Original guest post by Razainc.
Paris attacks are about Al Qaeda trying to re-assert their power in light of the rise of ISIS
It has been a crazy, disturbing week with attacks in Paris and the massacre by Boko Haram in Nigeria, among many newsworthy worldwide events. I’ve been busy with school and doing research for future articles about Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, and ISIS but I wanted to highlight a few issues.
First, hopefully all responsible parties will be caught and tried in court and brought to justice. By trying them in court we will gain valuable information on their ideology and radicalization and also what connections they had to terrorist networks. However, it seems that the main suspects have been killed in police shootouts.
My hunch is that we should not expect it to be revealed that there was much planning for these attacks which are often ill-planned and not well though out. As professor Scott Atran describes in his book Talking To The Enemy, “Terrorism involves spectacular and often unexpected killings in order to destabilize the social order and promote a greater cause.” Atran also points out in a Guardian article that “publicity is the oxygen of terrorism” and of course there’s been plenty of that since the attacks.
Competition Between Al Qaeda and ISIS
What I want to discuss is the alleged connection between the Kouachi brothers and Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula(AQAP) and why it is relevant given the rise of ISIS. Terrorist networks are not static, they are constantly evolving and responding to their environment. At first, AQAP did not officially accept responsibility for the attacks, they did however praise them.
Now it has been confirmed that AQAP has officially accepted responsibility; it is likely that they are challenging ISIS, showing them that they are still “top dog” in terms of transnational terror. This is worrying especially if this rivalry develops into a competition, in which both groups attempt to out-do each other in both operations and scale of terror attacks.
Interestingly, the hostage taker at the Kosher grocery, Coulibaly, claimed allegiance to ISIS. His later involvement begs the question: how much actual coordination is there between ISIS and AQ? (We will also have to wait and see if AQAP decides to forge their own path or if they are seeking to ally with ISIS.) Either way at the moment their goals and even the extent of their coordination are a relative mystery.
AQAP’s hand in the coordination, even if minor, is a power play to remain relevant and a challenge to ISIS. AQAP will attempt, to the best of its ability, to use the attack as a propaganda ploy and claim to be the real “defenders of Islam.” While the brothers’ full motivations are a mixed bag of statements and not altogether clear, it is worth noting that AQAP did not only say that this was revenge for the “honor” of the Prophet Mohammed but also for France’s involvement and crimes in “Mali and the Islamic Maghreb” and France’s support for the “annihilation of Muslims in Central Africa in the name of race cleansing.”
In what may be an attempt at stealing some of the “spotlight,” which as mentioned these groups need to survive, ISIS apparently hacked The U.S. military’s Central Command social media accounts (Twitter and YouTube accounts which have now been temporarily suspended).
AQ, Marc Sageman has pointed out has a very low acceptance rate, lower than Harvard’s, the connection to the parent organization, especially in their transnational attackers, was very weak. It was usually self-seekers (“Lone-Wolfs”) inspired by the group. People went looking for AQ, not the other way around and AQ was picky. The original AQ was very much a clan but transitionally AQ was not a command and control organization. It’s sympathizers and volunteers overseas (in the West) more closely resembled the violent strain of the late 19th/early 20th century anarchist movement, a largely decentralized movement.
ISIS on the other hand wants Muslims to join them and they are targeting young disenfranchised Muslims for recruitment. (I touch upon the subject of what draws youth to political violence and some of the motivations of ISIS volunteers here.)
ISIS is very good at propaganda and doing atrocious acts that garner them publicity. They have many young volunteers so they know well the problems youth face and are good at speaking and connecting with them. Unlike Bin Laden, Baghdadi allegedly has an Islamic education (though it may just be a degree in education) which is extremely rare for a terrorist organization; this has also helped the movement’s image. Another clear and obvious difference between the two is that ISIS have succeeded in carving out and holding territory.
As Chris Hedges and Lorreta Napoleoni point out, ISIS realized that their biggest threats were competing Jihadist groups. One can see this manifested in their confusing relationship with other groups: AQ initially broke off any relationship with the group in early 2014, later in the same year an AQ affiliate concluded a truce with ISIS.
How these attacks will affect the relationship between ISIS and AQ remains to be seen. They may either cooperate and join forces to commit attacks, or compete against each other in political violence vying for the vital “oxygen” that publicity supplies them. Either way neither will be beneficial for Western societies or Muslims in the West or globally.
It is true that European Muslims face some of the worst marginalization in France, Italy, or the troubling case of Greece, etc. though it should be noted, in relation to this fact, that people do not usually respond violently to personal humiliation rather they become compliant. Yet, as Atran has written in his work, the key change occurs when one watches a person he or she cares about or identifies with being humiliated; this will make one more likely to have moral outrage and respond violently.
It is likely the attackers saw themselves as protecting Muslims who they perceived were humiliated. It is best to not play into their game and let fear and paranoia takeover but it appears far-right and liberal Islamophobes don’t want to hear that. The governments’ overreaction across France and in other Western countries is not likely to help the situation but will only succeed in further curtailing our civil liberties.
How the media responds is vital. Hence people like Lassana Bathily and Ahmed Merabet are very important in shaping the narrative about French and Western Muslims. The more overblown and hysterical the political and media reaction, the more likely we are to increase the conditions which agitate these sorts of attacks because it will show that they work. A greater focus on humanizing victims will do more to counter AQ and ISIS propaganda of supposedly “defending Islam and Muslims.”