The map of extremist Islamist organisations in the region is highly fluid in terms of organisational structures and alliances. This has engendered a set of new threats to the security of countries in the region, stemming from the relocations of Islamic State (IS) group fighters, current or potential offshoots, and the ideas and instruments that the terrorist groups might bring to bear to polarise society, to identify targets and to stage terrorist attacks.
One of the major challenges that the region may face is a fresh rise in the influence of Al-Qaeda, which appears to be undergoing a resurgence. Signs of this have been evident in 2018 in tandem with the sharply declining capacities of IS since mid-2017, first in Syria and Iraq and then elsewhere in the region.
Taking advantage of the IS decline, Al-Qaeda has restructured itself and resurfaced in several parts of the Arab region, whether in the form of new organisations, such as the Hurras Al-Din (Guardians of Religion) in Syria, or in the revival, or more precisely restructuring, of existing franchises such as the Jund Al-Islam (Soldiers of Islam) in Egypt.
The new organisation calling itself Hurras Al-Din was formed by a group that split off from Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (The Levant Liberation Committee), formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front. It proclaimed its existence on 27 February 2018, and after Al-Qaeda claimed it as an affiliate it proceeded to recruit volunteers or Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters from other armed groups.
Hurras Al-Din is the first overt affiliate of Al-Qaeda in Syria since July 2016, when the Al-Nusra Front disassociated itself and changed its name to Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) in January 2017. Hurras Al-Din, Al-Qaeda’s new face in Syria, released a video announcing a call to arms for Syrian Muslims. Distributed on an Al-Qaeda-affiliated channel on the Telegram messaging service, “The Hamza Ibn Abdel-Muttalib Camp,” as the video was called, spoke of the losses inflicted against militias in Syria and proclaimed that “the battle has only just begun.”
The clip shows scenes of men in camouflage performing military drills while chanting religious anthems and stipulates two conditions for bearing arms: “religious preparedness” and “physical preparedness”.
As an indication of Al-Qaeda’s growth potential in Syria, this new organisation quickly succeeded in bringing on board other groups such as Usud Al-Tawhid, Ansar Al-Haqq, Abnaa Al-Sharia and breakaway factions from HTS that oppose the organisation’s cooperation with Turkey. On 17 April, several Al-Qaeda-affiliated media channels issued a call to unify six Syrian factions loyal to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, filling the vacuum created by the decline of IS and in the hope of recruiting fighters, including foreign fighters that had signed up with IS.
This was far from the first initiative to unify the terrorist ranks. However, in this case it was part of Al-Qaeda’s process of catching breath, gathering strength and rallying support. It reissued the call on 2 December 2018, in which it called on Hurras Al-Din, Ansar Al-Islam, Ansar Al-Tawhid, Ajnad Al-Kavkaz (a Chechen jihadist group) and the Turkistan Islamic Party to “fight for the people of the Levant and the champions of the faith”.
Although many difficulties hamper the unification of these extremist groups, if they were to unify it would redraw the map of extremist forces and have grave repercussions on the security of the region.
The Al-Qaeda franchise Jund Al-Islam (JAI) first appeared in North Sinai in 2012. In 2013, it bombed the Syrian Military Intelligence Building in Rafah, killing or wounding several army personnel. In 2015, the organisation broadcast a video of its members performing military drills. The group then vanished, only resurfacing on 11 November 2017 with the release of an audio recording condemning “Al-Baghdadi’s Kharijites’ targeting of Muslims and the siege of Gaza.”
The statement threatened a military operation against the “Sinai Province,” the Sinai-based terrorist organisation that has declared allegiance to IS, referred to in the JAI statement as “Baghdadi’s Kharijites,” in the aftermath of a massacre perpetrated by the Sinai Province in the Roda Mosque in Beir Al-Abd.
JAI released another video on 25 January 2018 called “Apologies to Your Lord” featuring testimony by a former IS Sinai Province member who confirmed that the terrorist organisation was responsible for the Roda Mosque massacre.
JAI then disappeared from the media until it released another video on 10 September 2018 declaring that it had resumed operations in the Sinai. The recording lashes out against the Egyptian government and calls on Muslim youth throughout the world to join forces with it in a “jihad for the sake of God” and citing the Quranic verse which calls on the faithful to persist, remain steadfast, garrison their forces and put their faith in the Lord.
There were voiceovers of terrorist leaders Abdallah Azzam and Omar Abdel-Rahman speaking of the virtues of “garrisoning forces” and the eternal rewards for fighting for the sake of God. They called for war against the enemies of Islam in the West and said that the cause of the “weakness and degradation of the Muslims” was that they had forsaken jihad and fallen in love with the world instead. The video concluded with a call for unity against the enemy, stating that their job was to “repel the attacks of Jews against Muslims.”
JAI is one of the groups that is positioning itself to re-emerge as a major terrorist player in the post-IS period, especially in view of the collapse or debilitation of the IS Sinai Province.
THE NEW AL-QAEDA
The new Al-Qaeda can be said to have four main features.
First, it is more decentralised. The new Al-Qaeda organisational strategy favours more decentralisation and an inclination to allow several franchises to coexist in the same country. The guidelines are for them to adhere to Al-Qaeda tactics and not to intervene in the area of operations of another Al-Qaeda affiliate in the same country.
Second, it has refined its ideology. Because of the contact that members of Al-Qaeda affiliates have had with events in Syria and with IS-affiliated organisations or offshoots, we are looking at an organisational restructuring that will be shaped by Al-Qaeda’s ideological outlooks and a fighting creed that will be informed by IS’s excessive ruthlessness and violence.
Third, there is a re-prioritisation of the “remote” versus the “close” enemy. Whereas in the past the tendency has been to prioritise targeting the enemy abroad over the enemy at home, the new strategies and tactics will accord them equal priority.
Fourth, there is a sustained confrontation with the “Kharijites” and other organisations that Al-Qaeda ranks as too extreme in combat and in its extremist takfiri ideology. Al-Qaeda will shift away from the practice of branding society at large as heretical, if only as a practical means not to alienate society.
In general, 2018 was a turning point for many extremist groups in the region, especially in Syria, the centre and stronghold of the most widely influential jihadist organisations of Al-Qaeda and IS. IS lost most of the areas under its control in Syria and Iraq, its major strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul above all, though this has been reflected in IS beaches in other countries.
However, 2018 has given a boost to Al-Qaeda’s drive to rebuild its ranks, re-establish itself in other countries, serve as a refuge for IS fighters on the run and recast itself in a manner that could attract other extremist organisations and recruits. 2018 can thus be seen as the year of the reconstruction of Al-Qaeda, which will have a direct impact on the map of terrorist organisations in 2019.
One of the most salient features of that new map will be the resurgence of Al-Qaeda, or perhaps more accurately, the rise of the new Al-Qaeda. This threat will probably be one of the greatest challenges that counter-terrorist efforts will have to deal with in the forthcoming year, along with the tasks of tracking the flight of terrorist fighters, handling returnees from Syria and Iraq, fighting IS offshoots in the region and dealing with foreign fighters, as well as their wives and children.
The writer is an expert on terrorism affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The rise of the new Al-Qaeda