Written By: Iakovos Balassi
While al-Qaeda and the Islamic State compete for supremacy, analysts have debated the likelihood of the two groups joining forces. In “The Coming the ISIS-al Qaeda Merger,” Bruce Hoffman outlines why it could make sense for the groups to reunite, and predicts that by 2021 the two could merge or be in some form of alliance. While any type of rapprochement is years away, by anticipating and analyzing its results, we can begin developing strategies to better manage its consequences.
The most likely situation which could result in rapprochement is where one group becomes significantly weaker than the other, and its desperation forces it into a negotiation. Here, the need to maintain resources and legitimacy will overtake its ego, the variable Bruce Hoffman characterizes as the largest barrier to an alliance.
It is difficult to imagine a situation in which al-Qaeda becomes weaker than the Islamic State. Right now the Islamic State is, at least militarily, the international community’s primary target. While al-Qaeda has suffered some losses to the Islamic State since their split, the latter’s successes are only a result of its territorial gains within Syria and Iraq, an area which is shrinking rapidly. Furthermore, its recruiting gains in areas such as Afghanistan and Somalia have almost always been followed by setbacks. Al-Qaeda maintains a vast global network with quite resilient franchises, none of which are experiencing the same levels of military opposition as the Islamic State.
In this situation, where the Islamic State is so weakened that its best option is to rejoin al-Qaeda’s global network, the group will most certainly look different than it does today. As it loses territory and oil fields in Iraq and Syria, its ability to maintain current wage levels and provide public services will greatly diminish, decreasing its recruiting levels and acceptance from locals. Disgruntled members could defect and create offshoot groups independent of the Shura Council and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. If these groups are willing, al-Qaeda would likely welcome them back, especially those in Iraq, where al-Qaeda lacks an effective affiliate.
Another scenario for rapprochement is where, as the Islamic State deteriorates and loses resources, the Shura Council and Baghdadi decide that a merger is the best way to keep the movement alive, and enter negotiations with al-Qaeda. Here, the Islamic State would obviously be brokering from a position of weakness. It would be up to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, to take advantage of this and not grant the group immense freedoms and the ability to defy orders. This was the original mistake of al-Qaeda and their desperate merger in 2004 with Abu Musab al-Zarqwi’s Tahwid wal-Jihad, creating al-Qaeda in Iraq. The freedom given to Zarqawi allowed him to pursue his own strategy for Iraq, leading to the creation of the Islamic State. Zawahiri’s ability to do so could determine the strength of the alliance and the possibility of a second split.
In response, members of the Islamic State unwilling to rejoin al-Qaeda will certainly create their own offshoots. These groups would be very troubling, as many would likely adopt more brutal strategies. Escalating violence after major defeats is in the group’s evolution. After the Islamic State in Iraq’s initial setbacks, where leaders concluded that the group had not acted brutally enough, the result was a more violent strategy.
Preparing for these offshoots is critical, as it will certainly follow the Islamic State’s defeat. Regardless if al-Qaeda and some sliver of the Islamic State agree to work together, its ideology, combined with its successes and propaganda, has inspired many. If and when the organization collapses, at least some radicals will conclude that a more violent strategy is necessary. While any group that chooses this route will likely not attain the same levels of success as the Islamic State, if we can learn anything from the past six years, it is that with the right strategy and political climate, it is possible.
The death of either group’s leader would only make the situation more complex. In the event of Baghdadi’s death, the Shura Council would meet and vote for a successor. While it is unlikely that a more diplomatic individual who is more open to rapprochement replaces Baghdadi, his death could create a vacuum that, combined with territorial losses and drying revenue, only al- Qaeda could fill.
It is difficult to predict the threat a merger would pose to the region and international community. Much of this depends on how much influence and resources the Islamic State can maintain in the coming years. However, this is merely a short-term problem. The larger problems are those which fueled these groups’ evolution and influence. The marginalization of Sunnis in Iraq is still causing anger which will not slow until serious reforms are taken and faithfully implemented. In Afghanistan, peace talks with the Taliban are in infant stages. In Syria, it seems that Bashar al-Assad will remain an authority figure for the near-future. Fragile peace talks have a long road ahead, and even in the best-case-scenario of a negotiated settlement, the problem remains that the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have gained great influence and will cause trouble for any incoming government, legitimate or not. While an al-Qaeda-ISIS rapprochement is years ahead, so are these reforms.
These are areas that the U.S and international community need to focus on, as they are the issues that give terrorist organizations the most legitimacy. By concentrating our efforts here, we can weaken the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other groups, and thus be well prepared to manage however they choose to pool their resources.
Murad Batal al Shishani, “The Islamic State’s Strategic and Tactical Plan for Iraq,” The Jamestown Foundation, August 8, 2014. <Jamestown>
Childress, Amico, and Wexler, “Who Runs the Islamic State?” Frontline, October 28, 2014. < PBS>
Jessie Hellmann, “Kerry: ISIS ‘Territory is Shrinking Every Day’,” The Hill, March 26, 2016. <The Hill>
Bruce Hoffman, “The Coming ISIS-al Qaeda Merger,” Foreign Affairs, March 29, 2016. < Foreign Affairs.>
Gartenstein-Ross and Barr, “Neither Remaining Nor Expanding: The Islamic State’s Global Expansion Struggles,” War on the Rocks, February 23, 2016. <waron-therocks>
Vinay Kaura, “Afghan Peace Talks: Road to Nowhere,” The Diplomat, April 6, 2016. < The Diplomat>
Group of ISIS Soldiers, Newsweek, Digital Image, Accessed April 24, 2016