top of page
  • Beatriz Gutierrez - Investigadora de terrorismo

Hybrid Insurgencies: AL-QAEDA & ISIS Territorialization.

Year 2 - Week 7

It is out of question that the emergence of the Islamic State in the Middle East provoked a dramatic change in the international relations and the stability of the Middle East, with an even more dramatic impact at global level. But is the self-proclaimed Caliphate a new figure? Or a re-adaptation of classical doctrines to a specific context where the weight of the new technologies of communications allow a shift in the paradigm of territorial expansion?

First of everything we should elucidate some theoretical issues. If we take as starting point the idea of insurgency as a protracted conflict where an non-State actor has the political goal of overthrowing an established power through the use –among others- of force, we are going to point out three main elements: insurgency implies a) the use of violence, b) a political structure to substitute the established power to overthrow, and, c) the control over a territory, previously controlled by the established power. The epistemological problem comes when we observe that the classical notion of revolutionary terrorism doesn’t imply the control of territory but once the goal of establishing a new model of government has been achieved. It is not terrorism, but classical guerrilla warfare the insurgent doctrine –with its attached set of procedures of combat- the model which considers the progressive control of territory along the struggle against a government. So when we talk about ISIS as a terrorist group, are we implying the whole reality or just a part of it? Let’s take a look to the facts.

The Specifics: the territorial structure of AQ.

We shouldn’t forget that despite the division on two different jihadist fronts, the ISIS has its roots in al-Qaida, and it’s from here from where they have rebuild their specific jihadist identity. But if this point is important, no less it is the issue of organizational structure, since it is this the one determining the model of territorial control, the logistic apparatus and the model of command and control –key element for operational issues- of the organization.

Although the al-Qaeda theoretical construction of modern jihadism is due to Abdullah Azzam and Ayman al-Zawahiri and their views of how to globalize the jihad against the infidels and apostates, it was Ossama bin Laden who designed an operative structure to conduct the jihad. Bin Laden applied a marketing model to the initially hierarchical organization, turning this classical structure into a network. Networks involve a key organizational change, since they blur the channels of command and control in favor of more fluent and autonomous relations between the parts, despite the existence of a coordinating element. In this way, al-Qaeda –especially between 2001 and 2013, after losing its safe haven of Afghanistan-, enabled an expansionist model where small cells of returnees from Afghanistan –even from the Soviet-Afghan war times- consolidated worldwide smaller network structures linked logistically and ideologically to the central al-Qaeda, but quite autonomous in the operative sense, in places as the Maghreb, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Indonesia or the Philippines.

The expansion of this network sounds familiar: 1) indoctrination, 2) establishing a joint front, 3) small scale military operations of harassment and establishment of safe havens to retreat and as a rear, 4) maneuver warfare, and 5) conventionalization of the force, is at least in the first three or four steps a recognizable chronological line followed by many of this al-Qaeda’s network groups. But what is more important is that the model is no novelty: it is the classical guerrilla warfare periodization in Mao Tse Tung’s concept of revolutionary warfare, where the military control of the territory moves from stage three to five and goes in parallel to a process of State-building. The network implemented by al-Qaeda following this pattern allowed a whole system of communication between its members establishing a net of territories under jihadist control coordinated by the leading figure of core al-Qaeda.

Shift in the paradigm: ISIS and the “focoist strategy”.

The so-called Islamic State is born as a part of this al-Qaeda network under the leadership of Abu Musa al-Zarqawi, deputy of Osama Bin Laden in Iraq during the years of the anti-US coalition insurgency between 2003 and 2006. Al-Zarqawi group, initially called al-Qaeda in Iraq (or al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers) acted as a territorial extension, but due to the specific situation of open war against the Western coalition, very soon started to gather foreign fighters (mujahideen) from all over the world, and with them, specific weight in the organization. After years of debacle due both to the US counterinsurgency and the pressure of Shiite groups, the milestone arrives in 2011, with the targeted assassination of bin Laden and the transitional period leading to the consolidation of Ayman al-Zawahiri as new al-Qaeda’s leader, the withdrawal of the American troops from Iraq, and the start of the Syrian civil war. In parallel to this process, a new leader had emerged from the rank and files of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who reorganized the structure of the still territorial extension of Central al-Qaeda under the new name of Islamic State of Iraq and Shams (Levant, standing for Syria), enhancing the operative branch and, taking advantage of the Syrian situation, and infiltrating the neighbor country through the wide and porous border of the Anbar province. Consolidating its positions in town after town, and spreading a web of well-trained jihadist to both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border, the surprise came when in June 2014 and after conquering Mosul, al-Baghdadi declares the Caliphate with capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, controlling a continuum of territory that joined the East of Iraq with the Mediterranean Syrian coast. A few time later, the schism between central al-Qaeda and the ISIS was a fact, as well as the fight between both representatives of the global jihadist movement.

But is there any difference in the expansionist model of the ISIS regarding al-Qaeda? The answer is yes, and again there is no novelty. ISIS readapts al-Qaeda’s model, but taking the opposite territorial approach: instead of establishing safe havens from where expand its reach, the priority was to found a nucleus of power over a territorial continuity, to organize a structure of cadres highly indoctrinated and trained. Secondly, it sought for expanding this territorial nucleus gaining territory to the established power to beat, in the ISIS case, both governments of Iraq and Syria. Obviously, if we compare this idea to the classical insurgent doctrines, it sounds familiar too: Ernesto “Che” Guevara focoism comes quickly to mind as a review of Maoist insurgency, without excluding the odds of creating alternative focos in other regions, connected by ideology. In “Che” case the link was international communism and the liberation of peoples, in ISIS one it is the expansion of the Ummah under the allegiance of ba’yah to the Emir (the Caliph, that is, al-Bagdadi) and through the means of the jihad.

The Hybrid element: External operations and treatment of territory.

So hybrid, yes. But why? It seems obvious that the categorization of a group as terrorist when it mainly develops a guerrilla warfare set of tactics is wrong. That ISIS when we introduce the hybrid element. Since the control over the territory relies on a core, expansion moves forward following a pattern found also in al-Qaeda sources, especially Abu Bakr an-Naji’s work, “Management of Savagery”. This work places the expansion of the Ummah in a three stages process, where the first one implies the use of extreme violence to neutralize the resistance of violence by the means of fear to make the established power to crack down. Second and third stages involves setting a dictatorship based on order and stability to consolidate the population, and third the establishment of an Islamic government under the rule of the sharia, so the population –and territory- would be fully integrated in the Ummah.

So it is in this expansive idea outside the core territory where we applied the terror in a systematic way, making use of classical and innovative tactics proper of this kind of insurgent fighting. And it is in this duality between inner infighting and external operations where we place de hybrid nature of modern global jihadism.

Dual responses to a dual nature.

The operative duality of both movements goes beyond the theoretical framework. Traditional insurgencies presented one procedure of combat adjusted to the theatre of operations, and that one usually was coincidental with an area inside a State with a higher or lower level of administrative (and consequently military and law enforcement) capabilities. The new threat supposed by groups as al-Qaeda or ISIS is a fragmented theatre of operations –the whole world-, what hinders the prevention of further attacks and makes difficult the protection of all the possible targets, and a diffuse structure which integrates even lone jihadists acting independently but as part of the same strategy of generating an extreme fear in a society who feels unprotected by its government.

Should be the response a unified one? Our answer is no. Since the threat is dual, depending on the territory, response has to be also dual, in both fronts, the internal, guerrilla-like one, and the external, terrorist one. But one final consideration seems pertinent: although hybrid, the movement –ISIS or al-Qaeda- is a same, unified one. Every action taken over both apparatus will have an impact over the other, in logistic terms, in operative ones or, at least, in the legitimacy of the movement. And if neutralizing the on-site logistic capabilities may disrupt the network and its external materialization, prevention in the targeted countries will rest legitimacy to the movement, mining its bases. This prevention, to conclude, should go on the one hand in the direction of controlling radicalization processes and enhancing social knowledge of the specific threat of jihadist terrorism. On the other hand it is imperative to train the whole community of first responders both in information and intelligence gathering regarding potential threats and how to act once the incident is taking place: each casualty prevented is an apex less of mediatic support to this diffuse hybrid network of jihadism.

bottom of page