Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) may join forces. According to CNN, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has made a series of audio messages extending an olive branch to the Islamic State even while describing IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's "caliphate" as illegitimate. The first one was posted on Sept. 9.
The two groups have been rivals fighting a battle for supremacy in the global jihadist movement. In 2014 they got apart when the IS ignored the directive of al-Qaeda leader to stay out of Syria. The al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, is still hostile to IS.
Al-Zawahiri has urged all jihadists in Iraq and Syria to cooperate in the face of common enemy. This could put an end to perennial infighting among rebel groups. In his new message, al-Zawahiri says al-Qaeda has shown great restraint in an effort to "stop the fighting between the mujahideen" in Syria and to "give room for the people of goodness to reconcile."
Al-Zawahiri returns to the theme in the second lecture posted Sept.13: "We call for cooperation with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his brothers… to push back the attack of the enemies of Islam," he says.
This is disturbing enough. The terrorist groups getting together may lead to a spike of terrorist assaults worldwide. In his speech released on Sept.13, al-Zawahiri called on Muslims in the West to launch attacks on "the homes and cities of the crusader West, and specifically America." This sounds especially alarming keeping in mind migrants flows that hit Europe.
Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have a long history of cooperation. Talking about Pakistan-Afghanistan region, it’s hard to distinguish between al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the IS. This June, the Islamic State seized full control of the Libyan city of Sirte from the Fajr Libya militia. Now they are on the way to establish links with the Egyptian Muslim Brothers. The Nigerian radical group Boco Haram sent 200 militants to join ranks with IS formations in Libya.
The trend is clear – the Islamists are on the verge of opening a large-scale front stretching from Tunisia to Iraq and further to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The enemy is joining forces to become a real global threat. Its might is growing exponentially.
What about taking urgent measures to respond?
In his comment on Russia’s contribution into the fight against extremists, White House spokesman Josh Earnest warned Moscow that "any military support to the Assad regime for any purpose, whether it's in the form of military personnel, aircraft supplies, weapons or funding, is both destabilizing and counterproductive."
Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern about reports of Russia's enhanced military buildup in Syria in a telephone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The Secretary said such actions “…could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-ISIL coalition operating in Syria," the department said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
Is there an alternative to this kind of unfriendly warnings? Can the United States, the European Union and Russia cooperate against the growing threat posed by the IS, even against the background of differences over Ukraine? Of course they can. They hardly have an alternative, despite the fact that achieving progress could be a tall order.
The radicals are determined to undermine the American society and West's fundamental democratic values. That’s how the threat is perceived by the US. In its turn, Russia drew lessons from Chechnya to shape its counterterrorist policies. The rise of the Islamic State puts both nations in the same boat and the common mission is to prevent the emergence of caliphate propagated by the terrorist organizations. Unlike al-Qaeda, the Islamic State is not seeking a haven in an independent state or ungoverned territory. Its goal is to seize the land to form a state. It actively recruits foreigners from the US, Europe, Russia and other countries of post-Soviet space. Of estimated 15,000 foreign fighters, 3,000 are from the West and about 1,000 are Russian-speaking jihadists. Some get back to their homes and more are on the way. For the first time in the global fight against terror, the United States, the European Union and Russia share a common enemy. They cannot afford to tolerate the existence of a terrorist caliphate, nor can they sit and wait for the IS to launch sustained terrorist campaigns against them.
The “big three” (Russia, the US and the EU) could begin to cooperate against the IS by taking small and pragmatic steps to start with. It would be expedient to remember their cooperation at the initial phases of the US-led campaign in Afghanistan. These moves could include sharing intelligence on the enemy and cooperating in joint special operations against key targets. In coordination with the West, Russia could also supply advisors, offer training programs and arms to Kurds and Iraqi forces.
The upcoming visit of Russian President Putin to New York provides an opportunity to launch a high-level dialogue on counterterrorism cooperation. It may not greatly contribute to the resolution of crisis in Ukraine, but it could help reduce the IS threat and slow down the deterioration in Western-Russian relations. Setting the differences over Ukraine aside, the West should not lose sight of the contribution that Moscow could make in countering the IS.
It August the UN Security Council resolution was adopted to call for an investigation into the use of chlorine and other chemicals in attacks in Syria. It serves as a rare example of the US and Russia cooperating in good spirit. The two nations are in full accord that the use and spread of weapons of mass destruction is unacceptable. The document was endorsed unanimously by the 15-member Council, and the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is now initiating the investigation process.
If the apparent chemical attacks by IS militants are authenticated, the Obama administration might get more deeply involved in fighting against the extremists. It may even have to ponder the option of having boots on the ground. Should it come to that, Washington would willy-nilly become an unwilling ally of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. There is a slim chance the US military would be fighting both the IS and Assad’s forces. It would antagonize Iran right after the landmark deal on its nuclear program has been reached. It would also further deteriorate the relations with Russia already strained over Ukraine. But the fate of the Syrian leader could be put on hold, pending the outcome of the war against a common enemy of the US and Russia. By that time, the ongoing diplomatic activities might have produced a solution on the dividing issues.
Russia does not rule out the possibility of any dialogue with the US on the Syrian settlement, but there has been no arrangement on this so far, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday, September 15. "We have always repeated that we don’t not rule out a dialogue and believe a dialogue is necessary, as there is no other way for the explanation of each other’s positions, for attempts to find consensus and understanding," he said.
This is the time for broad vision and wisdom. The UN General Assembly session has opened to provide the long-needed opportunities to seize. Ayman al-Zawahiri made us all realize once again that the time is running out while the alarm bells keep ringing!