Tricia Bacon has studied terrorist organizations and their behavior for a long time. In recent years, Bacon, an assistant professor at the American University School of Public Affairs, began considering how terrorist alliances work.
After the alliance between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) was broken, the conventional wisdom of was that the split was the culmination of strategic differences between the two organizations. In particular, it was said that ISIS was violent, especially against Muslims, and had declared itself a “state,” while Al Qaeda had opposed that tactic long ago. But Bacon says the problems between the two groups had existed for years.
In a new paper, “Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s Break: Strategic Strife or Lackluster Leadership?”, recently published in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Bacon and coauthor Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault, an assistant professor at Georgetown University found the trigger for the split: different leadership styles.
“Osama bin Laden had been more tolerant of some of these issues with the Islamic State because he saw the alliance as too important for Al Qaeda to break and it needed an ally in the strategic area of Iraq and Syria,” said Bacon. “He was also much better at managing conflict. He was not a leader we saw escalating conflicts and getting into ego matches with other terrorist leaders.”
The researchers, who both have extensive backgrounds as analysts working in the intelligence community, learned about bin Laden’s leadership style by studying a series of documents that were recently declassified. While he pushed ISIS to change its behavior and tactics, bin Laden handled internal disputes deftly and never threatened to end the relationship between the two terrorist groups.
After bin Laden was killed in 2011, the new Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was more prone to engage in conflict. He had a history of acrimonious relationships with other terrorist leaders and had never been able to unify terrorist groups, even those with similar ideologies.
“Al Qaeda has a less effective leader and a less respected leader now,” said Bacon. “It would have been harder for the Islamic State to discredit bin Laden because he had so much cachet in the Sunni-Jihadist world. Al-Zawahiri had some too, but it paled in comparison.”
Bacon and Arsenault concluded that although it was a troubled alliance, strategic differences between Al Qaeda and ISIS were not sufficient to cause a split.
Al-Zawahari was not capable of managing the difference between the two groups and thus could not prevent ruptures in the alliance.
Bacon said the breakup of this alliance was one of the most important developments in terrorism since 9/11. For years, Al Qaeda was at the vanguard of the movement, but now there are two power centers that divide the Jihadist movement.
“It’s created an escalation in the level of competition as a consequence, which can produce more violence in some places,” said Bacon.
Though Bacon says her article has not yet overturned the conventional wisdom about what caused the split between al Qaeda and ISIS, it is sparking debate about how much leadership among terrorist organizations matters.
“We expend a lot of resources to eliminate leaders—bin Laden’s death was the culmination of a 10-year manhunt,” says Bacon. “This raises the importance of understanding successors. How important is the leader and how capable is the successor? That needs to be considered.”
While Bacon and Arsenault's research examined why a long-standing alliance ended, Bacon has a new book, Why Terrorist Groups Form International Alliances, publishing in Spring 2018 that looks at why terrorist organizations form alliances.