The latest wave of terrorist atrocities experienced in France, Mali, Tunisia, and Egypt and the continuous threat of other terrorist attacks in places such as Brussels, London and Rome, may be indicative of a growing rivalry between ISIS and al-Qaeda as they compete for credibility, support and resources from the global jihadi community. In the midst of a migrant crisis exploiting Europe’s border security weaknesses, and caused by the now long-lasting Syrian conflict, ISIS has not only become a de facto government in swathes of Iraq and Syria, but has also radicalised, through the extensive use of social media, a large number of youngsters around Europe, preparing the ground for lone wolf attacks and facilitating future home-grown terrorist attacks. Albanian academic Dr. Mimoza Xharo considers this dynamic, in which no country is immune from the threat and which may impact significantly on international aviation security in the years to come.
Since the establishment of the Islamic State, besides the atrocities committed towards hostages in the territory under its control, ISIS has already started to show itself to be a rising threat on the global stage by undertaking several major terrorist attacks outside its heartland. The self-styled caliphate has issued a call to all Muslims to be faithful to it and has left the door open for all existing jihadist groups to join in. IS leader al-Bagdadi has clearly shown his ambition to take on the mantle of the leader of a global jihadi movement. In doing so, he has challenged al-Qaeda, whose strategy has been to establish safe havens for global jihadists. ISIS has done the opposite; it has established a caliphate with geographic borders, fought its closest enemy and has now commenced the struggle for global support.
This combination of ideology and conventional asymmetric warfare tactics, supported by Mafia-type financing and recruiting, has, in a short period of time, made ISIS a real threat to national security. The longstanding conflict in Syria, combined with the failure of the international community to reach a political solution, is being exploited by the Islamic State to grow the number of its fighters and attract different groups to join the struggle. This dynamic has damaged al-Qaeda (AQ). Al-Zahwari, the AQ leader, declared in video messages from the beginning that Islamic State “is illegitimate”, based on “unprophetic methods”, but it seems that this has not impeded ISIS growth. In November 2014, al-Baghdadi announced “the expansion of the Islamic State to new lands”. A year later, days before the bombing of the Metrojet flight over Sinai, al-Zahwari launched another call to the jihadist groups, stressing in different words that the enemy is the coalition, calling for an end to the fighting “between each other”, and proposed “a sharia to resolve their disagreements”, (thus confirming the divergences between al-Qaeda and ISIS), or even an indirect call to ISIS to merge with al-Qaeda. ISIS responded, in a video posted on Twitter on 25 November, that Islamic State is “established based on prophetic methods”, is “fighting for global jihad” and calls for other terrorist attacks “to focus on the coalition countries”, even showing the flags of the countries that have joined the international coalition. ISIS thus demonstrated that it is fighting for jihad, is more active and motivated and that with them, global jihad is closer.
This rivalry in propaganda has been reflected on the ground. In January 2015, a low profile jihadist group announced openly its allegiance to al-Baghdadi in Yemen, a country where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was dominant. In March 2015, the Islamic State’s ‘Sana’a Province’ in Yemen claimed credit for four suicide attacks on two mosques in the capital, with at least 142 dead and more than 351 wounded. Al-Qaeda distanced itself from the attack, asserting that it “does not attack mosques” and immediately seized control of al-Houta City. ISIS possibly tried to gain more support among Sunni tribes by exploiting the existing Sunni-Shia divide. In the same month, Boko Haram’s group in Nigeria pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi.
The terrorist acts in Paris during 2015 (both those on 7 January and those on 13 November) are a significant example of this rivalry. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was claimed by AQAP. ISIS has reported on the Coulibaly operation in its online magazine, Dabiq, and indirectly suggested that acts of this kind are welcome.
On 13 November 2015, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks occurred in Paris with 130 killed (89 at the Bataclan Theatre) and 368 injured. This time Islamic State claimed credit for the attacks. This was a very well coordinated series of attacks in the heart of Europe, giving rise to significant media coverage and illustrating the inability of intelligence and security forces to prevent such instances occuring. ISIS wanted to achieve something comparable in size to the impact of al-Qaeda.
Following the events in Paris, on 21 November 2015, another terrorist attack occurred in Mali with 21 victims and 170 hostages being taken at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako. According to media reports, “the Mali gunmen weeded out Muslims by demanding that hostages recite verses from the Quran to be freed”. An African al-Qaeda affiliated group claimed responsibility on Twitter. The message was that their enemy are western countries, not mosques and Muslims. On 26 November, according to Daily Mail online, a “second Tunisia terror attack [was] foiled. ISIS claimed the credit of attacks; thousands of British tourists are evacuated”.
Furthermore, on 2 December 2015, another terrorist attack occurred in San Bernardino, California. According to media reports, the perpetrators were homegrown extremists, inspired by Islamic State, who had pledged allegiance to the leader of IS on Facebook. Although the number of foreign fighters from US is considered low, in comparison with other countries, as Peter Neumann (Professor of Security Studies at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London) stressed in a recent interview, “what ISIS understands, more than al-Qaeda before, is that even fairly limited acts of violence can be very terrorising.”
France, Belgium, Italy, and the UK are warning of more terrorist attacks in the weeks and months ahead. Al-Qaeda is known for acts commanding a large audience, and with symbolic and dramatic consequences, especially by hijacking or bombing aircraft. On 19 November 2015, ISIS published pictures of the improvised explosive device it claims brought down the Russian Metrojet flight. If this is true then ISIS has shown its ambition to compete with al-Qaeda even in aircraft bombings, which are more difficult to organise due to security checks. False alarms for other aircraft bombings have followed, including the report of a forced landing in Halifax by a Turkish Airlines flight departed from New York.
The lack of an international sustainable political solution to the Syrian conflict will continue to make ISIS feel strong and threaten international security. Clearly ISIS wants what al-Qaeda has – global credibility among Islamic groups, support and resources – and this rivalry may also affect international aviation security.