to be driven out of the region before progress could be made. Bin Laden noted the way that Hezbollah's activities in Lebanon had driven U.S. and French forces out of the Levant, which gave the group space to become a powerful player in the region. He sought to replicate that success elsewhere.
It was a strategic vision bin Laden held until his death. In a letter written to his assistant, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman — likely around March or April 2011, based upon the events commented on — he asked al-Rahman to dispatch a letter to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb asking it to focus on attacking U.S. embassies and oil companies, rather than local security forces. Bin Laden also wanted to warn the franchise about the dangers of prematurely proclaiming a caliphate:
We should stress on the importance of timing in establishing the Islamic state. We should be aware that planning for the establishment of the state begins with exhausting the main influential power that enforced the siege on the Hamas government, and that overthrew the Islamic emirate in Afghanistan and Iraq despite the fact this power was depleted. We should keep in mind that this main power still has the capacity to lay siege on any Islamic state, and that such a siege might force the people to overthrow their duly elected governments.
We have to continue with exhausting and depleting them 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.
Bin Laden understood that while the United States struggles with ephemeral, ambiguous entities, it is very good at attacking a well-defined enemy that it can identify and locate. Declaring an Islamic polity and attempting to hold and govern territory automatically makes an organization a fixed target on which the United States and its allies can focus their formidable power.
Yet, even knowing this fact, al Qaeda has not been immune to the trap of place. The al Qaeda core has always needed a sanctuary to operate effectively, like Sudan or the Taliban's Afghanistan. Lacking a suitable sanctuary, the group's operations since the invasion of Afghanistan have been limited. There are reports that the al Qaeda core sent a group of operatives from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area to Syria to attempt to establish a base there — the so-called Khorasan group. That group was struck by some of the first U.S. airstrikes in Syria in September 2014. Evidently, having an address has its downside.
It is also not entirely surprising that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has lost three senior leaders in Mukalla since the group conquered the city in April. After the loss of two of his lieutenants, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader al-Wahayshi still visited the city for some unknown reason — and it must have been an important reason to override security concerns. In the aforementioned letter to al-Rahman, bin Laden asked him to "send a letter to the brothers in Yemen to have them implement security measures, avoid moving about except for dire need."
Bin Laden knew that controlling territory is a dangerous trap, unless the United States and its allies are vanquished from a given region. But there are times when even groups affiliated with al Qaeda need to run the risk of exposing themselves in contested territory.
The Eventual Progression
When the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant broke from al Qaeda and declared a caliphate in a specific location, the organization once again made itself a fixed target. Its ideology and claims also serve to tie the group to a specific piece of terrain. It suffered major losses the last time it was so bold, surviving only by abandoning territory, reducing the group's overall profile and returning to a low-level insurgency and terrorism campaign. Of course, the group's survival was also greatly aided by Sunni sheikhs in Iraq who did not trust the government of former Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki government and thus sought to maintain some sort of jihadist presence as a tool to wield against Shiite sectarianism. Allowing the Islamic Sate to survive in Iraq is something those sheikhs surely regret now.
Despite the criticism that U.S. President Barack Obama has received over his administration's policy toward the Islamic State, the organization's expansion has been stopped and is beginning to be rolled back. There are some who would claim that the organization has not been contained, as demonstrated by the proliferation of existing jihadist groups and factions that have declared allegiance to the Islamic State. But make no mistake, these franchises clearly lack the resources and leadership of the Islamic State core, and they have not gained any capacity previously lacking. They are essentially the same groups with the same capabilities. Only their names have changed, as well as perhaps a little bit of their operational and media philosophies.
It may take some time, but eventually U.S. air power paired with local ground forces will drive the Islamic State from its perch in the same manner as the Taliban and the Islamic State in Iraq. It took seven years to cripple the group last time with U.S. forces on the ground. It will likely take years this time — especially without the presence of a reliable allied ground force in Syria. But there is little doubt that the group will slowly be strangled on the ground as it is repeatedly pummeled by precision airstrikes.
The Islamic State, consequently, will eventually follow the same strategy as the Taliban, al Shabaab, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group will abandon its territorial gains to return to an amorphous, low-level insurgency and terrorism campaign. It is, of course, the same strategic shift the group made in 2010. If it had not done so, it would not be here today. If the Islamic State does not abandon its here and now attitude, deciding to stand its ground and defend its caliphate to the end, it will be destroyed.