Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State
14 Mar 2016
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The Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda-linked groups, Boko Haram and other extremist movements are protagonists in today’s deadliest crises, complicating efforts to end them. They have exploited wars, state collapse and geopolitical upheaval in the Middle East, gained new footholds in Africa and pose an evolving threat elsewhere. Reversing their gains requires avoiding the mistakes that enabled their rise. This means distinguishing between groups with different goals; using force more judiciously; ousting militants only with a viable plan for what comes next; and looking to open lines of communication, even with hardliners. Vital, too, is to de-escalate the crises they feed off and prevent others erupting, by nudging leaders toward dialogue, inclusion and reform and reacting sensibly to terrorist attacks. Most important is that action against “violent extremism” not distract from or deepen graver threats, notably escalating major- and regional-power rivalries.
The reach of “jihadists” (a term Crisis Group uses reluctantly but that groups this report covers self-identify with; a fuller explanation for its use is on page 2) has expanded dramatically over the past few years. Some movements are now powerful insurgent forces, controlling territory, supplanting the state and ruling with a calibrated mix of coercion and co-option. Little suggests they can be defeated by military means alone. Yet, they espouse, to varying degrees, goals incompatible with the nation-state system, rejected by most people in areas affected and hard to accommodate in negotiated settlements. Most appear resilient, able to adapt to shifting dynamics. The geography of crisis today means similar groups will blight many of tomorrow’s wars.
IS has reshaped the jihadist landscape: its strategy bloodier than that of al-Qaeda, from which it split in 2013; its declared caliphate across much of Iraq and Syria and grip on a Libyan coastal strip; thousands of foreigners and dozens of movements enlisted; its attacks in the Muslim world and the West. Fighting on multiple fronts – against Iran’s allies, Sunni Arab regimes and the West – it has woven together sectarian, revolutionary and anti-imperialist threads of jihadist thought. Its leadership is mostly Iraqi but the movement is protean: millenarian and local insurgent; to some a source of protection, to others of social mobility and yet others of purpose; with strands aiming to consolidate the caliphate, take Baghdad or even Mecca, or lure the West into an apocalyptic battle. Primarily, though, its rise reflects recent Iraqi and Syrian history: Sunni exclusion and anomie after the disastrous U.S invasion; harsh treatment under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; and the brutality of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its allies. Any response must factor in IS’s many faces. But mostly it needs to address Sunni suffering in the Levant and the dangerous sense of victimisation that has helped spawn across the Sunni Arab world.
In part obscured by IS’s rise, al-Qaeda has evolved. Its affiliates in the Maghreb, Somalia, Syria and Yemen remain potent, some stronger than ever. Some have grafted themselves onto local insurrections, displaying a degree of pragmatism, caution about killing Muslims and sensitivity to local norms. Around the Lake Chad Basin, Boko Haram, the latest in a string of revivalist movements rooted in the marginalised political economy and structural violence of northern Nigeria, has morphed from isolated sect to regional menace, though formally joining IS has changed little about it. Movements of different stripes – the largely nationalist Afghan Taliban, resurgent as foreign troops draw down from Afghanistan, and Pakistani groups including sectarian movements, tribal militants fighting the central state and Kashmir- or Afghanistan-focused elements aligned to its military establishment – comprise an evolving South Asian jihadist scene.
The roots of this expansion defy generic description. Patterns of radicalisation vary from country to country, village to village, individual to individual. Autocrats, political exclusion, flawed Western interventions, failing governance, closing avenues for peaceful political expression, the distrust of the state in neglected peripheries, traditional elites’ declining authority and the lack of opportunity for growing youth populations have all played their part. So, too, has the dwindling appeal of other ideologies, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood’s peaceful political Islam – jihadists’ main ideological competitor – diminished by President Muhammed Morsi’s ouster and the subsequent crackdown in Egypt. Proselytising of intolerant strands of Islam has, in places, helped prepare the ground. The sectarian currents coursing through much of the Muslim world both are aggravated by IS and give it succour.
But if roots are complex, the catalyst is clear enough. The descent of most of the 2011 Arab revolutions into chaos has opened enormous opportunity for extremists. Movements have gathered force as crises have festered and evolved, as money, weapons and fighters flow in, as violence escalates. Mounting enmity between states means regional powers worry less about extremists than about traditional rivals, leverage the fight against IS against other enemies or quietly indulge jihadists as proxies. Especially in the Middle East, jihadists’ expansion is more a product of instability than its primary driver; is due more to radicalisation during crises than beforehand; and owes more to fighting between their enemies than to their own strengths. Rarely can such a movement gather force or seize territory outside a war zone or collapsed state.
Geopolitics hinders a coherent response. The starting point should be to dial back the Saudi-Iranian rivalry that drives Sunni and Shia extremism, deepens crises across the region and is among the gravest threats to international peace and security today. Easing other tensions – between Turkey and Kurdish militants, for example, Turkey and Russia, conservative Arab regimes and the Muslim Brotherhood, Pakistan and India, even Russia and the West – is also essential. In Libya, Syria and Yemen, tackling jihadists requires forging new orders attractive enough to deplete their ranks and unite other forces. Of course, none of this is easy. But redoubling efforts to narrow other fault lines would be wiser than papering them over in an illusion of consensus against “violent extremism”.
Vital, too, is to learn from mistakes since the 9/11 (2001) attacks. Each movement, notwithstanding the links between and transnational ties of some, is distinct and locally rooted; each requires a response tailored to context. They can, however, pose similar dilemmas and provoke similar blunders. Major and regional powers and governments in areas affected should:
- Disaggregate not conflate: Making enemies of non-violent Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, prepared to accept political and religious pluralism and engage in politics is self-defeating. Also important is to distinguish movements seeking a place within the international order from those wanting to upend it. Even IS, its local branches and al-Qaeda affiliates, despite belonging to the latter category, are not monolithic. They have dedicated cores with transnational goals, but rank-and-files with diverse, mostly local motives whose loyalty can shift, and perhaps be shifted, with changing conditions. Governments should disaggregate even radical movements with an eye to ending violence, not lump others in with them looking for a fight.
- Contain if no better option exists: Foreign powers should always have a viable plan for what comes next if they undertake to oust militants; the same applies to governments in their hinterlands. Today’s strategy in Iraq – razing towns to defeat IS in the hope Sunni leaders in Baghdad can regain lost legitimacy through reconstruction – is unlikely either to meet Sunnis’ grievances or create conditions in which they can forge a new political identity. In Libya a heavy bombardment or deployment of Western troops against IS without a wider political settlement would be a mistake, likely to deepen the chaos. In both cases, slowing military operations also carries grave risks but, without a workable alternative, is the safer option – for those contemplating going in and those in areas affected alike.
- Use force more judiciously: Although force usually must be part of the response, governments have been too quick to go to war. Movements with roots in communities, tapping genuine grievances and sometimes with foreign backing are hard to extirpate, however unappealing their ideology. Wars in Somalia and Afghanistan show the shortfalls of defining enemies as terrorists or violent extremists and of combining efforts to build centralised state institutions with military action against them absent a wider political strategy that includes reconciliation. Nor can Russia’s scorched-earth approach in Chechnya – even leaving aside the human cost – be replicated in areas affected today, given porous borders, collapsed states and proxy warfare.
- Respect rules: Too often military action against extremists helps them recruit or leaves communities caught between their harsh rule and indiscriminate operations against them. Jihadists’ ability to offer protection against predation by regimes, other militias or foreign powers is among their greatest assets, usually more central to their success than ideology. While often guilty of atrocities, they fight in conflicts in which all sides violate international humanitarian law. Recovering the rulebook must be a priority.
- Curb targeted killings: Drone strikes can, in places, hinder groups’ operations and ability to hit Western interests and their leaders’ movements. But they feed resentment against local governments and the West. Movements weather the deaths of leaders, and the replacements that emerge are often harder-line. Foreseeing the impact of killings is hard in a reasonably stable order; doing so amid urban warfare and jihadist infighting – with al-Qaeda and others confronting IS – is impossible. Even leaving aside questions of secrecy, legality and accountability, targeted killings will not end the wars jihadists fight in or decisively weaken most movements.
- Open lines of communication: Notwithstanding the difficulties, governments should be more willing to talk, even with radicals. Opportunities to engage in ways that might have de-escalated violence – with some Taliban and al-Shabaab leaders, Boko Haram and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, for example – have been lost. The decision whether a group is irreconcilable rests with its leaders not governments. Although policy-makers can entertain no illusions about the nature of the IS and al-Qaeda top commands, opportunities to open unofficial, discreet lines of communication, through community leaders, non-state mediators or others, are usually worth pursuing, particularly on issues of humanitarian concern, where there may be shared interest.
- Narrow the “countering violent extremism” (CVE) agenda: As a corrective to post-9/11 securitised policies, the CVE agenda, pioneered mostly by development actors, is valuable; so, too, are recognising the underlying conditions that can, in places, enable extremists’ recruitment and shifting funds from military spending to development aid. But re-hatting as CVE activities to address “root causes”, particularly those related to states’ basic obligations to citizens – like education, employment or services to marginalised communities – may prove short-sighted. Casting “violent extremism”, a term often ill-defined and open to misuse, as a main threat to stability risks downplaying other sources of fragility, delegitimising political grievances and stigmatising communities as potential extremists. Governments and donors must think carefully what to label CVE, further research paths of radicalisation and consult widely across the spectrum of those most affected.
- Invest in conflict prevention: IS’s and al-Qaeda’s recent expansion injects new urgency into prevention, both during crises, to halt their radicalisation, and upstream. Any further breakdown in the belt running from West Africa to South Asia is likely to attract an extremist element – whether these movements provoke crises themselves or, more likely, profit from their escalation. Although generic prescriptions are of limited value, nudging leaders toward more inclusive and representative politics, addressing communities’ grievances and measured responses to terrorist attacks usually make sense. Overall, in other words, preventing crises will do more to contain violent extremists than countering violent extremism will do to prevent crises.
The past quarter-century has seen waves of jihadist violence: a first in the early 1990s, when volunteers from the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan joined insurrections elsewhere; a second pioneered by al-Qaeda culminating in the 9/11 attacks; and a third sparked by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Today’s fourth wave is the most perilous yet. Partly this is thanks to IS’s territorial control and ideological innovation – its tapping of both local Sunni and wider anti-establishment discontent. Mostly, though, it is dangerous because of the currents propelling it, particularly the Middle East’s upheaval and fraying state-society relations there and elsewhere. World leaders’ concern is well-founded: IS’s attacks kill their citizens and threaten their societies’ cohesion. They face enormous pressure to act. But they must do so prudently. Missteps – whether careless military action abroad; crackdowns at home; subordinating aid to counter-radicalisation; casting the net too wide; or ignoring severer threats in a rush to fight “violent extremism” – risk aggravating those deeper currents and again playing into jihadists’ hands.
Brussels, 14 March 2016