The speech released by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader, ideologue and commander-in-chief, on April 23 2017 contained several key messages, from wearing down the enemy with guerrilla war to not being obsessed with holding territory, and onto the dangers of nationalism.
But many also read another message in the tea leaves: a big offer to kiss and make up, from al-Qaeda to the Islamic State.
This speculation centres on two of Zawahiri’s comments. First, his exhortation to "unite and close your ranks with your Muslim brothers and mujahideen, not just in Syria but the entire world, for it is a single Crusader campaign being waged against Muslims the world over.” Then, his closing message: "May Allah bless them [the people of Syria] with His victory and support, and guide them to take a common stance alongside their Mujahideen brethren the world over against a common united enemy.”
It’s easy to see why people have taken this to mean that al-Qaeda wants to reunify with Isis. But was this really a verbal olive branch, an attempt to build a new coalition from the top down?
Well in terms of a formal alliance, the timing would be all wrong. Even if Islamic State is losing ground in Mosul, it still holds some prime real estate in sparsely populated, tough terrain areas from which it can easily maintain powerful hit-and-run operations into the considerable future. The brand holds an impressive amount of ideological value from which the group can market its strain of jihadism for decades to come. The group certainly isn’t even close to cap-in-hand territory in the propaganda war.
If anything can be said about al-Qaeda, meanwhile, it’s that they play the long-game rather well. In areas such as North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, they understand and manipulate a culture of shifting allegiances better than anyone else.
A glimpse into their strategy came in March 2017, when AQIM, Ansar Dine, Macina Brigade and Mourabitounes rebranded to form a new group called Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin and become the biggest jihadi group in the Sahara. Even though all of these groups have a long history of regularly operating with each other, by creating a brand-new brand-name al-Qaeda blended the interests of varying indigenous populations from Tuareg to Fulani. It’s a master of gerrymandering to gain popular support from the locals.
For al-Qaeda, the master plan of a never-ending guerilla war – rather than the invade-and-conquer strategy which brought Isis vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria - has stood the test of time in Afghanistan can be applied anywhere in the world. Zawahiri advocated exactly this concept in the April 23 audio message, saying "In my humble opinion, the strategy for jihad in Syria must focus on a guerrilla war aimed at wearing down the enemy and bleeding it to death.”
Anywhere in the world where you do not see AQ and Isis actively fighting each other, one can expect that AQ has the long-term goal of gaining the upper-hand.
Groundswell of activity
However, even given all stated above, there is a groundswell of activity to suggest that at lower levels, in private back rooms, in locations outside ash Sham, cooperation is likely being discussed or even actually practised.
This week Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, warned that a “new extensive terrorist web is being formed” globally. Bortnikov cited evidence suggesting that from Afghanistan, to Yemen, and into the heart of Africa, both Isis and al-Qaeda are deploying fighters in new strongholds. Though this model is not new for either group, if in fact there are new bonds being formed between them, that would create a force multiplier where the whole would be much greater than the sum of the parts.
In North Africa there are plenty of examples of possible cooperation. Isis did rather well courting prominent local jihadist groups, promising key individuals positions of power to successfully establish itself on the African continent, beginning in 2014. After Isis lost control of Sirte in late 2016, its fighters regrouped into the tougher terrain south of the coastal strip between Misrata and Tripoli, as well as the desert areas south of Sirte. In March 2017 new reports emerged that the notorious AQIM powerhouse, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, had been dispatched to southern Libya to reach out by providing logistics and support to help the regrouping operation.
On 31 October 2016, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) released a short video of a Romanian hostage named as Lulian Berghout, kidnapped in Burkina Faso in April 2015. This video raised a number of eyebrows because technically Lulian Berghout is an Isis hostage. In 19 May 2015, Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, a leading member of Mourabitounes at the time, released a "proof of life" video of Berghout, with allegiance pledged to Isis at the end.
Sahraoui ultimately forged his own group, Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS), taking Berghout with him. He’s a bitter enemy of Belmokhtar. So why would AQIM release a video for a hostage it supposedly doesn’t hold, for a group which is a direct rival and whose leader harbours a personal enmity with its own?
Then there’s the evolving congruence between Nafaa Brigade, which is linked to al-Qaeda, and Isis, and the curious case of Abu Talha al-Libi (aka Abu Talha al-Hassnawi), who has seemingly been able to float between the two sides without repercussions. There’s no ‘smoking gun’ which proves a direct link at the top of the chain, but plenty of circumstantial evidence bubbling away down below -- not just in North Africa, but in other locations as well.
It has to be said that Northern African allegiances can swing depending on converging interests, but, then again, there are many incidences that could be the evidence of the tip of the iceberg where we see the new nexus, a veritable “terrorist web” forming between the world’s two most feared jihadist groups.
Veryan Khan is the Editorial Director and Associate Publisher for TRAC: Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC), one of the world's largest electronic compendiums for data and analysis of terrorist groups, activities, trends and up to date developments. For complete information see www.trackingterrorism.org and follow the group on Twitter @TRACterrorism