What's on the horizon for Islamic State?

Photographer: MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images

Where Islamic State Stumbles in Its War With Al-Qaeda

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Since al-Qaeda expelled it from its ranks a little more than two years ago, the Islamic State has been on a tear. It has taken Iraq's second-largest city, declared itself a caliphate, won over al Qaeda affiliates in Sinai and Nigeria, and conducted high-profile terror attacks in Europe and the Middle East.  

But that's only part of the story. Despite these victories, the Islamic State has had a difficult time establishing and retaining its new affiliates. From Algeria to Afghanistan, its fledgling franchises have come under siege from local rivals and government forces. Far from displacing al-Qaeda as the jihadi vanguard, the Islamic State has found itself in a very real war with its former patrons throughout the Muslim world.

This is the argument of a new paper from Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a widely respected counterterrorism expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "The Islamic State has encountered one serious obstacle after another as it has tried to expand its presence beyond Syria and Iraq, and several of its nascent affiliates have met decisive defeat," Gartenstein-Ross writes in the paper, to be published Tuesday on the website War on the Rocks.

Consider Algeria. In September 2014, a group of fighters with al-Qaeda's North African franchise broke off from al-Qaeda and formed Jund al-Khilafah, which in turn pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Less than two weeks later, the group released a video showing the gruesome beheading of French citizen Hervé Gourdel -- a response, it claimed, to France's participation in the military campaign in Iraq. In December, the Islamic State officially recognized its new affiliate in Algeria.

Then Algerian security forces wiped out the affiliate within weeks. By early 2015, Jund al-Khilafah was a bitter memory. "The Algerian security forces eliminated the group almost entirely in an operation shortly after the barbaric execution of Mr. Gourdel by Jund al-Khilafah," said Idriss Mounir Lallali of the Algiers-based African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism. Lallali told me the operation was so successful that the Islamic State hasn't attempted a terrorist attack in Algeria since.

A similar fate met the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which for years was allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan. In August 2015, the group switched its allegiance to the Islamic State. By the end of last year, the group unraveled after the Taliban launched offensives against its former allies and eventually a rival Taliban commander that harbored its leaders in Zabul province. On Twitter, one of the IMU's supporters summed up the defeat this way: "What America and its agents could not do in 14 years, the Taliban did in 24 hours."

The Islamic State has also run into trouble in Somalia. Last year, the group launched a campaign to persuade members of al-Qaeda's Somali affiliate, al-Shabaab, to defect to its caliphate. But since then, al-Shabaab has launched its own counter-campaign against the Islamic State, threatening to slit the throats of any defectors.

While not as dramatic, Islamic State affiliates in Yemen and Afghanistan have also stumbled. Gartenstein-Ross recounts how in December, 70 Islamic State members -- including senior leaders -- released a public statement disavowing the appointed leader of its Yemen affiliate for turning away foreign fighters and violating Islamic law.

A similar dynamic played out inside the Islamic State's Khorasan affiliate, which covers a territory that includes Afghanistan and Pakistan. In October, Islamic State commander and former Guantanamo detainee Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost announced he would no longer take orders from the Khorasan affiliate's commander, Hafiz Saeed Khan.

Gartenstein-Ross argues that the losses for the Islamic State affiliates undermine a core message the group tries to convey to future recruits: that it's constantly expanding and growing stronger. "The group's failures as it tries to expand beyond Syria and Iraq could cast doubt on its entire global caliphate project," he writes.

Not all experts entirely agree. Cole Bunzel, a doctoral candidate who researches jihadi ideology and the Islamic State at Princeton University, told me that while it's true that some affiliates are little more than paper organizations, the Islamic State has been more successful than al-Qaeda in rapidly establishing branches in other countries.

U.S. intelligence officials I spoke with pointed to the Islamic State's advances in Libya in recent months, including taking over the city of Sirte and fighting for control of Derna, as evidence of its recent success. Gartenstein-Ross acknowledges the Islamic State's presence in Sirte. However, he said the Islamic State's jihadi opponents on the ground -- such as Ansar al-Sharia, the group that murdered a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi in 2012 -- continue to oppose the affiliate in Libya.

In recent months, U.S. intelligence officials have also warned publicly that al-Qaeda's affiliates, particularly in Yemen, continue to pose a high risk to the U.S. and its allies. 

In light of this, it might be tempting to embrace a hands-off approach to the conflict between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. After all, both sides of this jihadi civil war are enemies of the West.

But this too would be a mistake. Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, acknowledged that when viewed from a global perspective, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are rivals. "But when you get into the hinterlands, it becomes tribal and regional," he told me. "It becomes very hard to tell the difference. They are all competing for young, hungry minds."

Nunes said he anticipates that both sides of the jihadi power struggle will fight each other, but that they'll also cooperate when it suits their interests. "Both groups are adding followers and sympathizers every day we don't have a strategy to address global jihad," he added. When Washington finally does settle on such a strategy, one component should be to encourage the kind of schisms that have beset the Islamic State's less-successful affiliates.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

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Tracy Walsh at twalsh67@bloomberg.net