Islamic State terrorists pose bigger immediate threat than al-Qaeda
In late October, US President Donald Trump said that ISIS leader al-Baghdadi had been killed in a US operation in Idlib, Syria. The Daesh terrorist group reportedly confirmed the death of its leader on 31 October.
The Daesh terrorist group continues to pose the highest threat to the international community, more than al-Qaeda in the short run, but this threat is of an inspired rather than directed nature, according to team coordinator for UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring concerning ISIS, al-Qaeda and Taliban.
Al-Qaeda is somewhat vindicated by the way that Daesh has been so severely hit over the last few years. The al-Qaeda calculation was always that Daesh represented a reckless project for which the time was not right, and I guess they feel that their analysis has been vindicated by what happened first in Iraq and then Syria. Al-Qaeda played a very different way, they’ve managed to keep their leadership largely alive, although they also suffered some attrition from counterterrorist operations. They also, long before Daesh, they gave a lot of authority to their affiliates to do things in their own way. It’s not a very controlling leadership, central leadership from al-Qaeda. Perhaps the most interesting place where this is manifested is in West Africa, where there is the coalition called Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ (JNIM) (Group to Support Islam and Muslims).
JNIM is associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, it’s sort of an al-Qaeda affiliate effectively, but it was formed by joining up with a number of other regional groups in the Sahel. What’s been interesting about the evolution of JNIM is that they’ve been de-conflicting and occasionally even cooperating with Daesh in the greater Sahara in Mali and in Niger, and they have also been de-conflicting and working with a local terrorist group in Burkina Faso. So, I think what’s happening, interestingly, is that because of al-Qaeda’s more tolerant approach to the local dynamics wherever they are found, I think that has given a sort of flexibility and resilience, which in Mali, in the Sahel and in West Africa has actually very troubling incidents. It’s very worrying that the groups are not fighting each other, they are working together to destabilise the local jurisdictions.
Whereas when you mentioned Yemen, interestingly in Yemen, Daesh and al-Qaeda are fighting each other. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is much stronger than Daesh in Yemen, and generally speaking in the fighting between the two groups al-Qaeda is getting the better of it. But they’ve still allowed this to consume their energies. It is more important to them to be the dominant terrorist group in the areas they have influence in Yemen rather than to project the kind of an external threat that they used to project. As you know, they lost the master bomb maker – [Ibrahim Hassan] Asiri was killed in late 2017, and so that major concern that the international community had about the threat to security to aviation emanating from al-Qaeda in Yemen, that concern has been somewhat alleviated.
Trump confirmed that Hamza bin Laden, son of Osama bin Laden, had been killed. It’s an interesting one because the details of exactly how, when, in what circumstances he was killed, I still don’t know. I understand that this is something that we’ve heard from many state interlocutors and we were inclined to conclude that he is dead, but of course it’s very important to know that before it happened. There was a period when he was very physical, very vocal, and people took it as if he was emerging as a very eloquent spokesperson for al-Qaeda, and that was about the beginning of 2018. Then he went quiet, and people said that perhaps he got quiet because he was building his credentials as an operational military leader, but of course without doing that he was killed. It’s entirely possible that he went quiet because he was killed.
So, we don’t know and it’s hard to know what exactly the significance of this is. I personally do not believe that he was ever the designated successor of [Ayman] Zawahiri. I think he was somebody who was important to al-Qaeda, he was a very capable spokesperson, he seemed to have some independence of action and it was very striking that in some of his publications he didn’t attack Daesh.
It was almost as if he was preparing a pitch at some point in the future where he would sort of welcome willing members of Daesh back into the al-Qaeda fold. He obviously had confidence, he was a sort of Jihadi aristocracy in some way obviously, but I don’t think that he was being lined up as Zawahiri’s successor, and so it’s hard to say how significant a blow to al-Qaeda that is.
The last time that we made a sort of a formal judgment on this in our last report we said that Daesh was overwhelmingly more of a threat, much more so than al-Qaeda. There was a question of whether with this further sort of depletion and also the reported death of Baghdadi, whether this reduced their capability further. My instinct is that they are still the biggest immediate threat. In the longer term, of course it’s possible that al-Qaeda could re-emerge as the bigger threat, but I think for now it’s certainly Daesh still.
The threat that Daesh poses is mainly an inspired threat rather than a directed threat. Daesh had to temporarily cancel, eliminate some external operational apparatus when it knew what it was facing in Syria, they knew that they were going to lose militarily, they knew they were going to lose a lot of fighters and personnel, and they considered the external operations capability to be a luxury that they couldn’t sustain in those circumstances. So they folded it into their wider security apparatus, and nevertheless, there are people out there who have external operations experience. So there are dangerous people out there, but what they don’t have any longer is a resourced mechanism that is supporting the planning and direction of external operations.
By far the most significant Daesh operation in 2019 has been the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka. But Daesh’s core knew nothing about those attacks before they happened. It was only after they happened that Baghdadi made an editorial change to the video that was bound to be issued and there was that audio addition to it, sort of supporting what had happened in Sri Lanka. But it’s quite clear that that happened after the news of this broke in the media, and then Daesh just can’t put out a video of the leader without some reference to big things that has just happened in Sri Lanka, so they made the editorial change, but it’s quite clear that there was no advance knowledge amongst the Daesh core; and then that group in Sri Lanka was locally generated, locally led, and locally funded.
It did have some external connections, and members of the group had travelled, including to Syria, so it’s not to say that the group had no connection with external supporters of Daesh, but fundamentally it was an inspired group. The leader of the group was somebody who was more or less self-appointed as Daesh in Sri-Lanka. It was funded by the wealthy connections of some of the group’s members, and the timing and the targeting and also the acquisition of the necessary military capability, all of that was done locally by the group.
So what that tells you is that for now the main threat from Daesh is an inspired threat and maybe an inspired threat with some external facilitation, but it won’t be a case of the remaining Daesh leadership saying “we’re going to direct this group to do that operation on the streets of that European city”. At the moment, Daesh does not have that capability, but it’s still a threat because of the inspired threat. Al-Qaeda remains more cautious than Daesh, but that could change over time.