For the new theorists of jihad, Al Qaeda is just the beginning.
In Pakistan, for example, unless radicalism through the brainwashing of youths in hundreds, if not thousands, of jihadist or sectarian madrasas ends, there will be no lack of foot soldiers for their causes. Although the pace at which the jihadist landscape is evolving means any description can offer only a snapshot, the main contours of the fourth wave are clear. It has not replicated elsewhere its dramatic success there, but it is expanding in Libya, the Sinai, Yemen and Afghanistan, winning recruits in other war zones and has coordinated or inspired attacks in the West.
Some affiliates, particularly in Syria and Yemen, are increasingly powerful. Exploiting opportunities opened by local conflicts, they have shifted emphasis from attacking Western interests to capturing territory, targeting local regimes, often obscuring their links to al-Qaeda and, in places, acting with some pragmatism.
Whether over time this will alter the identity of al-Qaeda or any local branch or help it recover ground lost to IS remains unclear. Since , more movements have seized territory, supplanting the state while prompting, in some cases, a shift in relations with populations in areas they control. In a few weeks, it swept across the north and west of the country, linking up to strongholds in eastern Syria.
IS forces destroyed part of the Iraqi-Syrian border, the first time a jihadist group had claimed supranational territorial authority. Tens of thousands of foreigners have joined, many lured by sophisticated online recruitment. Its enslavement of women generates headlines, too, and serves to recruit young men whose socially conservative background makes access to women difficult. It aims to expand by capturing territory and winning recruits in other collapsed states; dividing societies through terrorist attacks; and, it says, provoking a battle with Western powers that paves the way for a new Islamic order.
Above all, though, IS is a movement rooted in the recent history of Iraq and Syria and with a now predominantly Iraqi leadership. The ouster of Saddam Hussein, a largely secular dictator ruling a country with a limited history of Salafi-jihadism, and the policies adopted afterwards by the U.
Power shifted from Sunni urban to Shiite and Kurdish provincial classes. The new political system, which expressly apportioned power by sect and to which Sunnis struggled to adapt, also served their interests poorly. To build the insurgent movement that became AQI and later IS, Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who arrived in Iraq after fleeing Afghanistan as the Taliban were ousted, could thus tap a rich vein of Sunni discontent, as well as networks of Levantine militants he had forged in South Asia.
Drawing on a new generation of jihadist ideologues, he found fertile ground for polarising the country along sectarian lines, an approach based on his deep hatred of Shia but also cold strategic logic, given the reversal of Sunni fortunes. In the early years, however, AQI was only one of many groups opposing the occupation and new government.
The Master Plan
While the leadership of his group included many foreigners, ex-regime elements dominated others. Though the U.
By the time the U. These considerations, together with promises of U. More than , tribal fighters, their capacities reinforced by the U. The revolt against AQI was built on the understanding Sunnis would gain a greater stake in the state and its security forces. Instead, in the run-up to the U. The crushing by Iraqi security forces of protests that broke out in Sunni-majority towns Falluja and Hawija over the winter of was the tipping point. As violence intensified, Maliki portrayed virtually all Sunni opposition as terrorist, while refusing to label as such no less brutal Shiite violence.
By mid, it had infiltrated most Iraqi Sunni-majority cities. Though dynamics varied, local military councils and ex-insurgent factions often allied with jihadists, whose military superiority then translated into dominance. When the renamed IS captured Mosul and the Sunni heartlands in June , the Iraqi army, hollowed out by corruption and incompetence and seen as a Shiite occupation force, mostly melted away.
Do in Iraq? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict , 27 February The broken promises to the Awakening destroyed or discredited much of the non-jihadist Sunni opposition that had gambled on working with the U. The most notorious way it did this was ruthlessness with potential rivals, particularly those involved in the Awakening who refused to join. No less crucially, however, it provided an avenue for social mobility to Sunnis who lacked a champion within their community. IS has thus weaved a web of marginalised groups and classes whose interests, if not beliefs, align with its own.
Rural classes found in it a way to strike back at what they saw as exploitative urban elites. Paradoxically for a group that promotes an uncompromisingly austere vision of Islam, IS leaders initially showed, at least in Iraq, some flexibility in enforcement of religious codes, depending on what they believed the local market would bear. But some have profited, and for many IS still inspires less resentment than Baghdad. Plus, many Iraqis are inured to repressive rule stretching back decades. The story is different in Syria, into which what was becoming IS expanded in Jolani rejected the merger and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
After a failed attempt to mediate, Zawahiri ruled that the Iraqi and Syrian branches would be separate al-Qaeda affiliates, in effect siding with Jolani. Baghdadi rejected this. Though the clash between Baghdadi and Jolani was the spark, the split between al-Qaeda and IS had long been brewing. As far back as s Afghanistan, relations between Zarqawi and al-Qaeda leaders had been strained.
His tactics in Iraq drew regular criticism from Zawahiri and leading al-Qaeda ideologues, who questioned his brutality against other Muslims and focus on killing Shia and capturing territory rather than targeting the U.
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In Syria, many Iraqi and other foreign jihadists defected to IS, radicalising it further. Though some al-Qaeda veterans stayed with it, al-Nusra became increasingly Syrian, and most of its rank-and-file, if not leaders, focus on Syrian, not transnational concerns. IS initially targeted not the regime but rebel-held areas, trying to conquer the Sunni opposition in Syria as it had in Iraq. Initially al-Nusra stayed out of the fray, but was drawn in against IS.
Beaten back from the north west around Aleppo, IS was forced to retreat to eastern Syria, but this also freed up resources for its dramatic capture of Mosul and expansion in Iraq. In Syria, where Sunnis are a majority and powerful alternatives exist, it controls only some Sunni-majority areas and relies more on force, despite forming some alliances and often operating by persuasion or bribery.
These differences notwithstanding, its defeat in either country appears remote. The degree to which, over time, it can maintain support or acquiescence, particularly in Iraq, is uncertain. However, it is as embedded in the local economy as in society. It generates part of its revenue through oil production, looted banks, gold mines, wheat farming and sale of antiquities, but most now comes from taxes of various sorts, confiscation and extortion, all hard for international sanctions to squeeze without inflicting wide suffering.
Even as it has faced greater military pressure and lost territory over the past year, it appears durable.
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IS aims to expand beyond its regional base by establishing provinces wilayaat through aggressive recruitment and luring in other groups. It appears less discerning in allowing groups to join than al-Qaeda is about accepting new affiliates. This report treats only the largest. In Libya, around the coastal town of Sirte, a former stronghold of the Qadhafi regime, and nearby towns, IS recruited from the local Ansar al-Sharia branch, taking advantage of a security vacuum.
Its emissaries appeared in greater numbers after June , both Libyan returnees from Syria and foreigners, including notable Iraqi IS commanders. Initially, IS did not impose strict rules on residents, provided women were veiled, and local groups did not attempt to take up arms against it. Killing primarily targeted foreigners, especially Christian refugees. But over time, especially after a group of Sirte residents led by a Salafi imam tried to rise against it in summer , repression became more violent. The group ransacked oil fields and attacked ports and refineries, but there is no evidence that it smuggles oil.
The Libya branch appears to have the closest operational ties of all IS-linked groups to the leadership in the Levant. The longer it can hold on, and the more Iraq and Syria veterans and foreigners flow in, the more dangerous it will become. In early , it expanded east, tightening its grip on Ben Jawwad the last town before major oil facilities on the coast and attacked oil and gas infrastructure around Sidra.
Its expansion westward is checked by the Misrata-aligned revolutionary brigades, which are distrusted by Sirte locals but could perhaps oust IS were their leaders not reluctant to lose men or risk being outflanked in their hometowns.