For nearly two months, the Islamic State has been jockeying for control over the global jihad movement. In recent days, signs have emerged that the group’s strategy for winning the popularity contest underway between it and al Qaeda will entail convincing jihadis of the group’s capabilities to terrorize Americans.
The implications of this strategy are ominous for U.S. interests, but, in terms of their immediacy, perhaps even greater for an American held hostage by al Qaeda. U.S. national security managers would be wise to consider the implications of this situation before making more misadvised statements regarding which group poses the greater threat to Americans.
On Aug. 13, al Qaeda’s official media wing, as-Sahab, tweeted a link to a message addressed to the family of “the prisoner” Warren Weinstein, an American whom the organization claims to have been holding hostage since he was kidnapped in Pakistan on Aug. 13, 2011. Several days later, a video showcasing the beheading of American journalist James Foley by an English-speaking jihadi affiliated with the Islamic State appeared online. Within hours, as-Sahab’s Twitter account posted another message highlighting al Qaeda’s recent message to the Weinstein family — this time with reference to terrorism victim “#JamesFoley.”
For decades, terrorists have exploited news media to propagate their messages on a global scale. Offering greater communications controls than news reports, which might not present a group’s entire message, in recent years social-media platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have become vital instruments in the terrorists’ propaganda tool kit. Today, these tools are of immeasurable value to the Islamic State as it works to distinguish itself from al Qaeda while, at the same time, attracting support from jihadist elements the world over that are sympathetic to al Qaeda. Thus, how it uses these tools reveals a great deal about the group’s strategy for asserting control over the global jihad movement.
The video featuring the murder of James Foley served a variety of purposes. Inasmuch as it was a response to recent military efforts to roll back the Islamic State’s territorial gains in Iraq, it was also an example of the group’s outreach to prospective recruits and supporters in the West. Concomitantly, the group’s efforts to extort more than $100 million from the Foley family and the U.S. government, coupled with the spectacle of its execution of the American hostage used in these efforts, served to demonstrate the sincerity of the Islamic State’s anti-U.S. propaganda.
By matching deeds with its rhetoric, the group has provided jihadis the world over with further evidence of its commitment to the global jihadist cause.
Moreover, the U.S. escalation of efforts to degrade threats posed by the group in response to this act almost certainly will serve to prompt more jihadist groups to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State’s leader.
Interestingly, using the hash-tagging technique on Twitter, it appears al Qaeda is trying to piggyback on the attention the Islamic State has cultivated for its grotesque propaganda. This, while converting attention to the Islamic State’s execution of James Foley into a tool to promote its own activities. Indeed, by referencing Foley’s execution in this manner, al Qaeda is clearly attempting to steer audiences searching for information about the Foley murder on Twitter to posts that highlight al Qaeda’s own ongoing efforts to coerce the U.S. government.
Meanwhile, while the Islamic State’s execution of James Foley constitutes one more example of the group’s extraordinary efforts to overshadow the specter of al Qaeda, an important question is this: Did this execution demonstrate responsiveness to al Qaeda’s propaganda among the Islamic State’s strategists, who seek to trump the impact of that propaganda?
Also unclear is the matter of whether as-Sahab’s Twitter post featuring Foley’s name constitutes more than an effort to exploit the attention garnered by its new rival. Indeed, was this a signal of plans to execute its own American hostage?
Clearly, that prospective signal has not redirected mainstream news organizations’ interests away the Islamic State, and toward al Qaeda. Therefore, taking into consideration the level of attention the Islamic State has garnered by executing an American hostage, it should not be ruled out that al Qaeda senior leaders are contemplating doing the same in order to generate a spectacle that could eclipse that of the Islamic State’s latest play.
As the Islamic State ups the ante, it is reasonable to anticipate al Qaeda will follow suit to demonstrate its leadership in the global jihad movement’s efforts to cause harm to the United States and its allies. Given such, the growing volume of erroneous claims made by U.S. officials that the Islamic State poses a greater threat than al Qaeda could serve to push al Qaeda to work harder to prove America’s top national security managers still do not understand the threat environment before them. It’s a fact made abundantly clear by the popular notion that the Islamic State poses a greater threat to the U.S. than al Qaeda.
Michael S. Smith II is the COO of Kronos Advisory and a senior analyst with Wikistrat.