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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jihadist Hostages and the Shape of Things to Come

Update appended, Tuesday, 9/2/2014, 8:50 a.m. 

The recent beheading execution of hostage American citizen and journalist James Foley by the breakaway "Islamic State" in Iraq and Syria has set the stage for a preview of how IS's war with al Qaeda may play out.

Both IS and its chief rival, al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, hold a number of Western hostages between them, with al Nusra capturing 45 United Nations peacekeepers just this week, and IS threatening to behead another American, Steve Sotloff, in the immediate future should the United States continue airstrikes on its positions in Iraq.

Back in February, Clint Watts presciently outlined the possible consequences of jihadi competition in the post-al-Qaeda era. The most dangerous scenario he outlined was that competing jihadi groups would seek to outdo each other in brutality and attacks on the West. This scenario is also known as outbidding, a form of costly signalling of a terrorist group's intent.

In the unfolding, or rather ongoing, hostage crisis, we may be getting a preview of whether AQ and IS intend to escalate into an outbidding competition or whether one side will flinch.

It's a pretty safe bet that IS won't be the one flinching. With its graphic execution of Foley widely released and promoted online, the so-called "caliphate" is signalling that it desires to be seen as the organization bringing pain and death to the West, and prospects for the next hostage they have threatened appear to be dire.

In contrast, a week after Foley's execution was announced, Jabhat al Nusra returned Peter Curtis, another American journalist, after a deal brokered by Qatar, the details of which are unknown.

Timing is everything. It's not clear exactly when the Curtis deal reached the point of no return, whether it was before the Foley execution was announced, or if the execution of Foley may have helped spur the negotiations along. Furthermore, given that the U.S. is now ambiguously considering airstrikes in Syria, al Nusra may have wished to lower its priority on any potential target list. Al Nusra has executed prisoners in the past, albeit more discriminatingly than IS, so it's highly unlikely the decision to release Curtis came from the goodness of its leaders' hearts.

With the Curtis release, al Nusra may or may not have been signalling that it wants to position itself as less extreme or less brutal than IS. We just don't know, there are too many variables.

The capture of the U.N. peacekeepers, however, may set the stage for a more conclusive message. The fate of these hostages and the speed with which a deal is reached or ruled out may provide insight into al Nusra's next moves. If al Nusra decided to try to outbid IS, it now has a powerful card to play.

If al Nusra quickly completes a deal, on the other hand, it may point to an outcome that has been hinted at elsewhere in their public activities and online circles -- the intention to position themselves as less extreme than IS. Of course, there is plenty of room to be very extreme, while still being less extreme than IS, but the outcome of an outbidding war between Nusra and IS would be horrific, and for many reasons, we should hope the conflict between Nusra and IS does not go in that direction.

UPDATE: On Twitter, Charles Lister of the Brookings Institute also raised a complicating factor in evaluating how this goes -- al Nusra needs money, and a hefty ransom payment, if offered, may shift the calculus here. IS has also released hostages in exchange for ransom, and it solicited ransom for Foley (although the amount they requested clearly indicated their preference for executing him). It should be interesting to see how this plays out now that the issue of ransoms has come to the forefront. END UPDATE

Another major question mark is whether al Nusra's next move will be reflective of the broad direction of the wider al Qaeda movement.  As reported previously, there is reason to think al Nusra is not getting guidance from al Qaeda Central these days. If that's true, al Nusra may make a strategic call (in either direction) that is not in keeping the wishes of AQC, further fracturing the al Qaeda global network.

Finally, AQC has its own card to play, and IS is arguably trying to force its hand. American hostage Warren Weinstein was kidnapped by al Qaeda in 2011. The terrorist organization has periodically released proof-of-life videos featuring Weinstein, the most recent being some months old. In addition to its other goals, IS may have been reproaching AQC for its handling of Weinstein.

Al Qaeda has indicated that Weinstein would not be released unless convicted al Qaeda supporter Aafia Siddiqui is released from imprisonment in the U.S. The Islamic State pointedly offered to exchange James Foley for Siddiqui (among other U.S. prisoners) before it executed him. This demand was likely aimed directly at al Qaeda's credibility and contains an implicit critique of AQC's handling of Weinstein. This is, in some ways, a lose-lose scenario for AQC. If it responds by executing Weinstein, it looks like it is chasing the Islamic State's tail. If it continues to hold him under threat without taking action, IS comes out looking like the group that is more likely to get things done.

All of the activity around these hostages is, to some greater or lesser extent, proxy for each organization's larger intentions. If we see an escalation of violence against Westerners in the matter of hostages, particularly from al Nusra or al Qaeda, it may point to the start of a similar dynamic in regards to terrorist attacks on Western interests abroad or at home. If we see de-escalation, it could mark the start of a different kind of ideological struggle to contain the Islamic State by its own horrible brethren, a conflict whose ultimate consequences are yet unclear.

TUESDAY UPDATE: In an extremely relevant development, Voice of America reported Monday that al Nusra had delivered a list of demands to Fiji, the country whose soldiers were captured while under the U.N. banner.

While Nusra did ask for some money, what is far more significant is that they asked to be removed from the United Nations designated terrorist group listings. This is an extremely powerful signal that al Nusra may not intend to outbid the Islamic State, but that it may intend to change direction and position itself as a less extreme alternative.

The implications of this are far-reaching. There is little precedent for an al Qaeda affiliate renouncing the title of "terrorist," and it is likely that the Western response will be confused at best. It's early to parse out the nuances, but it's possible this could be a watershed moment between al Nusra and al Qaeda, as well as between both groups and the Islamic State. Updates soon.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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