Thursday, October 20, 2016

After ISIS: What associations and conflicts between Al-Qaeda and ISIS Affiliates can tell us about the next phase of the War on Terror

2nd Half Social Network Analysis Project Proposal by Drew Keneally


While the so-called Islamic State has been in the news for the last few years over its fighting in Iraq and Syria, there is another battle playing out globally between ISIS and its precursor organization Al Qaeda. Indeed, the two organizations are competing in many countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. This battle manifests in a variety of ways, including competition over recruitment, direct violent conflict, external terrorist attacks, and others that may not be so obvious. Over the last couple of years, ISIS has been able to lure away AQ-linked groups, and large parts of AQ-linked fighters. ISIS has done this in several ways, including ideological appeal with the common claim Al Qaeda “lacks purity” in its mission.[1] The organizations differ on how global jihad should be carried out, and engage in direct conflict in several countries.

Social Network Analysis will be crucial in identifying how this inter-organization conflict manifests by visualizing past and present connections, and common attributes of those connections. Additionally, it will hopefully provide lots of material for analysis on which groups might have “staying power,” as well as the nature of how affiliations are formed, fostered, and progress.


The major questions I have about this phenomenon are related to a) the conflict between IS and AQ, and b) the future of these affiliated organizations.

What attributes are associated with groups that have left/split from AQ and pledged allegiance to ISIS?  What can these attributes tell us about the future of current groups affiliated with ISIS?

What can they tell us about how ISIS and AQ are interacting and competing for recruits and influence in global terrorism?


I believe the data will show a correlation between ideological ties and strength, and thus the potential for these groups to exist beyond the defeat of IS ground forces in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, it could possibly make distinction/identify relationships between groups who provide oaths of allegiance for political expedience, resource dependency, and ideology. Indeed, the hope is that this data provides insight into not only what the future of global terrorism holds, but may offer preliminary strategies on how to preempt the emergence of the next ISIS.


I will have to build my own dataset for UCINet purposes; however, much of the information I need is available from open sources including Professor Crenshaw’s mapping militants project, and research I have already undertaken as part of my internship from this past summer.

Network Data will include:
-               Pledged Bay’aa to larger organizations, and publicly accepted Bay’aa from affiliates
o   Strength of these ties will include:
§  Provided monetary sources
§  Provided leadership resources
§  Ideological origins of ties
Attribute Data will include:
-               Strength in numbers
-               When bay’aa was made
-               When a group left /split from AQ if applicable
-               Location of Group
-               Number of attacks
-               Location of attacks
-               Ideology
-               Competition method(s)
o   Violence
o   Media/propaganda
o   Ideological persuasion
o   Indirect attacks

Questions to be answered in the data include, but are not limited to:
In what arenas are ISIS and Al-Qaeda engaged in competition for group affiliation?
-               How does this competition manifest? Recruitment? Violence? Competing Attacks?
-               When did this begin, and what can we tell about the parent organization and affiliate by the timing of the bay’aa?
What groups are strongest in number, and why (ideology or resources)?
-               Similarly, what groups are the most prolific in terms of attacks? Recruitment? Geographic spread?
-               Do any of these relationships indicate what is most important indicator of strength in an affiliate, (allegiance, ideology, leadership, resources, etc.)?
-    Do attacks demonstrate inter-organizational competition? (IS traditionally focused on near targets, AQ on Western targets)

Tie-strengths and subgrouping, (Girvan-Newman in particular), will provide a way to group affiliated groups based on attribute data. We can then draw important conclusions on potential longevity and interconnectivity/activity after ISIS is defeated.


In order to plan long-term military and CVE strategies, policy makers and intelligence agencies need to look beyond just defeating ISIS. By looking at the evolution of groups’ affiliations from AQ to ISIS, we can better understand the spread of these groups, indicators of strength, and how these groups might evolve in the future.

[1] Jason Malsin. “What to know about the deadly ISIS Al Qaeda Rivalry,” Time; Nov. 24 2015.

1 comment:

Christopher Tunnard said...

Interesting, especially if you can get your hands on a meaningful data set. Some improvement suggestions: I'm concerned that you're talking more about data correlation (e.g. between ideological ties and strength) than networks. While that's a potentially valid statistical approach, I'm not sure how this will connect with your networks of those who've pledged their support. And you need to come up with a better question, one that connects to the need to do an SNA to get the outcomes you're looking for. The Qs you have seem mostly about attributes, or flat data. Let's talk.