By Muna Osman, M.A. Candidate, International Affairs, at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs
Over the last year, coalition forces in Iraq and Syria have handed the Islamic State (IS) several defeats that have severely weakened the terrorist organization and limited its territorial control. IS has lost upwards of 80% of its revenues, and according to on-the-ground reports, approximately 98% of IS territory has been recaptured by U.S.-backed Syrian and Kurdish fighters and Iraqi government forces. This article will explore the potential changes IS could undergo over the next five years, including a merger with Al-Qaeda as the latter attempts to benefit from a power vacuum in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
IS leadership will continue to be targeted for elimination in military strikes, and with major losses in resources, leaders are more exposed than in the past. If state forces are successful in decimating IS leadership, mid-level commanders may compete for senior leadership, which could lead to infighting within the organization. The odds of infighting within IS may be low given the recent loss of key leadership figures: founder Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi in 2006, and his successor Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and former Minister of War and Prime Minister Abu Hamza al-Muhajir in 2010. However, any expectation that a loss of leadership alone would slow down IS’ activities would be proven misguided, as the group has escalated both the lethality and volume of its attacks. According to the Global Terrorism Database, between 2006 and 2010, IS averaged five attacks monthly. But within five years, from 2011 to 2016, the group’s monthly attack average had risen to 80 attacks. This difference amounts to a 1500% increase in volume. Thus, the loss of key leaders may have little to no effect on the group’s operations, attack profile, or internal harmony. However, a loss in resources coupled with a loss in leadership could heavily impact IS, increase the probability of infighting, and alter its attack profile.
Insurgency vs. Terrorist Group
IS originally emerged as an insurgency and rapidly transitioned into a terrorist organization after its formation in 2006. It is possible IS may be forced to revert from a “territory holding terror organization” back to an insurgency, for survival in the coming years. For clarity’s sake, an insurgency is defined as “an organized armed group which challenges the state’s authority.” Whereas terrorist organizations can be defined as dynamic non-state actors who “use terrorist tactics and means to pursue their political goals.” It is important to note that terror groups are dynamic and can shift to an insurgency particularly during protracted conflicts with the state. IS could also evolve into a hybrid organization: one with goals and means resembling both an insurgency and a terrorist organization. For example, IS may focus solely on carrying out attacks against Iraqi and Syrian armed forces for the next few years, but with the goal of conquering territory in its areas of operation.
Now we come to low-probability but high-impact scenario in which Al-Qaeda and IS merge to ensure the latter’s survival. Al-Qaeda has been working diligently to fly under the radar of counter-terrorism campaigns by shifting its focus to more localized objectives and embedding its fighters into local rebel groups. Al-Qaeda’s new strategy in MENA has been to offer its resources and networks to these rebel groups in order to gradually, “introduce a narrative that mixes local issues with that of the global jihad.” While Al-Qaeda has failed to inspire the same level of popular support as IS, with the latter’s decline, Al-Qaeda may come to dominate the militant Islamist movement in the region.
A merger between the two groups is improbable, but not impossible, for a few reasons. The first being resources; a rapprochement with Al-Qaeda would allow IS to take advantage of the former’s coffers. In addition, Hamza bin-Laden, Osama bin Laden’s son, is rumoured to be a favored candidate for Al-Qaeda’s leadership, which could lead to a stronger alignment in the ideologies of both Al-Qaeda and IS as he has expressed a desire to return to his father’s hard-line international terrorism strategy. Similarly, bin-Laden may choose to be more forgiving than his predecessor of the indiscriminate and mass-casualty attacks by IS, which have been the main source of contention between the groups. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, would benefit from the popular support IS has inspired both in MENA and internationally. The combination of IS’ mastery of propaganda and popular support, and Al-Qaeda’s resources and local networks, could make a unified group a force to be reckoned with.
IS could very well cease to exist in the next five to ten years, but given its ability to survive for over a decade, the odds are low. Beyond the potential changes in leadership and categorization of IS, it will be interesting to see how IS adapts, or fails to adapt, to its circumstances and the role Al-Qaeda carves out for itself in the MENA region.
In June 2017, Canada announced an extension of its commitment to fighting IS in Iraq until March 2019.