Regional implications of the al-Qaeda/ISIL struggle

Regional implications of the al-Qaeda/ISIL struggle

With the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as an extremist group contending for the leadership of global jihad, the competition and outright hostility between al-Qaeda and ISIL have become apparent. First and foremost, both groups are part of the same global movement promoting Sunni jihadist ideology. Their anti-Western agendas are similar. They both seek the same religious and political ends such as toppling local regimes and replacing them with ones based on the Sharia. Both al-Qaeda and ISIL are multinational organizations that have global franchises. They both evolved amid tensions between regional actors and local insurgencies while also directing efforts against foreign intervention. Lastly, both recruit potential members through a powerful propaganda apparatus and use social media in order to advance a coherent narrative.

Besides the similarities, there are obviously a great number of differences between the two groups. One key difference involves the fact that ISIL has gained strength from the territory it occupied and in which it established a de facto state. This fact may strengthen ISIL’s hand against al-Qaeda in annexing significant territorial gains in the future and in maintaining control over its followers. In addition to its territorial advantage, ISIL also provides welfare services and collects taxes, which creates an interaction between the organization and its “citizens.” While ISIL has a self-sufficient economy dominated by the revenues from oil fields and power plants, al-Qaeda depends mostly on donations from the Gulf states.

ISIL’s strategic gains and effective use of social media to spread its message seem to attract Muslim – and even non-Muslim – youth across the world, including the Caucasus. It is estimated that more than 1,500 young recruits from Russia’s North Caucasus region and more than 200 from the South Caucasus (Azerbaijan and Georgia) have fought in Syria and Iraq within the ranks of ISIL. Both al-Qaeda and ISIL are currently competing to increase the number of their affiliates and followers from the Caucasus as well as to expand their size and influence overall. 

The shift from support for al-Qaeda to ISIL in the North Caucasian insurgency lies in the weakening of the Caucasus Emirate created by Doku Umarov in 2007 and al-Qaeda’s position in the region and in the Middle East as a whole. ISIL is financially strong and ideologically more influential than al-Qaeda; although al-Qaeda is still present in Syria, it is substantially weaker than ISIL. 

In the Caucasus, al-Qaeda is present in the Nogai Steppe and Cherkessia while ISIL is affiliated with the Dagestan, Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay, and Ingushetia subdivisions. In June 2015, ISIL declared the “Wilayat Qawqaz” (Caucasus Province); soon afterwards, in September 2015, Russia initiated military operations to support the Bashar al-Assad regime and fight against ISIL in Syria. A few weeks later, ISIL declared a “holy war” against Russians and Americans. Although ISIL is interested in recruiting from the Caucasus rather than entering into the domestic conflict of the area, ISIL affiliates in the Caucasus are united and may attack Russian urban centers. As the threat is imminent and rising, regional leaders should immediately address security complications posed by ISIL.

Since several hundred militants have been recruited by ISIL to fight in Syria from Chechnya and Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, it is important that the Georgian and Russian governments, together with Turkey, cooperate in order to diminish the threat these fighters pose to regional security. Since Russia and Georgia do not have diplomatic relations, and Turkey has criticized Russia over its involvement in Syria, the possibility of trilateral dialogue over the region’s problems is very low. Global and local political elites have to bear in mind that, in the short-term, the empowerment of ISIL in the Caucasus may threaten global security: the majority of issues threatening security in the Middle East are linked with the situation in the Caucasus. In this context, the implementation of transnational security measures in the Caucasus may also have implications on the greater security and stability of the Middle East.

* Kristine Margvelashvili is a research fellow at the Center for Social Sciences in Tbilisi. Z. Aslı Elitsoy is a PhD candidate in political science at Bilkent University. This is an abridged version of an original article featured in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Fall 2015 issue.