Terror group’s deadly assault has intensified and accelerated a chaotic reordering of alliances and capabilities among international jihadis.
The headline is brutally uncompromising. The letters, in red over an image of French firefighters treating a casualty, spell two words: “Just Horror.” On the next page is a phrase attributed to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian street thug turned militant who a decade ago in Iraq founded the group that was eventually to evolve into Islamic State. “The spark has been lit and its heat will continue to intensify until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq,” it reads. Dabiq is a village in northern Syria, currently under IS control, where Islamic apocalyptic prophecies site the final battle between good and evil, belief and unbelief, the west and Islam. It is also the name of the IS magazine, the 12th edition of which was published last week Tuesday. Two weeks after the killings in Paris, analysts, officials and even rival militants are struggling to grasp the changed landscape of international militancy. “What IS have done is up the attack port folio to a new level. We are in the middle of a new wave of international terrorism after seeing it decline for a few years,” said Seth Jones, an analyst at the Rand Corporation, Washington. Al-Mourabitoun, an al-Qaeda linked group responsible for a number of deadly operations in North Africa, has claimed responsibility for last week’s terror attack in Mali. The group is based in northern Mali and made up mostly of Tuaregs and Arabs. It was formed around two years ago and is headed by former al-Qaeda fighter Mokhtar Belmokhtar. If this faction is indeed responsible for the Bamako operation, it would demonstrate how the deep rivalry between al-Qaeda, founded in the late 1980s, and IS, founded in 2014, is responsible for a wave of violence across much of the Islamic world and beyond. IS used to be part of al-Qaeda until it broke away, and the leaders of the two organisations, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, detest each other.
The world of militancy is riven with splits and doctrinal differences, personal animosities and grudges. There is also fierce competition for recruits, donations and media attention. Security services have long been aware of how violence can escalate when militant groups divide or fragment and then battle for supremacy, each trying to out do the other. The organisational rivalry between al-Qaeda and IS, and the personal animosity between Zawahiri and Baghdadi, is particularly fierce. This may well be what has driven the timing of this new operation, the first such high-profile attack by al-Qaeda for some time. This group is trying to steal back some of the limelight and dominate the news agenda again, as it once did so often and so effectively. This competition is playing out on a global stage. Al-Qaeda has always had international aspirations, seeking to strike the west to unify the world’s Muslims under its banner. The 65 pages of the new issue of Dabiq magazine give an overview of the ambitions and aims of IS, showing how it’s strategy of international terrorism, completes a strategy of territorial expansion. Articles cover the group’s campaign in Yemen, Somalia and Bangladesh, countries where the group is working hard to establish a greater presence. IS claims to be the sole legitimate jihadi organisation active today and the only true heir to Osama bin Laden. This is integral to the IS project, particularly the consolidation of the caliphate declared by Baghdadi last year. IS affiliates around the world, known as wilayat, or provinces, are not just fighting local authorities, but also, often, al-Qaeda-linked factions or other Islamic militant movements, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan. Richard Barrett, an analyst and former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, said the Paris attacks would boost these campaigns. “They will really hearten and encourage the external provinces. They will get more recruits etc, but more than anything will be more motivated. Some have had set backs but this tells them that this is not a failing enterprise,” he said.
In Dabiq, IS makes it claim to overall leadership of all militants very clear, echoing Bin Laden’s own invectives against the fitna, or division and sedition waithin the Muslim community, which the Saudi-born extremist believed was the main reason for the problems of the Islamic world. But IS is not having everything it’s own way. The group is expanding in Egypt, in Libya, and has built support among young people along the north African coastline. But relations with the unpredictable and brutal Boko Haram in Nigeria remain unclear, an attempt to expand into Algeria met with disaster and so far the Somalia based al-Shabab, nominally an al-Qaeda affiliate, has refused the calls of the IS central command to pledge allegiance and thus establish a new province of the Caliphate in the horn of Africa. Two minor factions swore a bayat, or oath of loyalty, to al-Baghdadi but mow face reprisals from the rest of the group. It is in Afghanistan that IS is having one of its toughest battles. “In Afghanistan, there is an opportunity to attack al-Qaeda dominance as well as exploit chaos,” said Barrett. Established in small pockets of the east, north and central south of the country, the local recruits of IS have shocked Afghan officials with their sheer brutality in recent months. Many are former fighters of the Taliban and believe the 20-year-old movement, which has been involved in peace negotiations, is becoming too moderate. IS offers something very radical. They are building up their infrastructure in some areas. There’s a particular concern over central Asia now,” said one senior Afghan official this week. However, the Taliban’s recent brief capture of Kunduz, the major northern city has underlined the disparity between the two organisations. The Taliban, under their new leader Mansour Akhtar, was able to distract and displace Afghan military forces over months across the entire country before finally launching its temporary takeover. “That gave the new emir moral courage and absolute power,” the official said.
What appears clear is that the Paris attacks have intensified and accelerated a chaotic, dynamic reordering of alliances and capabilities, meaning that the hugely complex threat is increasingly difficult for security services to gauge. According to Seth Jones, “when you look from 2001 on, you see a series of waves of terrorism and a threat that has increased and decreased. We are now on one of the upswings. This wave is going up rather than going down,” Jones said.