The rise of the Islamic state together with the resilience of Al Qaeda has a lot to do with local dynamics that lead the choices of the affiliate of both groups, much more than ideology.
The ideology is important when it is necessary to assess a threat, it steers the group’s relations, it drives the trajectory of the attacks and the motivations of individual actors, as the history of the militant Salafism has shown. As these kind of groups offer the ideology as a rationale for activities and actions, the ideological explanation can be sometimes preferred to less esoteric realities. As result, factors as money, infrastructure, people, resources, sense of legitimacy and benefit real and perceived – all can lead to political alliances – are often overlooked. Less attention is given to the sustainability of the alliances even though militant Salafist groups compete more often one against the other.
Wars of terror: local dynamics
Wars of the terror which sees the rise of the Islamic state and the resilience of Al Qaeda, the struggle for the leadership of the global jihad movement, has much to do with local factors.
Conversely from Al Qaeda, the Islamic state cannot rely on a longstanding network of emissaries or funder through which it can build favor in a region or fund itself in dark times.
The relations between individuals and longstanding connections in particular regions are important, not only for funding, but also to maintain the authority and the influence network. Al Qaeda, for example, is resilient in Yemen and in Somalia because its links and its presence in both countries, in terms of people and infrastructures, go back 20 years ago. The emissaries of Al Qaeda have generally operated in both countries without much interference.
The “localism” is the heart of the ISIS state building model. To avoid that jihadist movements, continue to exploit the internal anger, frustration, disenchantment and offer to punish the authorities perceived as oppressive, trying to substitute the control system, the regional powers, as Iran and Saudi Arabia, should break the borders of their old politics and pursue the multilateralism. Despite the nuclear deal, it should be not permitted to Iran to freely continue so support dictators or make operative armed militias to strengthen its interest in the Middle East and obstruct the sunni influence.
Al Qaeda from its side, covertly, but always in an increasingly way, has used the “localism” to develop its roots in the communities ripped by conflicts facing the absence of a governance. However, the loss of the senior leadership could catalyse a process of internal disintegration. The decline of the loyalty on a new leadership could push the lower ranks of the organization in a competition with ISIS imitating the more brutal practices.
These internal processes of transformation should, in my opinion, be exploited, because they could increase the internal debate which has the potential to catalyse on opposite positions and lead the disintegration of the affiliates in small factions thus more vulnerable targets.
On the other side, the strategy of the Islamic state moves on the loss of the Al Qaeda central leadership, especially after the Mullah Omar death, and it will continue to challenge the credibility of Al Qaeda as traditional leader of the lesser jihad. The Islamic state could try to acquire more affiliate than Al Qaeda or dismantle them encouraging the defection. Al – Shabab appears to be the more vulnerable and the resilience of Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, despite the al – Wuhayshi death could be tested, intensifying the sectarian dynamics in Yemen. Wars of terror in the global jihadist movement move exploiting the local dynamic of the region.
The dynamics of ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates
The pledge of loyalty of jihadist groups should not be seen as compulsory or durable, rather as a temporary condition. When the fortune of a group disappears or the leadership change, the alliances shift rapidly toward new formations that prove to be more convenient to the group or to the leader. Prestige, money, manpower: there are the forces that drive the alliances more than the ideology.
The problem with the affiliates of both groups is that as long as Al Qaeda and the Islamic state can distribute money to their affiliates, these would follow them, but when the money would fall short, the affiliates would look elsewhere to sustain themselves: the distant ones would search for new sponsors or they would create new enterprises.
Inevitably, some affiliates would look at states willing to fund them in proxy war against their enemies. Iran, instead of fighting Islamic state in Syria, could be much more interested in supporting terrorism of the Islamic state within the borders of Saudi Arabia. It is worth considering that Iran uses Hezbollah as proxy to support and maintain the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia can easily use AQAP as ally against the Houthi (supported by Iran) in Yemen. The African states could find more easy to pay jihadist groups that threat their countries rather than face persistent attacks in their cities. When the money falls short, Al Qaeda and Islamic state affiliates would take money from their ideological enemies without hesitation if they share the same interests in the short term.
It remains essential to keep in mind that focusing on global assessment on a wide range lead to the exclusion of regional nuances and local dynamics and these are the factors that can determine the rise and fall of organizations as Al Qaeda and ISIS; these aspects drive wars of the terror.