Al-Qaeda's strategic victory over Daesh

Al-Qaeda has carried out a change of tactics that enables it to overcome Daesh
Sirio quita bandera DAESH

AFP/ DELIL SOULEIMAN  -   A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) removes a flag from the Islamic State group in the town of Tabqa, some 55 kilometres (35 miles) west of the town of Raqa. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group are also irreconcilable ideological adversaries and, on the ground, fratricidal enemies

Al-Qaeda has recently surpassed Daesh.

Daesh's methodology succeeded in removing al-Qaeda as the most renowned Jihadist organisation in record time. However, the rapid expansion of this organisation does not guarantee roots or a solid base to ensure its continuation at the head of global terrorism, unlike al-Qaeda, which, despite not making the headlines in recent years, has continued to act and to establish strong networks of cooperation and loyalty, particularly in the Arab world.  

Daesh's media prominence has been used to his own advantage by al-Qaeda, which has made a subtle, unnoticed and, above all, intelligent strategic change in the shadows and has nonetheless proved to be a stronger and more mature option for followers of the Jihad1

Al Qaeda, in view of the heavy pressure the United States was exerting on the central leadership, divided the organisation into local branches, connected but with operational freedom. This system took on particular significance as from the Arab Springs, as the headquarters had to face a political and military challenge. On the political side, they had to subvert the power achieved by the Muslim Brotherhood in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, in addition to adopting a stance in favour of social demands2 y 3.

The new strategy was conceived on the basis of the lessons learned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It had to be careful with its image in order to gain social support and understand that the initial methodology, based on mass violence and sectarianism, only provided detrimental effects on the perception and overall reputation of the organization. They learned that the key to success was social support5

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REUTERS/JESUS BLANCO DE AVELLANEDA - Spanish civil guards lead a detainee suspected of using social media to recruit people for violent groups such as the Islamic State in the North African Spanish enclave of Melilla on 24 February 2015

The ultimate goal continued to be the establishment of a global caliphate, now conceived as long-term, and focused on a more enabling idea, with three lines of action: intervention in insurgencies or the creation of insurgencies against corrupt or insufficiently Islamic local governments, the dissemination of Islamic fundamentals through 'dawa' or religious propaganda, and the promotion of terrorist activities against the distant enemy and its allies. These three principles of action were definitively taken as paramount following the emergence of the Arab Spring, becoming a local rather than an international strategy, integrating its branches into local protest and opposition movements and thus cleaning up the "Al-Qaeda brand". What is more, indirectly, the methodological change benefited from Daesh's own violent and excessive action5.

These, meanwhile, were developing a strategic model with a view to achieving a global caliphate along several general lines: the use of hypervolence as a unique tool for the return of pure Islam and the elimination of the West6, the development of individual or cell-based terrorism, the progressive occupation of territories and the creation of sectarian societies through social instability.  This methodology allowed a process of rapid expansion through brutal tactics favoured by political failure, corruption and mismanagement. The establishment of the Islamic state led to a shift in objectives from local to global in a short space of time, with the focus now on the global Jihad7

That is, while al-Qaeda guided its action with a positivist methodology that made the masses aware of the need for change, presenting itself as the only figure to achieve it, Daesh sought to increase instability, aggravate the already conflictive and unstable situation and, in short, spread chaos, all under the premise of "the worse the better". Indeed, his strategy served as a model for a generation of Jihadists between 2011 and 20148, focused on achieving a short-term objective rather than on the theological and political relevance pursued by al-Qaeda. 

While Daesh, following the fall of the caliphate, has progressively disintegrated, al-Qaeda has seen how the strategy of entrenchment and local settlement and lasting alliances has strengthened its position and long-term project, establishing itself as the most reliable and secure Jihadist branch, operating not only on the basis of its own interests but also in favour of social interests and demands9.

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REUTERS/THOMAS MUKOYA -  Suspected of having helped al-Qaeda militants launch an attack on the Westgate shopping centre, they sit in the dock of the Milimani Courts in Nairobi (Kenya) on 7 October 2020

Despite al-Qaeda's pragmatic strategy, which is allowing it to become involved in local factions and dynamics, thereby isolating itself from external threats, it has not managed to overcome and eliminate the violent image it initially cultivated, making it impossible for the organisation to spread as a mass movement on the fringes of its past. Focusing on Syria as a turning point in recent years, al-Qaeda's subsidiary organisations have changed their names to avoid being linked to it in its pursuit of this new positive image through the "people's Jihad", thanks to an approach centred on disseminating the ideological foundations and aimed at establishing a Sunni Islamist government in that country10

Whereas, despite the widespread perception that the organisation set up by Bin Laden has not achieved any territorial objectives or the establishment of an Islamic state, the continuing instability in the Middle East evidences the prevalence of opportunities for local franchises, including by the governments themselves, which may be beneficial to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, on Daesh's side, territorial expectations are increasingly weak; however, the current that has spread around individual attacks and self-indoctrination, in addition to everything concerning "cybercalifate "11, is and will continue to be unstoppable, where the individual's own spirit will prevail over the name or organisation they act for. That is, despite Daesh's decline, it will continue to encourage the commission of attacks and the joining of the armed Jihad. 

In short, both organisations have advantages and vulnerabilities, different perspectives despite acting towards the same goal, and should set their sights on a possible and dangerous cohesion12, revisiting their origins, but on this occasion in a more dangerous and powerful manner.

yihadistas siria
AFP/FADEL SENNA - Suspected members of the Islamic State (IS) group gather in a prison cell in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakeh on 26 October 2019. - Kurdish sources say that around 12,000 IS fighters, including Syrians, Iraqis and foreigners from 54 countries, are detained in Kurdish-run prisons in northern Syria
Bibliography and footnotes:

1 - Domínguez, A. (2020). In the shadow of Dáesh, al-Qaeda has become more powerful than ever. The World Order.

2 - Cobo, I. F. (2018). Al Qaeda versus Dáesh: two antagonistic strategies and a single objective. Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (Ieee). P. 6.

3 - Hamid, S. (2017). Islamism, the Arab Spring, and the Failure of America's Do-Nothing Policy in the Middle East. The Atlantic.

4 - Moore, Charles. Al-Qaeda Versus ISIS. Competing Jihadist Brands in the Middle East. MEI Policy Paper 2017 #3, Counterterrorism Series #3. Middle East Institute. November 2017.

5 - Cobo, I. F. (2018). Al Qaeda versus Dáesh: two antagonistic strategies and a single objective. Spanish Institute of Strategic Studies (Ieee). P. 7.

6 - Why it's so hard to stop ISIS propaganda. The Atlantic. 2 March 2015.

7 - Cobo, I. F. (2018). Al Qaeda versus Dáesh: two antagonistic strategies and the same objective. Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (Ieee). P. 10.

8 - Ibidem. P. 12.

9 - Ibid. Page 17.

10 - Ibidem. Page 17.

11 - Pérez Gómez, Amanda. Cyberterrorism, a new threat? IEEE Opinion Paper 106/2020. smo.pdf 

12 - Villascusa, Á. (18th November 2017). ISIS and Al Qaeda will eventually merge. Cadena Ser.

Amanda Pérez Gómez is a criminologist specialising in the analysis and prevention of terrorism.