Whatever happens after the recapture of Mosul, the future trajectories of al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS) do not leave cause for optimism, nor do the faulty paradigms that have been widely accepted about both groups in recent years, says a leading expert.
Five years ago, many argued that AQ was on the verge of strategic collapse: its founding leader was dead, a succession of key lieutenants had been eliminated, and the Arab Spring was seemingly poised to bring about the changes that terrorists had promised for years, notes Bruce Hoffman (above), director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. Yet when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before the Senate this February, he painted a bleak picture of a newly resurgent AQ that was “positioned to make gains in 2016, he told a Policy Forum at The Washington Institute for Near Eeast Policy.
If Osama bin Laden were alive today, he would be a happy man, noting that the process of political rebranding is coming to pass, while IS has seized upon the overarching seven phase strategy that Qaeda strategist Saif al-Adel laid out in 2005:
This strategy was broken into seven phases complete with a timeline, and the first few steps occurred right on schedule — for example, the fifth phase called for establishing the “caliphate” and was projected to take place from 2014 to 2016. Although this phase is coming to an end with the demise of the IS core, even partial fulfillment of bin Laden’s strategy promotes AQ’s narrative of a divinely ordained struggle ending in inevitable victory. The danger will persist with the fall of the caliphate as thousands of IS fighters try to return home.
“Terrorism is a war of attrition, and the West is losing,” Hoffman added. “Western societies are rife with disillusionment over the seemingly endless struggle, breeding political fissures and xenophobia.”
A victory in Mosul and the demise of IS in Iraq will not win the war, said Matthew Levitt (left), the Institute’s Fromer-Wexler Fellow, director of its Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, and former deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Treasury Department.
“Political and security grievances in the region have worsened,” he added. “Before IS and the Syria crisis emerged, the director of national intelligence spoke of the region’s ‘looming disequilibria’ in the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 report. Many of the worst-case scenarios in that report have now been realized, with open sores in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere setting the stage for serious problems in the long term.”
The fortunes of insurgent groups often wax and wane depending on their ability to establish sanctuaries, adapt their strategies, and take advantage of local grievances, notes RAND analyst Seth Jones. Based on historical precedent, there are several ways the Islamic State will likely attempt to weather the storm, he writes for Foreign Policy:
- First, insurgent groups that lose territory generally need to find sanctuaries that allow them to rest, resupply their depleted forces, and plan future operations.
- Establish guerrilla operations … As T.E. Lawrence [of Arabia] wrote in Evolution of a Revolt: “Granted mobility, security (in the form of denying targets to the enemy), time, and doctrine (the idea to convert every subject to friendliness), victory will rest with the insurgents, for the algebraical factors are in the end decisive.”
- Leverage political and other local grievances