Al Qaeda’s Breakup with ISIS and its Consequences

A contribution from NESA intern, Philippe Labrecque.

The Syrian war just got more complex when Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s top commander, officially disavowed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). There are a variety of factions fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, but few of these groups have grown in strength as much as ISIS, as numbers of foreigners joined their ranks in the last year.

With around 1000 armed groups, with a total of nearly 100,000 fighters, friction and conflicts within such fragmented opposition with different objectives had to be expected, even between al-Qaeda’s affiliates. But al-Zawahiri’s statement in relation to ISIS goes deeper than factions fighting for control over regions of Syria.

Al-Zawahiri’s public rejection of ISIS should be understood not only as a result of diverging interests and strategy in Syria between rebel groups but also as a growing internal struggle within al-Qaeda itself. ISIS is a creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his organization, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), that dates back to April 2013.

After creating the al-Nusra Front to fight in Syria, al-Baghdadi expanded his operations across the Syria-Iraq border in April of last year when al-Nusra’s successes on the battlefield made the headlines. By moving his operations to Syria, al-Baghdadi demanded that al-Nusra go back to being incorporated into ISI, effectively creating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), against al-Zawahiri’s explicit orders.

The public defiance of al-Baghadadi in creating ISIS led to a schism within the about to be absorbed al-Nusra Front as many within al-Nusra pledged their allegiance to al-Qaeda and al-Zawahiri in their own defiance to al-Baghadadi. The survival of a faction of al-Nusra, loyal to al-Qaeda, and the creation of the defiant ISIS helped fuel the recent carnage and violence between rebel groups that we have witnessed since at least January 2014.

The merger under al-Baghdadi’s command had tactical implications in the fight against Assad but it also weakened al-Qaeda’s successor to Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, within the organization as al-Baghadadi grew powerful enough to refuse an order by al-Zawahiri when the latter forbid the merger with al-Nusra. Al-Baghdadi’s rising influence and might was proven when al-Zawahiri didn’t further oppose the merge of what are two al-Qaeda affiliates.

It may be premature to say that al-Baghdadi and ISIS could challenge al-Zawahiri as the leader of al-Qaeda or even the al-Qaeda’s influence in Syria since ISIS is already isolated amongst the rebel groups in the current conflict due to their unpopular, brutal, tactics and their will to dominate the entire insurrection against Assad’s regime. However, for al-Qaeda’s top commander to publicly disavow one of its affiliates demonstrates that it may only have partial control over many of its ideological affiliates. If ISIS were to overwhelm al-Nusra and become the dominant faction amongst the rebel groups, it could further damage al-Qaeda’s leadership position within the organization and against rival international Islamist groups.

What this means for the civil war in Syria is that al-Qaeda is reduced to what is left of al-Nusra as well as fighting ISIS for influence and control over the opposition while the war against the Syrian regime is still raging. Its chances of achieving the dream of an al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist state on a parcel of Syria’s land is now nearly impossible. Moreover, the break with al-Baghdadi over Syria also means that al-Qaeda has very little influence left in Iraq as al-Baghdadi retains leadership there, for the moment at least.

Russian and Iranian support behind Assad’s regime and al-Qaeda’s potentially diminishing influence in Syria’s civil war and ISIS’ increased isolation confirms what most observers knew at this point: the Syrian civil war is a proxy war between Iran and the Gulf States for influence over the Middle East.

It remains to be seen however if al-Qaeda will get out of this conflict stronger, either by influencing the outcome or through propaganda, or if it may become even more decentralized to the point where it becomes difficult to truly assess what their actual strategic objectives are and if its ideological core has any executive power over self-proclaimed al-Qaeda affiliates in other regions such as North Africa. A fragmented al-Qaeda with tens of thousands of hardened fighters, after an eventual end to the Syrian conflict, might very well become the greatest threat to the greater Middle East and the West.

Despite the disavowal by al-Zawahiri, Al-Baghdadi proved that regional commanders with enough power may pursue their own objectives and vision of what the ideological cause demands. Depending on how and when the Syrian conflict culminates, the fight against al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism may become even more multi-faceted and require fighting many varied fronts if the West, and particularly the United States, must face multiple regional leaders increasingly free of al-Qaeda’s central command.

If it is obvious that the Syrian conflict is a proxy war, it is not so clear whether an even more fragmented al-Qaeda is necessarily better from an American counter-terrorism perspective. By the war’s end in Syria, the entire Middle East and the West may very well face a large wage of battle-tested fundamentalist fighters looking for their next battleground, creating instability in neighboring countries especially.

If Syria seems in a deadlock at the moment, it shouldn’t prevent the U.S. from preparing for a potentially disrupting new terrorist threat that equally endangers the stability in various Middle Eastern countries, especially Jordan, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and Egypt. In every crisis there is an opportunity and as American interests and Middle Eastern interests converge, the U.S. should take the lead in building even stronger ties in the region and start the dialogue and cooperation with key actors in dealing with a common threat.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

 

The Jihajjis

For centuries Muslims have been making pilgrimage to Mecca. The hajj is an extremely important part of a Muslim’s religious life and it leads to a growth in societal status when one returns. Upon return, those who have successfully made the pilgrimage are accorded the title of Hajji, which denotes an enhanced respect for the person in question. This practice of according enhanced respect to pilgrims has existed for centuries and continues to do so.

However, there today appears to be another method to acquire respect based upon a different type of pilgrimage, that of jihad. While less formalized than the Hajj system of societal ascendancy (no new titles are necessarily bestowed) those leaving for jihad very often do find a newfound respect from their home societies upon return from warfighting. Jihad is very clearly an important element of Islamic tradition, including both its internal and external variants. Internal jihad refers to the attempt to continually improve oneself and external typically refers to efforts to defend or expand (depending on your interpretation of the relevant religious texts) the ummah, or community of believers.

In the 1980s Afghanistan offered prime jihadi real estate. Not only was there an opportunity for jihad, there was also significant funding and state support. Saudi Arabia in particular was known to encourage its militants to go to Afghanistan to fight, partly out of religious duty, but also out of a desire to export religious militants who were worrying the political establishment (especially after the 1979 Grand Mosque Seizure in Mecca). Fighting was “openly celebrated and did not require concealment…many activists understood their work as a form of political and religious solidarity.” On return many jihadis found a newfound respect from their compatriots.

As a side note one could make an argument that jihad is significantly more respected when the jihad takes place in a foreign land. Local efforts and attacks often have very different effects – as returning Saudi (and other) militants found when they attempted to bring the fight back home.

The Arab Spring has provided new opportunities for jihad. Syria, Libya, and maybe Egypt provide opportunities for jihad. There is a lot of material coming out discussing states’ worries that returning jihadis will come back and attempt to pursue jihad in their own countries, but there is another, more subtle, effect as respected jihadis return from their ‘pilgrimages.’ Most of these ‘Jihajjis’ aren’t going to turn towards militancy in their home countries, but they may, as a result of their enhanced societal prestige, be able to influence public opinion and public policy in unexpected ways.

That effect may be much harder to gauge than that of more militant, violent actors, but it could push societies into a mindset more open to fundamentalist interpretations of religious texts and duties.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Please Sir, Could I Have Some MANPADS?

A few weeks ago I argued the United States should not be arming Syrian rebels. This week the United States stepped up its aid to the rebels, but maintained the non-lethal nature of said aid. The rebels, unsurprisingly, are not happy about this. A spokesman for the Syrian National Council, Mohammad Sarmini, states:

“This has become embarrassing and degrading. The regime’s escalation has rendered even our unmet pleas foolish. We used to beg for antiaircraft missiles. What do you ask for to counter Scuds?”

The same article mentions that Gulf States are already in the process of providing rebels with small arms. We need to be clear about what the rebels are asking for. They are not asking for more AKs or ammunition for small arms, they are asking for advanced and dangerous weapons systems. Sarmini’s quote indicates a desire for weapons designed to counter Scuds and antiaircraft weapons. While it appears that Syrian rebels have managed to get their hands on a few Chinese-made FN-6 shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles, they are not in wide circulation as of yet. Regardless, there are serious issues with deciding to supply the rebels with this type of weaponry.

Man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) hold a particular danger for proliferation. MANPADS falling into the wrong hands would most emphatically not be desirable. One of the most famous uses of MANPADS was in 1994 when a plane carrying the leaders of Burundi and Rwanda was shot down – triggering the Rwandan genocide. Of course, not all attacks need lead to genocide, but there have been other instances of attacks on civilian airliners. For example, in 2002, Al Qaeda fired a few shots at an Israeli civilian aircraft in Kenya (they missed). Suffice it to say, a few well fired missiles at civilian airliners could have dramatic economic effects, not to mention the significant loss of life.

Sarmini’s mentioning of arms for countering Scuds is also problematic. Patriot missile systems, or something similar, are incredibly complex and it is very unlikely that, even were the rebels to receive them, they would be able to operate them. Even the Patriot systems in Turkey are operated by NATO troops, not Turkish forces. It is also highly unlikely the United States would send NATO troops into Syria to operate advanced anti-ballistic missile (ABM) technology, let alone directly giving them to the rebels. At that point, intervention would be necessary to at least protect the troops operating the weapons systems. An intervention in Syria is clearly not palatable for the United States.

The proliferation concerns here should not be downplayed. While they do not make up the majority of Syrian rebel forces, Jabhat Al Nusra is gaining strength. Some estimate them as making up around a quarter of rebel forces. The same report notes that this Al Qaeda-affiliated group, generally held to be a direct descendant of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has attempted to sponsor cross-border attacks in Jordan. The United States simply should not be giving advanced weapons systems like MANPADS or ABMs to rebels when potentially a quarter of those rebels are affiliated with Al Qaeda. 

Small arms are already being taken care of by our allies in the region. Given that fact, it is better for the United States to focus on being ‘above the fray’ as much as possible so as to be able to produce a solution acceptable to all players. As described by my colleague Mr. Presto, siding fully with the rebels will make it much less likely the United States will be able to broker a deal with all sectors of Syrian society. So, sending small arms does not add to what is already being sent. This type of weaponry also presents serious proliferation concerns, especially if these arms fall into Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters or spread outside the borders of Syria. The more serious, advanced weapons systems being discussed above, ABMs and MANPADS, either also hold too great a danger of proliferation or are too complex to be usable in the shifting sands of Syria’s rebellion.

Added bonus for the week is a map, also linked to abvove, of MANPADS attacks in Africa:

IB-MANPADS-map-1_HIGHRES

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Changing Tack

In France’s efforts to push Al Qaeda out of Northern Mali (AQIM), a notebook was recently discovered containing ideas, remarks, and strategies enumerated by Abdelmalek Droukdel, Emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. These notes show an Al Qaeda in flux, one that is not quite as rigid as its forbears in Afghanistan and Somalia. While this book may only be the thoughts of one man, it likely suggests a new adaptability in the Al Qaeda mindset.

In Somalia, Al Shabaab pursued their ideas with a single-mindedness not seen in North Africa. There are, for example, reports that Al Shabaab fighters sought to tear down all English or Somali signage in towns under their administration and replace them with Arabic versions. Of course, most Somalis do not speak Arabic so this new signage would likely be of limited effectiveness. While Al Shabaab are known for their more violent tendencies, this example of signage clearly demonstrates their unwillingness to adapt their movement for local attitudes.

In contrast, Droukdel writes:

“The current baby is in its first days, crawling on its knees, and has not yet stood on its two legs. If we really want it to stand on its own two feet in this world full of enemies waiting to pounce, we must ease its burden, take it by the hand, help it and support it until its stands. Every mistake in this important stage of the life of the baby will be a heavy burden on his shoulders. The larger the mistake, the heavier the burden on his back, and we could end up suffocating him suddenly and causing his death.”

These are the words of a man who understands that wanton cruelty and indifference to local mores will not aid their mission to set up an Islamic theocracy. Droukdel is no moderate, as former explosives expert for the Groupe Islamique Armee (GIA) in Algeria he has been involved with construction of explosive devices that were responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths. And he did not slow down as he moved upwards through the ranks until gaining control of the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC) – which later became AQIM in 2004. Yet here he is preaching moderation, at least of a relative kind.

We see this moderation in the governance of Northern Mali. Not only have Droukdel’s notes been found, but so have “court” records. One case, from October, shows a man, Muhamad bin Moussa, accused of witchcraft and magic. Where Al Shabaab might resort to a beheading or some other grisly repercussion, AQIM’s courts only sentenced the man to three days in jail. This isn’t to say the courts were always moderate, women were known to be lashed for “mixing with men and the usage of foul language” as well as less gender specific lashings for alcohol use or anything else dubbed un-Islamic. Not to mention the destruction of Sufi shrines and other cultural heritage markers. Put mildly, these were not nice men.

However, there was a fascinating struggle on the part of some leadership elements, including Droukdel, to mitigate these abuses. Droukdel’s notes advise against the destruction of UNESCO World Heritage sites and public floggings, saying:

“On the internal front we are not strong… and the fact that you prevented women from going out, and prevented children from playing, and searched the houses of the population. Your officials need to control themselves.

This is not to say the militant’s rule was not brutal. It was. Cases of amputation are far from uncommon. This is not a story of a moderate Islamic group, but of an extremist group with extremist ends attempting to cover its extremist means in a sheen of moderation.

While the end goal remains the same, Al Qaeda is learning that it needs to be seen to moderate its message, or at least alter it to be acceptable in differing cultural zones. This will only make Al Qaeda a more formidable opponent in the future if it allows them to gain more local acceptance than the limited amount extant in past examples.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

The Algerian Question

French intervention in Mali has proceeded apace as French troops begin a ground assault on extremists in the North. However, at the same time that France is making a push in Mali, Algeria is suffering from a terrorist attack targeting one of its gas plants 60 kilometers from the Libyan border. Reports are mixed, but it clear that the Algerian military has launched a strike that has freed the majority of the hostages, although the attempt also led to the death of many hostages as well. As it stands, militants in Algeria claim that they are still holding 41 foreigners.

What is also clear is that Algeria did not collaborate with foreign governments whose citizens were held hostage, including the United States. Algeria did not inform potential partners of its plans nor did it accept offers of assistance. The question, then, is why did Algeria not accept any of these offers or even at least inform is counterparts that an assault would be attempted?

The answer to this question lies in Algeria’s historical legacy. Algeria’s political identity was formed in the fire of a violent revolution against France. The struggle against colonialism has left an unwillingness to engage in multilateral interventions that was only enhanced by the civil war of the 1990s. Additionally, the scars of the civil war have left a mindset in the Algerian military that they must do whatever it takes to put down militants and rebels, whatever the consequences. The 1990s was truly a desperate time, full of massacres and atrocities committed both by the government and militants. During the 1990s Algeria learned from Hafez Al Assad the way to put down rebellions. Hafez Al Assad would have been a likely target to learn from, given that he had crushed a somewhat similar uprising in Hama as the Algerians believed they were then currently facing. Some claim that Algeria has, more recently, lent their advice and lessons learned fighting their civil war to Hafez’s son Bashar Al Assad as well as advising Ben Ali before his ouster in Tunisia. Algeria also voted against the imposition of a no-fly zone during Libya’s revolution. This assistance to regimes in danger is indicative of Algeria’s distaste for foreign intervention as well as its belief in the sovereignty of a government to control what occurs within its borders. 

Suffice it to say that it is clear that Algeria is both uneasy with foreign intervention and has a belief that it knows exactly how to deal with militants. In the eyes of the military, even if it was brutal, Algeria did eventually crush the Islamic militants that struggled against the state in the 1990s.

In a previous post I argued that Algeria’s feeling of discomfit with interventions may have unforeseen circumstances for the intervention in Mali. While Algeria has granted France the use of its airspace in order to allow French air raids in Mali, the current hostage crisis demonstrates that Algerian cooperation is unlikely to be comprehensive. It is critical that the French and Algerians come to an understanding regarding strategic goals and tactical methodology in Mali.

Algeria and Mali have a very long border. The hostage crisis demonstrates that militants remaining in Algeria are influenced by events in Mali. It also shows that Algeria will not defer to outsiders when dealing with issues within its borders. Looking for a silver lining here, perhaps the Sahel crisis is an opportunity to create a new understanding between Algeria, its neighbors, and the wider international community – including the United States. It will take some very difficult diplomacy and a rethink of longstanding ideas, both on the part of Algerians and the rest of the world, but perhaps some good may come from this tragedy.

 Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Mali in the Crucible

The battle for Mali appears to have greatly accelerated in the past few days. Firstly, Islamists, including Iyad Ag Ghaly’s Ansar Dine, have begun a march on southern targets. On 8 January Islamists marching in the direction of Mopti were fired on by the Malian military. Just today, 11 January, Islamists have taken control of the village of Konna. The situation is summarized thusly:

The Islamists now threaten a major airfield some 25 miles away at the town of Sévaré, which is also the home of a significant army base. And 10 miles from Sévaré is the historic river city of Mopti, the last major town controlled by the Malian government, with a population of more than 100,000.

It may be that a major offensive on the side of the militants is underway. The loss of Mopti, while still hundreds of kilometers from Bamako, would constitute a major setback for the Malian government. However, to counter this advance it appears that the French have decided to participate directly in the Malian conflict.

On the same day that Konna fell, President Hollande stated:

“We are faced with a blatant aggression that is threatening Mali’s very existence…I have decided that France will respond, alongside our African partners, to the request from the Malian authorities. We will do it strictly within the framework of the United Nations Security Council resolution. We will be ready to stop the terrorists’ offensive if it continues.”

The Malian and French governments have confirmed that French troops are on the ground. The French have been involved in interventions as recently as 2011, in Cote D’Ivoire. It is likely that a trained French force could provide significant support for the Malian military, but direct French involvement carries with it other issues that may impede the success of the mission. While President Hollande did recently go to Algeria and acknowledged “the suffering that colonialism inflicted on the Algerian people”, he did not apologize for said suffering. Whether or not Algeria feels comfortable with a French intervention so close to its border may have unforeseen consequences for the Malian conflict.

Whether or not any of these events represent a turning point in the Malian conflict remains to be seen. What can be sure, however, is that a difficult situation just got significantly more complicated.

 Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

A Smooth Criminal

Iyad Ag Ghali, head of Ansar Dine, has rescinded his pledge to halt violence and work with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Bamako. Specifically, “Ansar Dine has decided to revoke the offer to stop hostilities together with the negotiations being conducted in Ouagadougou.” This could mean greater difficulty for any force seeking to break up the control of Northern Mali by various Islamist groups. However, it is important to recognize that Ag Ghali is a canny operator and may not have as strong an ideological commitment to militant Islamism as it appears.

Firstly, it must be remembered that Ag Ghali has been on the scene for some time. He was instrumental in launching a previous rebellion in 1990. However, Ag Ghali also signed the Tamanrasset Agreement with Bamako in Algeria. He even obtained a Malian diplomatic posting to Saudi Arabia. Although it appears he was removed from his post for consorting with jihadis, it is unclear what real effect this had on him. His main connection was with Tablighi Jamaat, which, while definitely fundamentalist, does not generally espouse direct violent political jihad. 

After all, before the breakout of the current conflict, Ag Ghali was known to desire a position in the secular MNLA. He was rejected not for any Islamist leanings, but because of his prior relationships with Bamako, not to mention exterior actors such as Algeria. Even after getting rejected for a position as secretary general of the MNLA, Ag Ghali still didn’t go the Islamist route. Instead, he attempted to become the political head of the Ifoghas clan, to which he belongs. After he failed to attain this position he finally decided to helm the Ansar Dine movement.

This, by no means complete, history doesn’t show a particularly ideological man. The fact that Ag Ghali has retracted (for now) his offer to lay down his arms should not detract from the fact that he has been willing to talk to both the MNLA and Bamako. Not to mention that Ag Ghali and Ansar Dine have not ruled out laying down their arms in the future. In fact, the current retraction of the offer to stop hostilities was followed by a statement that Ag Ghali was open to “new negotiations, even if (Ansar Dine) has never detected a willingness from the other party to reciprocate.”

While it is believable that Ag Ghali’s time in Saudi irrevocably changed him, it is entirely possible that Ag Ghali is simply holding out for the best deal. If he believes that association with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) will be more profitable for him, he will likely maintain a more bellicose position. However, when events start moving in another direction he may prove more receptive to diplomatic overtures. For now, with any international intervention months, if not a year, away and Bamako seemingly incapable of retaking the North alone, he will likely continue to vacillate between conciliation and conflict.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Jumping the Gun?

The conflict in Mali may proceed at a greater pace than desired by the international community. Dioncounda Traore, Mali’s interim president, recently came out and stated that, “The legitimate, legal, quick and clean war we want to wage with the international community’s support… needs more time for all technical, strategic and legal aspects to be fine-tuned. However I can tell you one thing: Mali will not wait months, as some seem to advocate. We will not wait for the cancer to spread. The war against the terrorists will happen sooner than expected and the Malian army will be at the forefront.” This seems like it will be far in advance of the September or October dates envisioned by the United Nations and other international actors.

A preemptive strike by Malian forces could make a difficult situation more untenable. It is highly unlikely that the Malian military, itself in disarray after the March coup, will be able to wholly retake land lost to Islamic radicals in the North. It will likely rely on impromptu militias that have been forming out of populations that have fled the Islamist dominated North. On top of that is the question of what will happen to the MNLA, the secular Tuaregs that kickstarted the rebellion. Will Bamako be able to come to a meaningful agreement with the MNLA, or even Ansar Dine?

While it is clear that something must be done in Northern Mali it may not be feasible to expect action immediately. Perhaps President Traore’s statement is meant to catalyze quicker action by the international community. It may also be a result of internal politicking. After the arrest and resignation of Prime Minister Django Sissoko in December, the President may be acting to shore up support with the military. However, if not, then a new wrinkle will fold out in an already complex situation.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Mali: A Brief and Incomplete Overview

Mali has increasingly fallen under the specter of Al Qaeda and its offshoots. A paralyzed, non-functioning government to the south has been toppled in favor of a weak, disorganized military regime. It is unlikely that Mali, by itself, will be able to thwart the goals of Al Qaeda and its affiliates as they consolidate their control in the North. Cities which were once focal points of Western tourist traffic are now enduring scenes of cultural destruction, as well as amputations and executions.

The United Nations has proposed that, in order to save Mali, the Economic Community of West African States formulate a planned military intervention on behalf of the Malian government. This plan envisages a force of between three and four thousand ECOWAS troops that will enter Northern Mali and rout Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Ignoring ECOWAS’ dubious record at successful intervention (ECOMOG, ECOWAS’ intervention in Liberia, was often referred to as “Every Car or Moveable Object Gone”), there is still the matter of a four thousand man operation ostensibly maintaining security in a zone the size of France.

This force, however, is not projected to even begin operations until September or October of next year. Al Qaeda is not going to sit still during this time. Malians, especially those displaced by the conflict, are not willing to wait. Already, locals are forming militias with the goal of retaking the North. While the formation of these militias does help demonstrate that AQIM is not highly popular, they also can lead to future instability. Once groups arm themselves and gain some level of political control of a region it can be very difficult to get them to put down their arms and rejoin the civilian world.

Finally, even assuming the intervention force gets rolling, no major spoilers appear, and the Malian government becomes more defined, there is no guarantee that the Tuaregs will be willing to place themselves under the control of Bamako once more. There have been rebellions in 1916, 1962, 1990, 2007, and now in 2012. These rebellions are not short affairs either, most last at least two years. The Tuareg rebels who began the current rebellion, the MNLA, have indicated their willingness to accept autonomy rather than full independence. Ansar Dine, up until now allied AQIM, may be able to be turned, but Iyad Ag Ghaly is a canny operator. It is unclear whether his interests lie with militant Islam or with his own personal stature.  

This whole plan has a lot of “ifs” – if Ansar Dine drops AQIM, if the MNLA and Bamako agree, if the intervention ever gets rolling, etc. The problem in Mali is not fundamentally one of Islamic radicalism. It is one of state weakness and dysfunction. The weakness of the state allowed for a rebellion which the Islamists used to their advantage. If a solution is to be found to the current problem, it will lie in strengthening the organs of the Malian state, whether by federalized institutions or not. A flexible approach is absolutely imperative.

This has only been a brief overview. I intend to explore the situation in Mali in more depth over the coming weeks.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s Expanding Influence

Recently, the US State Department designated Jabhat al-Nusrah, an Islamist rebel group currently operating in Syria, as a terrorist organization, claiming that the group’s name serves as an alias for Al Qaeda in Iraq. The State Department underscored al-Nusrah’s responsibility for almost 600 attacks since November 2011 (40 of which were suicide attacks) and warned against providing the group with any form of assistance.

As anticipated, the designation sparked a backlash in Syria almost immediately, igniting protests and prompting a flood of statements by well-known organizations like the Syrian National Council and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood – both of which condemned the designation outright, emphasizing that Assad and his regime were far more deserving of the terrorist label.    

While heated debate regarding the designation will undoubtedly continue, both sides can agree on one thing: that al-Nusrah is growing and its influence expanding. David Ignatius of The Washington Post notes that “rough” estimates put al-Nusrah’s size “somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters, according to officials of a non-governmental organization that represents the more moderate wing of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).” Of the FSA’s fighters, Al Qaeda “accounts for 7.5 percent to 9 percent” of the total, Ignatius writes. The Economist provides a similar size estimate, stating that al-Nusrah totals approximately 7,000 fighters, and, in Aleppo, is “one of the four biggest brigades fighting on the front line.”

Al-Nusrah’s seemingly strategic behavior and calculated maneuvers have only won the organization more support. Given its steady stream of funding from donors in the Gulf and weapons acquisitions, al-Nusrah is emerging as a prime fighting force amongst the opposition groups; in turn, attracting the attention of new recruits. Off the battlefield, al-Nusrah is making further gains, as well. In his Foreign Policy piece, Aaron Zelin writes, “[T]here are tentative signs that Jabhat al-Nusra has also been providing local services,” and “becoming embedded within the social fabric of the population.”

Al-Nusrah makes no effort to hide its ultimate end goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate, and this objective has left many religious minorities fearful that its end state resembles “Taliban-style rule,” Reuters reports. As the organization grows and expands its reach, the West faces increased pressure to counter al-Nusrah’s influence, so that it doesn’t fill the governance vacuum left over by Assad’s regime. Unfortunately, the terrorist designation has already backfired on the US, and could ultimately lead to the unintentional empowerment of al-Nusrah. This dangerous possibility warrants immediate address and new strategic thinking because an al-Nusrah with any amount of influence will likely instigate sectarianism and disrupt Syria’s path towards peace.      

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.