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Associated Forces: Why the Differences between ISIL and al-Qaeda Matter

Ansar_Dine_Tombouctou (1)

Members of Ansar Dine in Timbuktu, Mali. Image credit: Magharebia via Wikimedia Commons.

This post is the latest installment of our “Monday Reflections” feature, in which a different Just Security editor examines the big stories from the previous week or looks ahead to key developments on the horizon.

For several years now U.S. military and intelligence operations have relied on a concept of “associated forces” of al-Qaeda to add militant groups to the list of who can be killed or captured as potential threats to the nation. The White House is now asking Congress to include the concept of associated forces in an AUMF for ISIL. The administration has recently suggested that the definition of associated forces for ISIL is itself fairly narrow because it refers to individuals or groups that “join” ISIL. If history is a guide, we are told, the government will attach such requirements as it has done with al-Qaeda to a very limited number of groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

But history is not a reliable guide here. The reason turns on the different organizational structure and strategy of ISIL compared to al-Qaeda central. Basically, it is far easier to “join” ISIL — or fight for, on behalf of, or alongside the group — than what it has taken to join al-Qaeda (and to fight for, on behalf of, or alongside that group). And the danger with the administration’s proposal is not just one of slippery slopes under an ISIL AUMF. The dangers also include unintended consequences of folding some organizations into the class of U.S. enemies when we may prefer to cultivate a more nuanced relationship to them (think: Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq).

So what are the structural and strategic differences between al-Qaeda of the past and ISIL of the present and near future?

Part of the problem in answering that question is that it may be too soon to tell, and ISIL itself is strategically shifting as the situation evolves. What experts do tell us however suggests differences in character and scale in the establishment of affiliates compared to the al-Qaeda model. Groups and individuals are more willing to join forces with ISIL for a variety of reasons despite differences in their own ideology or strategy, and ISIL has shown a willingness to associate itself with a broad contingent of groups and individuals and in different formations.

Lone wolves: If the standard for joining a principal organization and fighting on behalf or alongside it requires at least some level of agreement, one thing that is remarkable about ISIL is its turn to preauthorizing, or pre-agreeing, to lone wolves carrying out operations of their own design.

On September 21, ISIL’s chief spokesperson, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, called on supporters to kill Americans, French, Canadians, Australians and nationals of other countries in the US-led military coalition and “not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict” before doing so. As Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger write in their new book, “For years, al Qaeda had been encouraging such attacks with only rare successes, spread out over months and years. … In contrast, ISIS had inspired three successful attacks within a span of days. In November, ISIS later took credit for all three, as well as the earlier incident in Australia.” This might, indeed, be the marking of “terrorism’s next frontier,” as Rolf Mowatt-Larssen recently explained. ISIL appears not to wait for grand or spectacular terrorist attacks on western targets as al-Qaeda did in the past, or to have a prior relationship with these forces or individual elements let alone a close coordination of activities. It is almost as though the group is handing out ISIL decals for wannabes to fix to their operations and call themselves ISIL too.

Vanguard versus populism: More fundamentally, as Stern and Berger discuss, al-Qaeda was organized more as a “vanguard movement” that limited its membership and associations: “Following the model of a secret society, al Qaeda had created significant obstacles for would-be members, from the difficulty of even finding it to months of religious training that preceded battle. The ISIS message was exactly the opposite ….” ISIL is built on a more populist notion: ISIL “distinguishes itself with a projection of strength and an appeal to populism— the gates are open for anyone who wants to join.”

As Stern and Berger later write, one result is that many individuals also join in association with ISIL for varied reasons: “its messaging also resonated with people at risk of committing violence, whether or not those people were truly engaged with its goals and ideology.” In short, ISIL is open to broader types of association and a wider range of individuals are willing to “join.”

Opportunism and marriages of convenience: Another feature of ISIL’s open-ended franchising is that it may form alliances with militant groups that wear the ISIL brand simply for opportunistic reasons. Some of those groups may have not even significantly changed their underlying tactics,  or they have “formed an alliance with ISIS but would not seek to impose the group’s interpretation of Islam” in their own country. The leader of the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf Group, for example, pledged allegiance to ISIL in September 2014, but “many observers suggested the pledge was simply an opportunistic bid to increase the ransoms they demanded for kidnapped Europeans.”

In addition, an important element of ISIL’s successful territorial advances is its willingness to form alliances that are “marriages of convenience,” according to an important report by the Quilliam Foundation. ISIL is fighting alongside neo-Baathists, for example, led by Izzat Ibrahim ad-Duri “who once had a reputation for being outspoken and often militantly secularist.”

Provinces yet splinters and fractures: To be sure, ISIL has brought on board affiliates in the form of “wilayat” (provinces) suggesting that the connective tissue that makes up these relationships are structurally stronger and well-coordinated (see Aaron Zelin’s leading discussion of the “archipelago of provinces”). Nevertheless, in some cases it appears the most controlled and coordinated aspect of those associations is simply their media message, not the substance. Analysts have questioned the institutional capacities of some of the provinces. For example, Stern and Berger write: “The other wilayat were less clearly defined, with the pledges from Saudi Arabia and Yemen signed simply as from the muhjahideen of each country. Neither specified where the wilayat were located, nor did they indicate that they represented existing groups.” And in some cases, ISIL has apparently adopted a strategy of encouraging statements of allegiance fabricated on behalf of an entire group when that position represents only a rising faction within the organization. As  Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi writes: “one aspect of IS’ strategy appears to be to have those ready to declare their allegiance within a particular group to issue a statement in that group’s name regardless of any disapproval at the official level. What then follows of course depends on circumstances by case.”

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Therein lies some of the paths to a slippery slope and other unintended consequences in the administration’s proposal for associated forces. First, if these developments in ISIL’s structure and strategy persist, the administration will not necessarily be tethered to the practices of restraint that have supposedly confined the application of the “associated forces” label in the past. Second, the White House’s model for a new AUMF will also place potentially excessive pressure on this and future presidents to resort to military force against far-flung groups lest their administration be blamed for failing to exercise the authority granted by Congress. And, third, this framework will also potentially sweep in groups and individuals into the fold as enemies, when the US would strategically prefer to maintain a more flexible approach.

I have some solutions to these problems – including calls for robust congressional oversight (sharing of responsibility) and reporting requirements under the ISIL AUMF – and perhaps even more fundamental changes. Other solutions may lie in international legal standards that require a quantum of organizational structure for groups that belong to a party to the conflict (watch this space for a forthcoming post by Nathalie Weizmann). In this post, however, I thought to reflect simply on the problem.

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About the Author

is co-editor-in-chief of Just Security. Ryan is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. He served as Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-16). You can follow him on Twitter (@rgoodlaw).