Al-Qaeda Likely to Exploit Baghdadi’s Death
Brian M. Perkins
The death of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is being hailed as a victory by al-Qaeda, which stands to benefit significantly from his death. While Baghdadi’s death is unlikely to see the collapse of IS—the group has already appointed Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi as its new leader—it could see some IS fighters defect or IS affiliates reconcile with their al-Qaeda counterparts (Aljazeera, November 1).
The coming months will likely see some notable changes within the IS organization as its new leader works to take the reins and assert himself as the rightful heir. At a base level, IS’ rank and file is not too dissimilar from that of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. One of the chief reasons for the fierce rivalry between al-Qaeda and IS was the public disdain between Baghdadi and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, as well as the former’s claim to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohamed. However, this rivalry could cool as a new crop of IS leaders steps up.
Little is known about Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi but it is clear there will be a decision to be made on whether to hold tight to Baghdadi’s strategies or to pivot in a new direction. Al-Qaeda has already been working behind the scenes to draw the remnants of IS in northern Syria into its fold. Numerous al-Qaeda-linked ideologues have released statements regarding Baghdadi’s death and calling for his followers to return to the “righteous” path (Alaraby,October 29). Although core al-Qaeda has yet to release a statement on Baghdadi’s death, it is likely only a matter of time before Zawahiri remarks on the occasion and attempts to seize the opportunity it presents.
There are few locations that IS operates in without overlapping with an al-Qaeda affiliate, and the dynamic between them is not universally characterized by incessant fighting. Even in locations such as Somalia and Yemen where the landscape has been marked by violent battles and rhetorical sparring between the countries’ respective al-Qaeda and IS branches, reconciliation is not out of the question. At the least, the two sides could see a return to non-aggression pacts following Baghdadi’s death. The implications of a development such as this could be disastrous for the host countries as the groups refocus their efforts against the state. This is particularly the case in Yemen, where the majority of al-Qaeda and IS operations have overwhelmingly focused on one another (See TM, April 5). Al-Qaeda’s ability to draw away or reconcile IS fighters will likely come down to al-Qurayshi’s moves in the first several months of his tenure. Any perception that the group has become rudderless under his guidance could prove to be a major boon for al-Qaeda.
Tunisia’s New President Presents Opportunity to Undo Sources of Radicalization
Brian M. Perkins
Tunisia’s presidential and parliamentary elections marked a noticeable political shift for the fledgling democracy as voters rejected the ruling class by electing Kais Saied, a conservative law professor and independent political newcomer. Despite being considered the only successful democratic transition to come out of the Arab Spring, Tunisia’s government has been plagued by corruption, social unrest, continued radicalization, and a declining economy. Islamic State (IS) and the local al-Qaeda branch, Katibat ‘Uqbah Bin Nafi (KUBN), have faced an uphill battle in establishing strong interconnected networks across the country, but the poor socioeconomic conditions, unequal regional development, and returning foreign fighters, particularly from Libya, continue to help produce small terrorist cells and lone-wolf attackers.
KUBN and IS do not maintain large cohesive operational networks across the country due to a lack of stable local leadership and Tunisia’s improved counterterrorism capabilities, though pockets of the country’s western and southern regions still host larger cells. KUBN faced another setback on October 20, when security forces killed the group’s leader, Murad al-Shayeb, while it was attempting to reorganize and expand its operations. Shayeb’s death will undoubtedly be another significant setback for the al-Qaeda affiliate, which was already struggling to establish a significant foothold. IS has similarly struggled to build a core cadre in Tunisia in recent years, unlike in other North African countries where the group commands a larger force.
The terrorism threat in recent years, however, has stemmed less from well-established networks receiving direction and training from local leaders and more from individual returnees or disenfranchised, self-radicalized, and self-organized Tunisians. This trend became most apparent in October 2018, when an unemployed Tunisian woman detonated a suicide bomb outside of the Municipal Theater on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in the capital city of Tunis (MosaiqueFm, October 30). The threat was also apparent in a series of stabbings in Bizerte in late September and twin suicide bombings in Tunis in June (Asharq al-Awsat, October 16; Aljazeera, June 27). IS claimed responsibility for the bombings and at least one of the stabbings, but authorities have not conclusively tied all of the assailants to a specific terrorist organization and those responsible appear to be locally or self-radicalized.
Saied’s biggest challenge will not be to dismantle large-scale terror networks but instead to attempt to undo the ill effects from years of economic stagnation and poor governance. Tunisia’s western and southern regions, in particular, have long been marginalized by the central government and suffer from significant underdevelopment and the country’s highest unemployment rates. These regions have also historically been the bases for local and regional militant groups, with many of the social structures that support radicalization still intact. These regions are also major transit points for arms smuggling from Libya. Kasserine in the west and Tataouine in the south, in particular, have seen high levels of radicalization, civil strife, and anti-government action due to their marginalization. These problems, however, not only exist in the peripheral regions but also in the impoverished suburbs of Tunis, where economic opportunities have dwindled and the ideology espoused by the now defunct Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia is still pervasive. Economic development will not come quickly but signs of goodwill and a public commitment to developing these regions can likely go a long way in starting to overturn the perception that the west and south have been forgotten by the government.