An increasing number of militants who fought with the Islamic State terror group are now breaking ranks to join the group’s adversary, al-Qaeda.
When ISIS emerged in 2014, it swept across Iraq and Syria and seized numerous territories and key cities. In its pursuit to expand its dominion, the group called on fellow Muslim men and women around the world to join their fight, leading to thousands of “foreign fighters” travelling to the Middle East and living inside the captured towns and cities under its administration.
Particularly, the 2017 fall of ISIS strongholds Raqqa and Mosul, in Syria and Iraq respectively, saw hundreds of foreign fighters fleeing.
Some of them have returned home, while others have traveled to far-flung areas of Syria and Iraq, Turkey and northern Africa, where analysts say they might regroup or join other organizations.
Some experts believe that al-Qaeda has stepped up its recruitment efforts to win the minds and hearts of ISIS fighters who are now hiding.
Last August, reports claimed that as ISIS continued to suffer blows, al-Qaeda was re-gaining power in western Syria, where militants from defeated groups were joining the al-Qaeda-linked movement, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
In September 2017, a pro-al-Qaeda news wire in war-torn Yemen claimed that ISIS fighters discouraged by their leaders’ “mistreatment” and behavior had “repented.”
“The collapse of ISIS has created a reality check for those ideologues who defected from AQ and now reconsidering to rejoin it,” counter-terrorism expert David Otto told Newsweek.
He added that both groups have the same ideology, but differ in the methods they employ to establish a “Caliphate.” Al-Qaeda has long criticized ISIS for its “brutality” and the killing of its own people.
“Al-Qaeda is the father of extreme Salafist Wahhabism with a cell-based leadership that understands the long term risk involved in claiming territory and call it an ‘Islamic Caliphate,” Otto explained.
“ISIS turned out to be the political over-ambitious prodigal son of al-Qaeda: They recklessly took huge territory, secured organized crime trade routes, took most of the key al-Qaeda fighters and forced most of the global al-Qaeda key affiliates to split and pledge Bayat (allegiance and support) to ISIS leader Abubakar Al-Baghdadi.
“Al-Qaeda has been patiently watching, there was no doubt that ISIS was over-ambitious and had gone too far too early.”
Some also believe that al-Qaeda is trying to re-align with Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, former leader of al-Mourabitoun, according to the Guardian.
Sahrawi pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2015. However, the fact that ISIS’ media channels have not claimed responsibility for the killing of four U.S. special forces in Niger last October—an attack claimed by Sahrawi—suggests the group might be in doubt about the man’s loyalty.
The SITE Intelligence Group described the announcement of Sahrawi as an ISIS member as “murky.”
“First, ISIS never officially announced its acceptance of Sahrawi’s pledge or embraced his allegiance as it had for other pledges around the world,” the group said.
“Second, once ISIS accepts a pledge from a group, that group becomes part of ISIS, and all of its actions and media must be approved and channeled through the organization. However, this was not the case with Sahrawi’s group. Neither ISIS nor its Amaq News Agency published any releases about or from Sahrawi’s group, despite the fact that he continued to carry out attacks and issue threats in the West Africa region.”
Analysts are also watching Boko Haram closely, deemed as one of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups. The Islamist outfit is blamed for the death of at least 20,000 people since its insurgency became violent in 2009.
In 2015, the group declared allegiance to ISIS. This later resulted in the organization splitting in at least two factions after ISIS replaced leader Abubakar Shekau with Abu Musab Al Barnawi, a former Boko Haram spokesperson.
“Most affiliates like Boko Haram under Shekau did not want to pledge allegiance to ISIS, but were forced to do so for strategic reasons,” Otto said.
“Even so, ISIS did not give local freedom to most of its wiyalats. Shekau was replaced because he failed to take direct instructions from ISIS to refrain from killing Muslims and using young children as suicide bombers.”
Some believe that what is happening in the Middle east is unlikely to affect African groups at least in the short-term. However, as ISIS continues to lose power, militants keep looking for other alternatives to continue their jihad.
“Al-Qaeda and ISIS are one and the same,” Otto said. “As one collapses in the face of counter terrorism efforts, the other takes over the baton with a different methodology but with the same goal and the same enemy.”
David Otto Institutional Representative of SECINDEF (Security Intelligence and Defense) Israel-USA International Consulting Counterterrorism in the United Kingdom and collaborating analyst of OCATRY (Observatory against the Terrorist Threat and the Jihadist Radicalization) David Otto is the Director of TGS Intelligence Consultants Ltd and the Preventing Radicalisation and Violent Extremism Programme – Step In Step Out (SISO) – based in the United Kingdom. He is also Senior Counter Terrorism Advisor for Global Risk International.