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News, analysis and primary source documents on terrorism, extremism and national security.


Monday, August 18, 2014
 

For Global Jihadist Supporters, Islamic State's Massacre Wipes Out Any Sympathy Over U.S. Strikes

The self-styled Islamic State dealt sparked a major backlash among global jihadists online who were incensed by its reported massacre of 700 tribe members, mostly civilians, in Deir Ezzor province in Syria. 

Negative hashtag references to the Islamic State, using the derogatory Arabic acronym Daash, soared from Aug. 8 to Aug. 18, increasing by 44 percent. When hashtags referring to Daash along with a reference to the massacre specifically were included in the count, the total soared by 85 percent. 

The surge in negative sentiment toward IS took place concurrently with airstrikes on the self-proclaimed caliphate by both the United States and the Assad regime and during the period during which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stepped down, which IS has claimed as a victory. 

In other words, IS not only managed to completely erase all the goodwill it might have accrued from battling jihadists' hated enemies, but it added considerable negatives on top of that. 

Hashtags related to U.S. strikes on IS surfaced in the top 100 hashtags during the August 8 collection period, but they disappeared in the August 18 period.  




Methodology: I looked at the most recent 200 tweets from approximately 7,500 Twitter accounts that were followed by 22 prominent jihadist fundraisers on Twitter (as well as the tweets of the fundraisers themselves), analyzing a total of somewhat less than 3 million tweets for each collection period, which included a substantial amount of overlap from one period to the next. 

From those tweets, I extracted the most popular Arabic hashtags used by members of the network to refer to jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Two of the original seed accounts were suspended by Twitter, most recently Hajjaj al Ajmi, but there is so much overlap among the accounts that it made only a fraction of a percent of difference in the number of tweets examined. 

     



 

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Zawahiri Falls Off The Map, Is Rebuked By Top Al Nusra Figure

UPDATED: 11:17 a.m., see note below 

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri has stopped responding to messages from the terror network's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, according to an extraordinary open letter published online yesterday by a top Nusra figure, Abu Maria al Qahtani.

According to Qahtani, Zawahiri went silent around the time that AQ splinter group, the Islamic State, declared a "caliphate" and demanded fealty from all other jihadi groups around the world. In a reproachful tone, Qahtani asked whether Zawahiri's intermediaries were delivering the messages, or whether Zawahiri knew about this grave emergency and just didn't care to help.

Qahtani writes, in an open letter addressed to Zawahiri, that al Nusra has been sending urgent messages to Zawahiri for two months, requesting that he speak out against the Islamic State's caliphate declaration, referring to IS as Kharijites (a derogatory reference to an early schism in Islamic history). Despite the letter's tone, Qahtani continues to refer to Zawahiri with respect, as an authority figure.

In the letter, al Qahtani says he is embarrassed to be making this public appeal, but he cannot be certain whether Zawahiri is aware of the situation and just doesn't want to help, or whether Nusra's messages to Zawahiri are being delivered by the designated intermediaries, whom Qahtani implies may not be trustworthy.

Last year, Ibrahim al Afghani, a figure with longstanding ties to al Qaeda and Zawahiri, published an similarly controversial open letter to Zawahiri in which he pleaded for the al Qaeda leader to intervene in a dispute within al Shabab, al Qaeda's affiliate in Somalia. Afghani was killed soon thereafter by al Shabab's leadership, as was Omar Hammami, an American Shabab recruit who issued similar public pleas for al Qaeda intervention.

Al Qaeda made no response to either man while they were alive, but a leaked video this year from Adam Gadahn, an American al Qaeda member believed to be close to Zawahiri, condemned the killing of both men as Islamically unacceptable.

All of this together casts serious doubt on whether al Qaeda is in steady communication with any of its affiliates. Although individual instances of contact have certainly occurred, Zawahiri's response times have not been adequate to address the growing number of crises faced by AQ and its affiliates on the global stage. (I noted signs of this situation developing in a February article for Foreign Policy.)

The letter from Qahtani is an order of magnitude more significant than the earlier rebukes aimed at Zawahiri's silence, since those came from dissenters who were defying al Shabab's AQ-sanctioned leader, Ahmed Godane.

In contrast, Qahtani has been part of the leadership of one of al Qaeda's most important affiliates, currently under tremendous pressure from Islamic State advances in Syria, increasing disenchantment with Nusra among global jihadists community, and this weekend's arrest of Shafi al Ajmi, one of the organization's top fundraisers, in Kuwait. His letter is both a criticism of Zawahiri and a warning that the al Qaeda leader is in danger of losing control of one of its top two affiliates.

UPDATE: However, after several conversations about this post, it's important to note that Qahtani's status with al Nusra has changed recently, with more than one person describing his status as "rogue," although the consensus is that this is not a clean or total break. I initially omitted mention of this since the circumstances of Qahtani's problems with Nusra leadership are decidedly unclear, but it's an important point that I should have included in the first version of the story. I omitted it mainly because rumors about Qahtani's status have been a weekly occurrence for some time.

In some ways, this undercuts the significance of the rebuke, making it deniable for Jabhat al Nusra's emir, Abu Mohammed al-Jowlani. However Qahtani still represents a significant constituency in al Nusra, and it's possible that deniability is the reason why this letter was attributed to him.

Either way, it's indicative of problems, but slightly different ones. If Qahtani made this move without sanction from Jowlani, it may point to a potential splintering of al Nusra, which has been the subject of some speculation recently. If the letter's release was sanctioned, it allows al Nusra to make a strong expression of discontent with al Qaeda Central's leadership, while providing a face-saving opportunity to later deny or downplay the tone of the letter. END UPDATE

It's also worth noting that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the other half of the top two, has issued two statements in recent days which carefully hedge around the issue of the Islamic State, opting not to openly condemn its declaration of the caliphate and instead praising its military advances and supporting its engagement in battle with U.S. forces in carefully parsed terms. This could reflect a lack of direction from Zawahiri, but it may also be a pragmatic effort to walk a middle line, out of fear that AQAP could splinter if it openly condemns IS.

Humera Khan contributed to this article, but the views expressed are mine.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014
 

What's In a Name?

The Islamic State, the self-styled "caliphate" that was once called al Qaeda in Iraq, has had its share of rebrandings and also its share of brand confusion. Most recently, it was called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), with the translation or transliteration from Arabic into English providing much fodder for pedantic commentary (and I am not exempting myself from that category).

When the Islamic State dropped the -IS or -IL from its name at the end of June, concurrent with its declaration that it was now a caliphate, it seemed this was the end of the inside-baseball naming controversy. But no, when President Obama announced military strikes on IS this week, he continued to refer to them as ISIL.

The rationale, as explained by Matt Apuzzo of the New York Times and others, is that referring to the Islamic State by its' self-appointed name would legitimize its declaration of the caliphate.

This idea is at worst absurd, and at best wildly inconsistent. Extremist groups always adopt a name that reflects their greater ambitions, and as a rule, we refer to them by the names they choose. Do we legitimize the concept of a white-only state when we refer to the Aryan Nations? Do we legitimize Marxist-Leninist philosophy as shiny when we use the name Shining Path? Are we implying that fascism will bring a Golden Dawn when we talk about the Greek political party?

No, no and no. Ultimately, I suspect this comes back to a fundamental problem I've discussed before in the U.S. government's approach to Muslim extremists -- condescending overkill. The theory is that "legitimizing" IS by referring to it by its chosen name will have repercussions in the Muslim world that would not somehow apply to Christians when we talk about Christian Identity.

The Islamic State is not a special case, and ironically, we elevate its claim to legitimacy when we treat it differently from every other two-bit megalomaniacal movement that seeks to establish itself as the claimant of a global mandate.

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Saturday, August 9, 2014
 

Gaza Dominates Talk In Jihadist Finance Networks; IS Still Struggles for Acceptance

Twitter users who influence the support and financing of jihadist movements in Syria have undergone a massive shift in priorities since June 1, with more and more attention shifting away from the Syrian conflict and toward Gaza. 

An analysis of the top 200 hashtags in jihadist financier social networks (methodology is defined below in more detail) showed more than twice as many references to Gaza as to Syria during the collection period around August 8 -- 32,513 hashtags mentioning Gaza by name -- compared to zero hashtags mentioning Gaza in data collected around June 1.  

Despite this, references to Syria and Iraq both increased over the two-month period, suggesting an substantially increased amount of interest in conflicts in Muslim lands, even as the users seemed to become disenchanted with almost every individual faction in Iraq and Syria. 


While hashtag references to Syria more than doubled, references to Iraq increased more than eight times. References to the Islamic State (under three different names) more than tripled, while references to Jabhat al Nusra didn't even double. 

References to al Qaeda vastly trailed references to all factions in Syria. While some of that is very probably attributable to illegality and social stigma related to supporting al Qaeda relative to the other groups, I think the data point is nevertheless noteworthy and at least partly indicative of AQ's struggle to remain relevant in a dynamically changing field. Certainly, if AQ Central had made any noteworthy news during the two-month period, it would be reflected here more strongly. 

Other charts of interest: 


References to the Islamic State continue to vastly outstrip references to all other Syrian factions. Love it or hate it, people are talking about it. 


References to the Islamic State under its chosen official name briefly closed ground with references to the group under the derogatory nickname Daash around July 24, before the gap opened up again in the August 8 collection (which includes only one day of tweets related to the U.S. bombing of IS positions in Iraq). During that two week period, IS unleashed a torrent of pictures of atrocities it had carried out in Iraq, including countless beheadings and videos of mass executions, which may account for the increase in negative references. 


Similarly, in the July 24 collection, references to IS under its proper name briefly outstripped references to Daash, a trend which also reversed itself in the ensuing two weeks. 

These results only include use of the hashtag of each group's formal name, without editorial commentary. Two IS hashtags emerged in the wake of U.S. military action in Iraq, which were not counted. If they were added to the positive references to IS, it would have resulted in a significant spike in positive references, but the comparison to past periods would not be valid since hashtags such as those referring to the announcement of the caliphate were not included in previous totals. Nevertheless, just for a sense of perspective, here's what that would look like: 



The next installment in this series should reflect more accurately whether IS is gaining sympathy or legitimacy from U.S. action against it. 

Methodology: I looked at the most recent 200 tweets from approximately 7,500 Twitter accounts that were followed by 22 prominent jihadist fundraisers on Twitter (as well as the tweets of the fundraisers themselves), analyzing a total of somewhat less than 3 million tweets for each collection period, which included a substantial amount of overlap from one period to the next. 

From those tweets, I extracted the most popular Arabic hashtags used by members of the network to refer to jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Two of the original seed accounts were suspended by Twitter, most recently Hajjaj al Ajmi, but there is so much overlap among the accounts that it made only a fraction of a percent of difference in the number of tweets examined. 





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Monday, July 21, 2014
 

Radicalization, Informants and More Difficult Questions

Human Rights Watch issued a report today on counterterrorism prosecution and investigation, firing off some blistering criticisms of various government practices, including notably the use of informants, which I have written about repeatedly and, I think, pointedly:

A story by AFP is here.

I don't endorse the overall assessment given by the HRW report, even though I think it does raise some important issues. My reservations come in part from differences of opinion on the case-by-case assessments, but also the report's neglect of a fundamental dilemma:

How should law enforcement respond when it learns that someone is talking about violent or terrorist action, or seeking social support to commit such an action?

I don't think anyone wants the FBI to simply ignore such reports or tips, or ignore someone they see on social media who is making threats.

The question is how to sort out which cases merit investigation and which do not. Which leads me to one point in the report that I think is especially unhelpful: The report takes a derisive tone toward FBI efforts to understand radicalization.

While these efforts are far from perfect, I think it's much better to try to understand the radicalization process than to proceed without understanding. If you want to criticize the current state of scholarship on radicalization, I'm all for that. There's plenty of snake oil to be found, some of it emanating from the very highest levels of our government. But be specific, don't just put scare quotes around the word "radicalization" and pat yourself on the back for a job well done (which is essentially what HRW has done here).

Studying radicalization leads most people to understand that very few radicals become violent, and the entire point of such studies is an effort to limit law enforcement scrutiny to people who present a real threat and to eliminate people who are just angry, political or blowing off steam.

While you can argue about where to draw the lines, I think that better understanding radicalization will ultimately result in fewer problem cases and ultimately in less investigation and prosecution.

All that said, and as I've written before, there is a social cost to the tactics we are currently using to fight terrorism and radicalization, especially when those tactics disproportionately target Muslims.

At this point, I think people from around the government need to sit down and have a high-level conversation about the costs and benefits of these approaches, and figure out how to do the work of national security in a better way.

While I do basically agree with many of the report's recommendations (see page 178 of the PDF linked above), the tone of the overall report seems to point to a broader challenge to the premise of whether law enforcement should even be in the business of prevention.

I believe we can do much better than the status quo, but law enforcement needs to have some tools to respond when a person in the community is raising alarm bells. The vast majority of investigations rule out prosecutions, rather than ruling them in, as it should be. The real question here is whether more prosecutions can be ruled out, and whether they can be ruled out less intrusively. To open that debate responsibly requires discussion of what we can do, not just what we shouldn't.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014
 

AQ vs. IS: Fractures Chart Update

It's been a while since I updated the AQ Fractures chart (earlier versions here, here and here), and a great deal has happened since the last update. Most obviously, the entity formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has renamed itself the Islamic State, declared itself to be a caliphate and demanded oaths of loyalty from all other jihadist groups. Here's how that is going:



Printable PDF version can be found here.

Some notes on this chart:
  • First off, there are a lot of moving parts here, and while I did my best to capture as many as possible, I welcome feedback if something is wrong or missing. 
  • I eliminated the "loose ties" category and link and replaced "close ties" with "some ties," which were included on a subjective basis. The main reason for this is that the chart is getting too complex to visualize for at-a-glance comprehension.
  • I adjusted the size of some of the entities to reflect their significance. The Islamic State has racked up a number of pledges from tiny splinter groups, small groups no one has heard of prior to now, and groups of unproven caliber and provenance (for instance, Indonesian and Philippines groups that are not clearly derived from existing jihadi groups in the region and are listed here simply as "factions"). 
  • I tried to organize the clusters regionally. 
  • Shamukh forum has changed sides a couple times during the evolution of this chart. As of the last time I checked, it seemed to be trying to accommodate supporters of both AQ and IS. This may have already changed or may change again at a moment's notice, or it may be able to foster a diverse environment on an ongoing basis. 
  • Several small factions appear to have peeled off from Jabhat al Nusra, FSA and the Islamic Front in recent weeks. I'm not breaking them out, but it's worth noting that this is happening. 
For more on how the battle between IS and AQ is playing out in the global jihadist arena, check out my blog post from yesterday analyzing hashtag use in a social media network surrounding Syrian jihadist fundraisers: IS Backlash Spills Over on Jabhat al Nusra.

NOTE: The chart was updated 7/14/2014 to correct an errant line.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014
 

IS Backlash Spills Over on Jabhat al Nusra

A few weeks ago, I provided some initial data on how advances in Iraq by the former Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were playing out in a key sector of the global jihadist infrastructure -- the network of people surrounding fundraisers for the Syrian jihad.

For that June 14 analysis, I looked at the most recent 200 tweets from approximately 7,500 Twitter accounts that were followed by 22 prominent jihadist fundraisers on Twitter (as well as the tweets of the fundraisers themselves), analyzing a total of about 2.8 million tweets. From those tweets, I extracted the most popular Arabic hashtags used by members of the network to refer to jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq.

I repeated this analysis roughly every two weeks, including results around June 29 announcement that ISIS had renamed itself "The Islamic State" and proclaimed it was a "caliphate" with authority over all Muslims around the world and specifically over all other jihadist groups. The results suggest that the IS caliphate declaration is not only provoking a great deal of hostility, but that it is also depressing enthusiasm for other jihadist groups operating in Syria, including Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic Front.

The task was complicated by the use of three popular hashtags for IS:
  • #Islamic_State_of_Iraq_and_Syria (prior to the renaming), 
  • #Islamic_State (after the renaming), and 
  • #Daash (a derogatory reference to IS/ISIS both before and after the renaming). 
The first two hashtags may be neutral or positive references to IS, the third is decidedly negative most of the time.

First, let's compare all references to IS under each name, including both positive and negative, to all references to Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic Front.



The first thing that becomes apparent is that people are talking about IS a whole lot more than they are talking about al Nusra or the Islamic Front, and the gap is widening. In fact, there were very close to twice as many references to IS as to the other two groups combined. That's a huge gap, especially when compared to June 1, when the number of references to IS were roughly equal to the combined references to the other two groups.

Does that mean people are growing to love the new "caliphate"? Hardly. Here's how the references to IS break down:


References to IS as "Daash" vastly outnumbered references to the group as either IS or ISIS, with Daash being hashtagged more than both IS and ISIS combined in the most recent period (some of the tweets analyzed in the July 12 collection date to before the name change). There were more than twice as many references to Daash as there were to IS under its new name, and both increased by similar amounts between June 28 and July 12.

Keep in mind that references to IS and ISIS are not necessarily positive, but references to Daash are almost always negative. (For that matter, there is no guarantee all references to Nusra and IF are positive; there is a derogatory hashtag for Nusra, "mishmish," but it barely cracked 100 tweets at its height.) With that caveat, it's pretty clear that the new caliphate has a lot of haters in the financier networks, and that the positives of the declaration are not enough to offset its growing negatives.

The hostility is not all that surprising in itself, since the global financing networks tend to be more aligned with al Qaeda, IS's increasingly bitter rival.

What's significant instead is the fact that discussion of al Nusra and the Islamic Front is flat or even declining over the period measured. That means the global financiers and their constituents (donors, friends, militant leaders and news sources) are more angry about IS than they are excited for al Nusra and the Islamic Front, and that trend has worsened since June 1. All of this negativity would not seem to be good for fundraising or for foreign fighter recruitment.

Finally, here's a quick look at how al Nusra, the official al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, fares against IS when they go head to head, with IS hashtags broken out for negativity.


Even broken down by clearly negative tweets versus tweets simply using the name IS or ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra still comes in third, and that can't be good for the AQ affiliate. These hashtags suggest that people are not flocking to al Nusra as an alternative to the hated IS, but rather they are saying "a plague on both your houses." In other words, the caliphate is bad for the global jihad business.

The declining references to al Nusra and the Islamic Front may be partially due to a surge in hashtags related to Gaza, but that didn't stop people from hating on IS in even greater volumes. #Gaza _ under bombardment did outrank all three groups, ranking lower than #Syria but higher than #Iraq. Tweets referring to Iraq dropped precipitously from June 28, when IS was on the move, to July 12.

Much could change in the weeks and months to come, but the IS proclamation of world domination has to date produced a massive surge in anger among movers and shakers in the global jihad, with very few signs of goodwill so far.

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Friday, July 4, 2014
 

In the Future, All Your Leaders Will Be Empty Suits

UPDATE: Did you ever wish you'd written a blog post a week earlier? Shortly after I posted this, IS sources began to indicate that IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had given the khutba in Mosul on Friday and that video was forthcoming. Today, the video surfaced online. So while some of the points below still pertain, others are probably moot. 



END UPDATE 






Much has been made of the innovative uses to which the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) has put social media, but the would-be caliphate is also trying out some interesting new approaches to governance. Specifically, it is pioneering an interesting experiment with an anonymous head of state.

Certainly, there have been instances in history in which obscure people were catapulted into political leadership positions, and I would not be surprised to learn there is an earlier parallel to this concept of which I am unaware. The history of geopolitics is long, and my knowledge of it is nothing to brag about. I look forward to hearing from you on Twitter about precedents (you know who you are).

But as someone who is not a historian, the rise of Abu Bakr Baghdadi to the self-appointed role of "caliph" calls to mind nothing more vividly than the novel 1984, in which much of the world is led by Big Brother, the subject of a cult of personality who may not actually exist as a person.

The real identity of Baghdadi has been the subject of much speculation and reports of varying reliability, without a truly definitive picture emerging, although an extremely thin biography has been circulating in IS social media circles since his self-anointment. Baghdadi has never released a video, and while there have been sporadic reports of him showing up in battle and spending time with his peers in prison, it's decidedly unclear how many members of the IS have ever even laid eyes on him.

While Baghdadi is probably a real person, he is also in many ways an empty suit, a generic jihadi archetype onto whom IS adherents can project their hopes and fears. Most IS policy announcements, up to and including the declaration of the caliphate, come from his spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. Baghdadi himself issued an audio-only speech after the proclamation of the "caliphate" which could have easily been written by a random jihadi-cliche generator.

The question now is whether this will change, or whether he will continue to lurk in the shadows, exercising leadership by Rorschach test. He allegedly surfaced in Mosul within the last day or so to meet his adoring public, but also allegedly, all cell service was cut off in order to protect knowledge of his whereabouts. It will be interesting to see if any photos show up in the aftermath. You know people can take photos while the cell service is down and upload them later, right IS propagandists?

Baghdadi stands in stark contrast to Osama bin Laden, whose personality loomed large and who was well-known to the world even before he was well-known as the leader of a terrorist organization. Even Ayman al Zawahiri, for all his inadequacies as an inspirational leader, is a known quantity with an extensive public record.

For an organization ideologically opposed to innovation, the IS sure isn't afraid to experiment with some weird ideas. IS may well be aiming to increase Baghdadi's visibility over the weeks and months to come, but the high level of secrecy that surrounds him has no doubt contributed to the lackluster response to the "caliphate" from groups outside IS's geographical domains thus far. Was IS consciously gambling that people would throw their support behind an archetype rather than an individual? Or was this a less-calculated gambit, yet another sign of short-sighted hubris?

Will Baghdadi attempt to "rule" as a generic cutout, a jihadi Big Brother whose real presence is obscured and outweighed by his legend? Once again, IS is wading into risky and untested waters. Whatever else you can say about the organization formerly known as ISIS, it is rarely boring.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014
 

The State of the 'Caliphate' Is... Meh

Apparently, no matter how awesome the power of social media, you can't just announce that you're the boss of everyone and expect people to fall in line.

The transformation of ISIS into the Islamic State, aka IS aka "The Caliphate," over the weekend is off a pretty soft start. Deprived of a huge chunk of its army of spambots by some good policing on the part of Twitter, IS has been reduced to grass-roots organizing to get its nutty message out. Here's how that is going so far:




34 minutes later...


And so it goes. IS twitter users are increasingly baffled and frustrated that everyone isn't more excited for them. They honestly can't seem to understand why the al Qaeda jihadists they've been fighting for months and the much larger population of Muslims who despise them aren't all falling in line. Even worse, most of them are criticizing the unilateral declaration of global hegemony by IS.

The announcement has largely failed to move the needle in terms of winning new support from other global jihadist groups, especially the major al Qaeda-aligned organizations, which was surely the primary purpose in declaring a caliphate in the first place.

IS has trotted out a series of oaths of loyalty from people and organizations that were already sworn to it when it was just ISIS -- ranging from their reliable contingent of Indonesian fanboys, to a handful of supporters in the ranks of the Pakistani Taliban, to the "Central Division of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" which apparently still calls itself al Qaeda despite defecting to ISIS months ago.

Meanwhile IS's online fans look increasingly stupid as they flock to any sign of good news, only to be disappointed. When their Pakistani Taliban supporters pledged, a hashtag spread like wildfire claiming the whole organization was swearing loyalty to IS. A series of sheepish corrections followed, and the official announcement by IS was forced to clarify that it wasn't the whole group.

ISIS fanboys nagged Ansar al Sharia Tunisia online with questions about whether it had sworn loyalty to IS, and received a terse "that news is not true" in response. AST contains a large, possibly majority, contingent of IS supporters, and was one of the strongest candidates for a previously unaligned group to jump on board, so any sign of hesitation there has to be discouraging, although it could still happen.

Speculation has run rampant that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was planning to pledge, but everyone is still waiting for Godot on that front, and they could be waiting a long time. As with the others, there are strong contingents of individual support for IS within the group, but it's not at all clear that these fans can shift the direction of an organization led by hardcore AQ loyalists. While anything is possible, it's my guess that IS can at best peel off a splinter from AQAP as long as its leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, remains alive.

Given that ISIS has generally been smart about its media strategy, it's entirely possible it still has an ace up its sleeve -- in terms of a planned high-profile defection -- but if so, it had better be truly big and it had better happen soon. Otherwise, it's starting to look like that time ISIS threw a caliphate party and nobody came.

If declaring a "caliphate" doesn't move the needle, IS is facing a long hard slog for the near-term future. It is fighting a war on multiple fronts, and its battlefield successes could have sparked a surge in support. The declaration may have taken the wind out of their sails, while at the same time requiring them to hold territory at any cost. If Zawahiri can hold the affiliates in line, IS may be reduced to rooting for American drone strikes to take out key leaders in al Qaeda's affiliates, in the hopes that their replacements will be a bit friendlier to their caliphate gamble.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014
 

Gambling on the Caliphate

This morning, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or ISIL if you must) announced it was pronouncing the reformation of the caliphate, with ISIS emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi as caliph, and that it was renaming itself simply The Islamic State. The official announcement was released in Arabic, English, German, French and Russian.


In the statement, ISIS claimed that it had fulfilled all the legal requirements for the caliphate and that all existing jihadi groups and indeed all Muslims around the world were religiously obligated to swear loyalty to the new Caliph Ibrahim (using the name provided by ISIS in the course of proving that Baghdadi has the required lineage for the title).

Prior to this pronouncement, my assessment was that there was almost no way ISIS could exit June in worse shape than it entered the month, and that still holds, but July is beginning to look like an open question. ISIS, an al Qaeda breakaway group, had made a bold move to seize territory in Iraq that had resulted in tremendous gains in both equipment and money. Even if it lost all of the territory it gained in June, it would still retain many of those spoils, with new clout, status and physical assets to compete with the other jihadi groups operating in Syria and near the Iraq border.

The declaration of the caliphate is a massive gamble that puts many of these gains at risk, although the potential benefits are also substantial. Here's a quick rundown of the moving parts:

Competition with al Qaeda

As I've discussed previously, ISIS has been competing with the original al Qaeda for leadership of the global jihadist movement (a great history of the conflict can be found here, by Aaron Zelin).

ISIS's recent gains in Iraq projected strength and dynamism, while AQ Classic looked weak and indecisive. AQ has maintained a slim but diminishing lead over ISIS among key influencers in the movement, and more recent data suggested that it was hurting AQC in fundraising networks, although it also appeared to be diminishing enthusiasm for the jihad in Syria overall.

The pronouncement of the caliphate is sure to be wildly controversial on religious grounds, but ultimately it could cut either way. The backlash may harden the pro-AQ segment of the global jihadist movement against ISIS, especially with the announcement's flat out demand that all other jihadist groups are religiously obligated to pledge loyalty to ISIS. But it will also generate some enthusiasm from footsoldiers and different segments of the global movement that see ISIS as a rising star.

There is a risk of high-level defections from AQ to ISIS, particularly in North Africa, where several groups and segments of groups have already broadly telegraphed their sympathies toward ISIS. A significant number of AQAP supporters in Yemen have also been showing signs of sympathies to ISIS for some time, and since the announcement, social networks in the neighborhood of AQAP appear to be supportive.

On the other hand, Muslims worldwide are likely to react negatively to the pronouncement on the whole. The question here is how many currently nonviolent radicals will jump toward ISIS and how many will jump away from it. Again, this is a high-risk, high-reward scenario for ISIS. It could reap considerable benefits, but the backlash could be severe.

Regardless of how that plays out, today's pronouncement will likely generate new streams of fundraising and fighter recruitment, even as it depresses others.

The long term outcome is unclear, but much may depend on what happens next in Iraq.

On the Ground in Iraq

ISIS made its gains in Iraq as part of a coalition of Sunnis with grievances against the Maliki government. Those groups may have seen a temporary advantage in aligning with ISIS, but the pronouncement of the caliphate sends a clear message to all of ISIS's Iraqi partners that they are the subordinate parties in this alliance. ISIS may have cleared this move with its key allies in advance, but if it didn't, the power grab could splinter the very coalition that allowed it to seize territory in the first place.

More significantly, the calculus of holding territory has now changed. Prior to the pronouncement, ISIS could have fallen back to its previous domain along the border of Iraq and Syria with little loss of face and a huge increase in its warfighting capabilities, thanks to captured weaponry and millions of dollars worth in stolen funds.

Now, if ISIS is driven back, Baghdadi risks being seen as the man who grasped for the caliphate, held it in his hands for one brief shining moment, then lost it all.

Such a loss would highlight the hubris of ISIS in making this pronouncement and would also seem to validate the arguments of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri that ISIS's methodology was flawed and that the splinter group was putting the cart of an Islamic state ahead of the horse of fighting jihad.

The question now is how confident ISIS is about its ability to hold substantial territory in Iraq (reports suggest it is under heavy pressure in Tikrit already, and the United States has yet to deploy any airpower against the insurgents).  If ISIS made sure its partners are the ground would support the pronouncement and if it withheld the pronouncement until it was sure it had consolidated its gains, then it is in a position to reap benefits.

If ISIS rushed its timeline or overruled objections from local partners, it may lose its territorial gains quickly and end up condemned for an arrogant and ill-advised power grab. The wording of its pronouncement certainly reeks of arrogance, demanding an oath of loyalty from essentially all Muslims, with dissenters being labeled sinners at best, or apostates at worst.

At best, and in the absence of any surprising new information (which could certainly be coming), ISIS appears to be standing on the edge of a precipice with an adolescent faith in its ability to keep its balance.

It may be able to walk that line, but it's a stunning and unnecessary risk by a group that could have navigated the next few months with excellent odds of an outcome that ranged from good to very good. Now it has introduced a much higher risk of an outcome that is truly bad for its long-term prospects.

One Potential Path Through  

There is one factor that could cause all of this to work out dramatically in ISIS's favor, but it would require an large number of variables to fall into place. That factor is U.S. intervention.

The prospect of a U.S. military intervention, most likely in the form of air strikes, was already problematic. While there are many who understandably favor hitting ISIS in order to deny it control of territory in Iraq, such a strike would bestow on ISIS the one thing it has until now been unable to definitively claim -- legitimacy. A potential new line of jihadist argument then emerges: The caliphate was restored, but it was directly destroyed by the United States.

(Iran could also possibly fill the villain role here, resulting in a different possible tectonic shift in the global movement. And I suppose the Israelis could also intervene, which would probably overturn the entire playing board and start a new, very unappealing game.)

Even before today's pronouncement, there was a substantial risk that U.S. strikes on ISIS would bolster its standing in the global jihadist community, allowing it to gain ground against al Qaeda in the battle for hearts and minds.

U.S. strikes could also subvert the trend in recent years toward the localization of jihadist conflicts or unite the currently splintered jihadist movement against the U.S. as its primary enemy once more, with ISIS subsequently holding a central position in a unified global struggle.

If the pronouncement of the caliphate is received as legitimate by some significant number of jihadists and their stay-at-home supporters worldwide and...

If the United States is seen to be the most important contributor to destroying that nascent caliphate....

...there could be cascading consequences on a scale we have not previously seen. It could result in waves of terrorist attacks in the West, a surge in foreign fighter recruitment and fundraising, and significant instability in the remaining Middle Eastern states that aren't already experiencing it.

But those are two extremely large ifs.

If this has been ISIS's plan all along, it is audacious but borders on the insane. It is an all-or-nothing gambit. ISIS has meaningfully put its existence on the line with today's pronouncement. It is playing the lottery, and while the odds are stacked against it, sometimes people win the lottery.

Above all else, it is clear that ISIS is an adrenaline addict. If the group survives, it may be emboldened to take even greater risks in the future, and our strategy needs to be informed by that understanding.

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