Quilliam Researcher Charlie Winter explains why the West must roll back their military involvement in Iraq, Syria.
Editor’s note: Charlie Winter is a researcher on the Middle East at Quilliam, a think tank formed to combat extremism. The opinions in this commentary are solely his.
(CNN) — Last month, the Yemen-based branch of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s international terrorist network, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), released a worrying statement calling on Muslims around the world to forget their differences and renew their efforts to carry out operations against American targets, be they civilian, governmental, military or diplomatic.
But this was by no means the most troubling aspect of the communique.
More important than the threat — which, let’s face it, is nothing new — was the fact that this was the second statement from AQAP in recent months to go against al-Zawahiri’s official policy towards ISIS and express its wholehearted support for the group’s actions in Syria.
The mere fact that AQAP has released another call for unity among Syria’s jihadist factions is worth ruminating on for a number of reasons.
It is indicative of the fact that the al Qaeda network is even more decentralized — fragmented, even — than first meets the eye. After all, AQAP was expressing its support for a group that had not only long rejected the authority of al-Zawahiri, its nominal leader, but is also engaged in the most bitter of hostilities with another al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). Making overtures to a group responsible for the death of thousands fighting for your closest ally in Syria is as significant as it is surprising.
In releasing this statement, being outspokenly supportive of ISIS for the second time in just over a month, AQAP was sticking its neck on the line. However, its hubris paid off and the fact that we have, once again, heard nothing from al-Zawahiri compounds suspicions of his feeling blindsided and disempowered by the rise of ISIS.
This latest message indicates just how much the global jihadist dynamic has shifted since the anti-ISIS coalition airstrikes began in August. Clearly, ISIS and al Qaeda are no longer as irreconcilable as many might have imagined back when the self-declared “caliphate” was inaugurated in June.
This phenomenon, something dealt with at length in Quilliam’s latest report on ISIS, does not bode well.
Indeed, were ISIS and al Qaeda to cooperate in the pursuit of their often identical goal, the threat would be profoundly more difficult to resolve. Certainly, there is a long way to go before this could happen, but that does not mean its slowly increasing likelihood should be ignored.
And it is not only al Qaeda affiliates that have made overtures to Syria’s warring jihadists.
In September, for example, jihadist powerhouse Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi spearheaded a “global initiative” to stop infighting in Syria and focus on the “real” enemy, in light of the “Crusader campaign”. This was a significant about turn for a man who had, in the past, referred to “IS” in the most pejorative of terms.
Statements of support are very different to pledges of allegiance but, whatever the case, a trend towards reconciliation does seem to be emerging. Among jihadists, ISIS is no longer the pariah it once was and, whether we like it or not, this is a direct result of coalition planes dropping coalition bombs on jihadists in Syria.
This is unsurprising. As many predicted back in June, intervention against ISIS has been effortlessly worked into the “War on Islam” paradigm, that great legitimizer of Islamist-motivated violence.
In a reimagining of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” we are seeing jihadists rallying around the flag of anti-Westernism. This trend may be slow, but the fact that it is happening at all is deeply alarming.
Moving forward, it is imperative that the West — the United States in particular — rolls back its military involvement in Iraq and Syria and ups the ante in terms of its humanitarian and diplomatic efforts; the coalition must stop playing into the “Crusader” paradigm.
This means that — and I’ve said this before — regional, Sunni-majority countries must take the crisis into their own hands, force an end to the Assad regime’s crimes and bring profound change to Iraq’s political status quo. Without that, jihadists across the world will continue on the path toward rapprochement, something that must be stopped immediately.
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