ISIS Forced To Shift Back To Old Al-Qaeda Strategy

As it loses territory in Iraq and Syria, ISIS may pursue the *distant enemy* that Osama bin Laden put at the heart of his own longer-term pursuit of a caliphate.

An ISIS-released propaganda photo shows troops overlooking Raqqa, Syria.
An ISIS-released propaganda photo shows troops overlooking Raqqa, Syria.
Farid Kahhat

Al-Qaeda and ISIS both have the same ultimate objective: to establish an Islamic state in all territories they conquer. But their approaches differ. A good starting point is to compare the information seized when U.S. military forces killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, and the evidence collected after the 2006 killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who founded al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later morphed into ISIS. Together, the finds offered key insight into the divergent strategies that caused the two terrorist organizations to split.

Bin Laden based his strategy on two experiences. One was that of the Hezbollah, which forced U.S. and French troops out of Lebanon in 1984, pushed the Israelis out in 2000, and which ultimately became the main power broker in Lebanese politics. The other was the failure of previous bids â€" by the Taliban (in Afghanistan) and al-Qaeda in Iraq â€" to form Islamic states.

Bin Laden concluded that timing was crucial in forging an Islamic state. As long as NATO backed the regimes against which al-Qaeda was fighting, the creation of state-like structures in those territories, he reasoned, would merely provide bombing targets for western warplanes. The immediate priority, therefore, had to be a war of attrition to drive out NATO troops from the Middle East and Central Asia.

I personally believe that using the Hezbollah experience as a reference was mistaken, because Hezbollah had an essentially national agenda in Lebanon while al-Qaeda wants to build an imperial state encompassing all Muslim lands. When they left in 1984, the French and the Americans did not fear that Hezbollah would follow to attack them in their own territories.

In any case, by 2014, al-Qaeda was showing the limits of its ability to ever be able to forge its Islamic state. For that reason, ignoring instructions from its central command, al-Qaeda's Iraqi branch decided that year to form the Islamic State in Iraq, which became the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a worldwide caliphate. Changing names reflected its evolving territorial ambitions, and the present name indicates, in principle, a rejection of any limits at all.

The idea was that conquering territory would give access to new resources (including oil and extortion revenue), which could finance more conquests. Territories would also give allied or sympathetic groups a convergence point and an entity to which they could offer their own resources. In contrast with al-Qaeda, ISIS's main targets were Middle Eastern regimes.

Each group, it turns out, was partly right. ISIS won the battle for resources and recruits, but provided targets for air attacks it could not really stop â€" even if such bombings may have a limited effect without ground troops to recapture ISIS territory.

Indeed, this calculus on the ground is also changing for two reasons. First, in contrast with the U.S.-led coalition, Russia is providing air support to an advancing Syrian army (allowing it, for example, to break the ISIS siege of the Kweiris base). For its part, the U.S. military is increasingly coordinating air attacks with Kurdish militias (explicitly in northern Iraq and discreetly in northern Syria). The fruit of this collaboration is that Kurdish militias have taken Sinjar, an important point on the road linking Raqqa and Mosul, two big cities ISIS holds respectively in Syria and Iraq.

Local militias aided by foreign powers are thus forcing ISIS to cede territory â€" just as Bin Laden had warned might happen. Similar scenarios played out in the western Sahara and Somalia, where other state-building attempts were made.

This brings us to the recent attacks on civilians in Ankara, Beirut and Paris, and on Russian vacationers over the Sinai. ISIS claimed responsibility for all of the attacks, suggesting it has perhaps decided to adopt Bin Laden's initial strategy.

If so, one might cautiously conclude that as its territory in the Middle East shrinks, the more ISIS will shift its attention to what al-Qaeda calls the "distant enemy," the Western powers and their allies inside and beyond the Middle East.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Protests against gasoline price hikes in Lebanon

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Wai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where leaked documents show how some countries are lobbying to change a key report on climate change, Moscow announces new full lockdown and the world's first robot artist is arrested over spying allegations. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt looks at the rapprochement between two leaders currently at odds with Europe: UK's BoJo and Turkey's Erdogan.

[*Bodo - India, Nepal and Bengal]


• Documents reveal countries lobbying against climate action: Leaked documents have revealed that some of the world's biggest fossil fuel and meat producing countries, including Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia, are trying to water down a UN scientific report on climate change and pushing back on its recommendations for action, less than one month before the COP26 climate summit.

• COVID update: The city of Moscow plans to reintroduce lockdown measures next week, closing nearly all shops, bars and restaurants, after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a nationwide seven-day workplace shutdown from Oct. 30 to combat the country's record surge in coronavirus cases and deaths. Meanwhile, India has crossed the 1 billion vaccinations milestone.

• India and Nepal floods death toll passes 180: Devastating floods in Nepal and the two Indian states of Uttarakhand and Kerala have killed at least 180 people, following record-breaking rainfall.

• Barbados elects first ever president: Governor general Dame Sandra Mason has been elected as Barbados' first president as the Caribbean island prepares to become a republic after voting to remove Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

• Trump to launch social media platform: After being banned from several social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter, former U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would launch his own app called TRUTH Social in a bid "to fight back against Big Tech." The app is scheduled for release early next year.

• Human remains found in hunt for Gabby Petito's fiance: Suspected human remains and items belonging to Brian Laundrie were found in a Florida park, more than one month after his disappearance. Laundrie was a person of interest in the murder of his fiancee Gabby Petito, who was found dead by strangulation last month.

• Artist robot detained in Egypt over spying fear: Ai-Da, the world's ultra-realistic robot artist, was detained for 10 days by authorities in Egypt where it was due to present its latest art works, over fears the robot was part of an espionage plot. Ai-Da was eventually cleared through customs, hours before the exhibition was due to start.


"Nine crimes and a tragedy," titles Brazilian daily Extra, after a report from Brazil's Senate concluded that President Jair Bolsonaro and his government had failed to act quickly to stop the deadly coronavirus pandemic, accusing them of crimes against humanity.


Erdogan and Boris Johnson: A new global power duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too, write Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung in German daily Die Welt.

🇹🇷🇬🇧 According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey. The country has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

⚠️ Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey. She never supported French President Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU. But now that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

🤝 At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense. The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016.

➡️


"He has fought tirelessly against the corruption of Vladimir Putin's regime. This cost him his liberty and nearly his life."

— David Sassoli, president of the European Parliament, wrote on Twitter, following the announcement that imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was awarded the 2021 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Union's highest tribute to human rights defenders. Navalny, who survived a poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin, is praised for his "immense personal bravery" in fighting Putin's regime. The European Parliament called for his immediate release from jail, as Russian authorities opened a new criminal case against the activist that could see him stay in jail for another decade.



Chinese video platform Youku is under fire after announcing it is launching a new variety show called in Mandarin Squid's Victory (Yóuyú de shènglì) on social media, through a poster that also bears striking similarities with the visual identity of Netflix's current South Korean hit series Squid Game. Youku apologized by saying it was just a "draft" poster.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Anyone want to guess Trump's first post on his upcoming social media platform...? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!