Will Al-Qaeda groups cooperate with Islamic State?

Will Al-Qaeda groups cooperate with Islamic State?

The terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris from January 7th to January 9th have shocked Europe and the world. These attacks bore a specificity that underscores a new tendency in Sunni extremist militancy.

While Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the attack led by the Kouachi brothers against the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, the assassination of a French police officer and the assault on a Jewish daily store was carried out in the name of the Islamic State (IS).

This should not be read as an effective cooperation in the field between the two organisations. However, the ideological coordination between AQAP and IS in the worst terrorist attack France has experienced highlights an essential evolution in the strategy of radical Islamist militants.

Since the 2014 IS summer offensive in northern Iraq, the attention of national policy makers and international public has been largely focused on IS. An international coalition has been formed to defeat the insurgent group.

Terror branding: Islamic State to supplant Al-Qaeda?

The situation raised initial questions over the possibility for the al-Qaeda brand to be overshadowed and rendered quasi obsolete. The video issued in early September portraying Ayman al-Zawahiri’s announcement of a new al-Qaeda branch in South Asia was largely interpreted as an attempt by a tired organization to regain the front seat in global terrorism while being directly challenged by a younger, more ruthless and more dynamic Islamic State.

The string of radical Islamist militant groups from Algeria, Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan pledging allegiance to the Islamic State further solidified the notion that the al-Qaeda franchise was losing its decades-long appeal.

However, a series of international events point toward a different conclusion. While it remains undeniable that IS and the different AQ branches will be competing over private donations in the coming months and years, rather than a destructive competition it seems that the two terror brands may periodically join forces to form specific joint-ventures to carry out international operations.

Syria, Lebanon as testbeds for cooperation

A battle in eastern Lebanon has made this evolution extremely clear. As Syrian military units alongside Hezbollah fighters continue to make strategic gains in western Syria, Islamic State fighters joined forces with the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front in a large-scale offensive against the Lebanese border town of Arsal.

The battle that lasted five days in August 2014, underscored how IS and the AQ Syrian branch effectively join forces in a specific theater of operations when confronted by strategic duress.

The attack resulted in a tactical defeat for the Islamist forces as Lebanese units successfully forced the assailants to withdraw. Nevertheless, the two militant groups have settled in high-grounds overlooking the border town and continue to stage periodic joint attacks against the military units deployed in the area.

A similar situation unfolded in the Sunni-majority district of Bab al-Tabbaneh in Tripoli where Sunni extremists supporting al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State cooperated in an attempt to maintain their positions while faced by a growing presence of Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).

Even though there is no official policy, the Lebanese case seems to highlight the possibility of IS and specific branches of AQ cooperating in given situations in an effort to solidify their respective positions.

Similar blurred lines of separations have been seen in the ongoing Sunni extremist insurgency in Egypt as the Sinai-based portions of the main terrorist organization operating in the country, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State, while others parts of the organization deployed throughout the country remain loosely connected to al-Qaeda.

Competing for similar support, fighting against similar enemies

The competition over funding, recruitment and international recognition is not expected to abate in the short-term. This trend is better exemplified with two parameters that structure the competition between the two organisations: the capacity to attract foreign recruits and the capability to gain and maintain control of geographical territory.

In respect to these two points, IS is currently achieving a better result than AQ. However, the international scope of both the al-Qaeda franchise and the Islamic State does not make the two groups natural ideological adversaries. This creates a situation in which it would not be unlikely to experience further small-scale terrorist operations in Europe and throughout the Middle East in which militants linked to both IS and a specific AQ branch may cooperate.

The blurred relationship between the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda franchise increases the difficulties to which both internal and external intelligence services of the international coalition will be exposed. In fact, the multiplication of actors, their geographical dissemination as well as their diverse command and control structure will make intelligence gathering and targeting tasks more complicated.

In addition, should this trend be verified,  the creation of smaller and more dynamic cells representing una tantum joint-ventures between the two Sunni extremist blocks are likely to be able to easily channel funds necessary for recruitment, support and offensive operations.

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.