ATbar Competition vs. Cooperation in Global Jihad
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Competition vs. Cooperation in Global Jihad

28/12/2014 | by ICT Staff  

This workshop explores the variety of relationships between jihadist groups and the effects of these relationships on the West. The speakers challenge the notion of the rise of ISIS and the fall of Al-Qaeda, and explore the nuances of each group's strategy. While ISIS has caught the world's attention now, it is in fact on the decline, while al-Qaeda is more stable and self-sustaining. They provide insight into potential future actions of each group, and explain events that are currently happening in Syria and Iraq.  They conclude that in general, competition between jihadist groups helps the West, while cooperation hurts it. 

Co- Chair: Prof. Assaf Moghadam
Director of Academic Affairs, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) & Associate Professor and Director of the MA Program in Government, Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, IDC Herzliya, Israel

Co- Chair: Mr. Peter Bergen
Vice President, Director of Studies & Fellows and International Security Program at New America; Professor of Practice at Arizona State University

Dr. Tricia Bacon
Lecturer, School of Public Affairs, American University, United States of America

Dr. Alexander Evans
Coordinator, Al Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team, United Nations

Dr. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies & Adjunct Assistant Professor in Georgetown University, United States of America

Mr. Aaron Zelin
Richard Borow Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, United States of America


Prof. Assaf Moghadam
Prof. Assaf Moghadam begins by explaining that this workshop is about the state of global jihadist movements, and the relationships between different jihadist groups. He posits that competition between jihadist groups helps the West, while cooperation between them hurts it. Jihadist groups split over issues such as ideology, enemy, goal, strategy, tactics, structure, and power. There are two types of jihadist cooperation: high-end cooperation and low-end cooperation. High-end cooperation is just short of a merger, necessitating ideological agreement. Low-end cooperation is based only on a common enemy or opportunity.

Mr. Peter Bergen
Mr. Bergen discusses the future of Al-Qaeda, keeping in mind the rise of ISIS, which decreased its global relevancy. Al-Qaeda is concerned about civilian casualties, which could account for the splitting of ISIS. However, many of its local affiliates ignore senior Al-Qaeda orders to cease or decrease civilian killings. This suggests that Al-Qaeda's global capabilities are over, and that it has become just another Pakistani jihadist group.

Dr. Tricia Bacon
Dr. Tricia Bacon argues that with ISIS eclipsing Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda is using allies to promote its image of strength. For example, its new affiliate group announcements portray existing branches as new alliances. In recent years, Al-Qaeda has become increasingly "Pakistanized," and wants to broaden its appeal beyond its Arab-centric agenda. Thus, as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, it leaves a group of active militants looking for a cause, many of whom will refocus on India. Pakistan cannot restrain Al-Qaeda, increasing the likelihood of tensions between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India. Unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIS has not yet made many inroads in South Asia. Al-Qaeda is in decline, but can still wreak havoc. Targeting individual leaders is an effective strategy.

Dr.  Alexander Evans
Dr. Alexander Evans explains that there are four types of people present at any meeting: informed people with views, informed people without views, uninformed people with views, and uninformed people without views. Interpersonal dynamics like this are also present in terror groups. Four main themes: First, ISIS is a splinter of Al-Qaeda with the same ideology – there is no difference in substance. ISIS, unlike Al-Qaeda, is impatient and may overreach, so asking if it is the new Al-Qaeda is asking the wrong question. Second, group organization is important, but there has been a rise in individual homegrown radicalization. This is a macro-trend being replicated across the world, outside of tradition jihadist areas and networks. Third, ideas and methods are infectious. Types of attacks, such as suicide bombings and multi-strikes, are spread over social media, with ISIS being particularly adept at this. Fourth, Al-Qaeda's structure is becoming increasingly flat, with a lack of control over affiliate groups. It isn't being interactive and reaching informal social networks. These informal networks are more effective at recruiting and spreading jihad than formal groups.

Dr. Daveed Garnstein-Ross
Dr. Daveed Garnstein-Ross contends that jihadism has returned and is thriving today. Three main points: First, cooperation is harmful if jihad is declining. If it's increasing, the environment can sustain multiple groups. Second, competition is harmful to jihad. Third, our knowledge is limited. There are open-network and closed-network groups. Open-network groups, such as ISIS, grow quickly and nonlinearly with social media and without central leadership. Closed-network groups, such as Al-Qaeda, are smaller and have more trouble recruiting. Disadvantages of being open-network include lack of message control and security. Thus ISIS is on the decline, having peaked in August, and the long-term focus should be on Al-Qaeda, which is more able to sustain itself. ISIS has a terrible strategy, with wars on too many fronts, and will soon begin to experience major battlefield losses. ISIS depends on a huge influx of recruits, while Al-Qaeda can sustain itself on smaller numbers. In comparison to ISIS, al-Qaeda can rebrand itself as an almost moderate, more reasonable form of jihad – Turkey, Qatar, and even Jordan see Al-Qaeda now as the "good" jihadists. ISIS could become stronger if it carries out a major terrorist attack, develops a stronger international network, or sustains major battlefield gains. The best way to limit or end the fighting in Syria is to try to create an autonomous zone for moderate rebels, leaving Assad in a different region.

Mr. Aaron Zelin
Mr. Aaron Zelin explains how Al-Qaeda itself has gone through many names since its founding in 2000. Zarqawi and Bin Laden never saw eye-to-eye, and had a marriage of convenience known as Al-Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers. After changes on the ground in Iraq, the name changed again, and then it fractured to become the Islamic State of Iraq, to convey control over the territory. Jabhat al-Nusra learned from its Iraq experience to govern and not to be brutal to local populations, and taught local rebels this lesson. Al-Qaeda and ISI then patched things up behind the scenes, but their differences remained. Al-Baghdadi wanted to demonstrate that they were behind Nusra, and started competing, but not overtly.  The first real split came when ISI added Syria to its name and agenda. The split is largely generational, with those who fought in Afghanistan remaining with Al-Qaeda and those who grew up during the Iraq wore closer to ISIS. There are differences in methods and tactics as well. Al-Qaeda is more for the elite and involves more rigorous thinking, and ISIS is for the masses, and involves spouting off doctrine. ISIS has the advantage currently due to the hype from Western media and operations against it, but this could recede due to battlefield losses and their governing style. The big question now is what Al-Qaeda will do to improve credibility. Part of the reason for ISIS' success is drone strikes in Pakistan.