The Shifting Power of al-Qaeda’s Affiliates
Brian M. Perkins
Several significant developments with broad implications for al-Qaeda and its global affiliates have taken place since early 2019. Leadership losses and changing conflict dynamics have led to a notable reshuffling in terms of the strength and preeminence of its individual affiliates from the Middle East to Africa. The organization as a whole, however, remains remarkably resilient and further opportunities to regroup remain on the horizon. Core al-Qaeda could look to lean into this reshuffling by bolstering its ties and coordination with its looser affiliates.
Arguably the best news for al-Qaeda is the peace deal between the United States and the Taliban. At present, it is unclear how the implementation of the deal will play out, but if the dozens of attacks since its signing are any indication, the security environment is not likely to drastically improve (Al Jazeera, March 20). Core al-Qaeda has, of course, taken note of the deal and released a three-page statement lauding the Taliban’s victory over the United States and calling for Afghans and mujahideen to strengthen the Taliban regime. The statement did not portend a Taliban-al-Qaeda split as the peace deal calls for, further suggesting the two are likely to maintain their mutually beneficial relationship in Afghanistan. The possibility of a greater al-Qaeda return if the situation backslides is present.
Outside of core al-Qaeda’s historical stronghold, many of its affiliates have undergone significant changes that have started to shift the balance of power away from its Middle East-based groups and could lead its general command to reorient itself toward its more peripheral affiliates.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which was long considered al-Qaeda’s most powerful branch—and the closest to the center—has experienced operational limitations due to the complexity of the conflict in Yemen and has been further undermined by significant leadership losses, including the death of Qassim al-Rimi in a U.S. airstrike (Al Jazeera, February 23). AQAP may still be al-Qaeda’s favorite son, but it is seemingly no longer the most dominant al-Qaeda affiliate, being overtaken by affiliates that do not bear the al-Qaeda name.
In Iraq and Syria, the ascendance of Islamic State (IS) and subsequent fractures among jihadist factions led to a significant loss of al-Qaeda influence. The growth of the affiliate organization Hurras al-Din helped regain some of al-Qaeda’s influence in Syria, but the group is now faced with new challenges posed by the confrontations between Turkey and Russia and the fragile ceasefire in Idlib (Asharq al-Awsat, March 20).
While al-Qaeda’s affiliates in the Middle East are facing substantial challenges and are seemingly primed for a notable decline in their operational capabilities, its affiliates in Africa have grown or remained strong.
Al-Qaeda’s Sahelian branch, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), grew increasingly powerful over 2019 and has wreaked havoc on Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Meanwhile, al-Shabaab remains strong and has conducted a series of high-profile attacks—both in Somalia and Kenya—in recent months, including a deadly attack on the Manda Bay Airfield in Kenya that killed three Americans (Garowe Online, January 25). The group’s rate of attacks and number of civilian casualties surged in 2019 and there is little sign of a slowdown, garnering regular praise from al-Qaeda’ general command. While JNIM and al-Shabaab may not bear the al-Qaeda name in the way AQAP does, they remain firmly within the al-Qaeda milieu and have both followed attacks with statements indicating they were in accordance with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s wishes and overarching strategy.
AQAP’s decline and the impending challenges faced by Hurras al-Din have resulted in al-Qaeda’s African affiliates becoming the organization’s preeminent groups in terms of strength and effectiveness. Meanwhile, the shifting security landscape in al-Qaeda’s historical stronghold of Afghanistan will at best maintain the status quo and at worst could see al-Qaeda further rebuild under Taliban cover. As al-Qaeda’s once powerful affiliate in Yemen wanes, the group’s general command will likely seek to reposition its other affiliates by attempting to draw them closer to the center and placing further emphasis on their operations under the al-Qaeda umbrella. Core al-Qaeda will make every effort to help rebuild and keep AQAP afloat and maintain influence in Syria through Hurras al-Din, but could reprioritize the groups that have found more success in recent years.
Implications of IRGC’s Perceived Transmission of Coronavirus
Brian M. Perkins
Syria has not officially recorded a confirmed case of coronavirus, largely due to a lack of health infrastructure and government denial/silence on the matter, but human rights and health observers have noted outbreaks in areas under Syrian government control in Tartous, Damascus, Homs, and Latakia provinces, as well as rumors of cases in areas outside government control (Al Jazeera, March 16). The Syrian regime relies heavily on Iranian support and reports have begun to emerge linking Iranian officials and fighters to cases of the coronavirus. While the link between IRGC officials or Iranian proxy forces and coronavirus cases cannot be independently verified, it is still likely cases have originated in Iran as the Syrian government was slow to halt flights between its country and Iran following the outbreak. Iran plays an active role in the Syrian government’s military operations.
Outside of Syria, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its proxies have similarly been linked to coronavirus cases in Lebanon and Iraq. Continued flights by the IRGC-linked Mahan Air as well as the coronavirus-related deaths of at least six IRGC members, including Lt. General Nasser Sha’abani lends some credence to the notion of the IRGC as a transmission vector as its officials travel to liaise with its proxies and fighters rotate back from Iran (Al Arabiya, March 13). Regardless, the rumors themselves and the more easily confirmed transmission of cases from Iran in general does have significant short term and long-term implications for Iranian proxies.
In the short-term, significant coronavirus outbreaks in countries where Iran maintains proxy forces could alter their abilities to operate as well as the local government and international community’s operations against Iran and its proxy forces. For instance, President Trump reportedly held off on an aggressive response against Iran for attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and is drawing down some operations in the country due to the coronavirus outbreak.
In the long-term, the pandemic is likely to alter the economic and political environment in a way that challenges the authority of many Iranian proxies, particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Lebanese economy is in dire condition and the outbreak has laid bare systemic issues that could provide the Lebanese government an opportunity to increase its legitimacy at the detriment of Hezbollah, which runs the country’s health ministry. Further, the outbreak is being increasingly politicized—from within and outside Lebanon—as Hezbollah opponents blame the outbreak on the group’s close relationship with Iran. Rumors were also circulated that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and other leaders were infected following meetings with Iranian officials (Jerusalem Post, March 11). The outbreak has the potential to bolster anti-Hezbollah/Iran sentiment while offering the government a chance to intervene in a positive way.
Iran is undoubtedly the Middle East’s epicenter of the pandemic, which is likely to have significant implications on the region’s political landscape and Iranian proxies. Regardless of whether the IRGC is in fact a notable transmission vector, rumors and the perception that it is coupled with the economic impacts of the outbreak create conditions that can pose a significant challenge to Iranian proxies’ authority. While the peak reaction in many countries will likely not come until the outbreak subsides, protests against Iranian-backed militias have continued in Iraq despite coronavirus, with protesters calling the militias the virus.