ISIS vs. Al Qaeda: Jihadism’s global civil war

ALMOST OVERNIGHT, the Islamic State sent its enemies reeling—and turned U.S. policy in the Middle East upside down. Islamic State forces carved out a haven in Syria and, in June 2014, routed the Iraqi army, capturing large swathes of territory and prompting the Obama administration to overcome its long-standing aversion to a bigger U.S. military role in Iraq and Syria. Even in many Arab countries where the Islamic State does not have a strong presence, its rise is radicalizing those countries’ populations, fomenting sectarianism and making a bad region even worse.

But there is one person for whom the Islamic State’s rise is even more frightening: Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although the Al Qaeda leader might be expected to rejoice at the emergence of a strong jihadist group that delights in beheading Americans (among other horrors), in reality the Islamic State’s rise risks Al Qaeda’s demise. When Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rejected Al Qaeda’s authority and later declared a caliphate, he split the fractious jihadist movement. The two are now competing for more than the leadership of the jihadist movement: they are competing for its soul.

Who will emerge triumphant is not clear. However, the implications of one side’s victory or of continuing division are profound for the Middle East and for the United States, shaping the likely targets of the jihadist movement, its ability to achieve its goals and the overall stability of the Middle East. The United States can exploit this split, both to decrease the threat and to weaken the movement as a whole. Washington must also adjust its counterterrorism policies to recognize the implications of this rivalry.

AL QAEDA emerged out of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. As the Soviets prepared to withdraw, Osama bin Laden and a few of his close associates—high on their perceived victory over the mighty Soviet Union—decided to capitalize on the network they had built to take jihad global. Bin Laden’s vision was to create a vanguard of elite fighters that could lead the global jihad project in a clear, strategic direction. His goal was to bring together under a single umbrella the hundreds of small jihadist groups struggling, often feebly, against their own regimes. By the mid-1990s, he wanted to reorient the movement as a whole, focusing it on what he saw as the bigger enemy underwriting all these corrupt local regimes: the United States.

Al Qaeda’s emphasis on fighting the “far enemy” (the United States) over the “near enemy” (repressive regimes in the Muslim world) was a break from the traditional jihadist agenda, but for local jihadists, pledging allegiance to bin Laden and adopting the Al Qaeda brand meant obtaining access to a wide range of assets: money, weapons, logistical support, expertise and, of course, training. Al Qaeda training camps were the Ivy League of jihadist education. For jihadists facing annihilation at the hands of their regimes, the choice was easy—join Al Qaeda, adopt an anti-Western agenda and live to fight another day.

The 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and the 9/11 attacks inside the United States transformed Al Qaeda into a potent brand. Although 9/11 electrified the global jihadist movement and further raised Al Qaeda’s profile on the world stage, the U.S. counterterrorism response that followed devastated both Al Qaeda and the broader movement it purported to lead. Over the next decade, the United States relentlessly pursued Al Qaeda, targeting its leadership, disrupting its finances, destroying its training camps, infiltrating its communications networks and ultimately crippling its ability to function. The death of the charismatic bin Laden and the ascension of the much less compelling Ayman al-Zawahiri to the top leadership position further diminished the power of the Al Qaeda brand.

Enter the Islamic State.

The Islamic State began as an Iraqi organization, and this legacy shapes the movement today. Jihadist groups proliferated in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion, and many eventually coalesced around Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadist who spent time in Afghanistan in the 1990s and again in 2001. Though bin Laden gave Zarqawi seed money to start his organization, Zarqawi at first refused to swear loyalty to and join Al Qaeda, as he shared only some of bin Laden’s goals and wanted to remain independent. After months of negotiations, however, Zarqawi pledged his loyalty, and in 2004 his group took on the name Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to signify this connection. Bin Laden got an affiliate in the most important theater of jihad at a time when the Al Qaeda core was weak and on the run, and Zarqawi got Al Qaeda’s prestige and contacts to bolster his legitimacy.Yet even in its early days the group bickered with the Al Qaeda leadership. Zawahiri and bin Laden pushed for a focus on U.S. targets, while Zarqawi (and those who took his place after his death in 2006 from a U.S. air strike) emphasized sectarian war and attacks on Sunni Muslims deemed apostates, such as those who collaborated with the Shia-led regime. Zarqawi and his followers also acted with incredible brutality, making their name with gruesome beheading videos—a tactic that AQI’s successor organizations would also use to shock and generate publicity. Despite Zawahiri’s misgivings, Zarqawi’s strategy seemed to work well, as AQI mounted a broad insurgency and for several years controlled some of the Sunni-populated parts of Iraq. In public, Zawahiri and bin Laden continued to embrace their Iraqi affiliate.

But AQI’s indiscriminate violence against Iraqi Sunnis eventually led to a backlash that, when combined with the U.S. troop surge and associated change in strategy in Iraq, hit the group hard. For Al Qaeda, this was a broader disaster, with the Iraqi group’s setbacks and abuses tarnishing the overall jihadist cause. Indeed, Al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn privately recommended to bin Laden that Al Qaeda publicly “sever its ties” with AQI because of the group’s sectarian violence.

When the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011, Zawahiri (among others) urged Iraqi jihadists to take part in the conflict, and Baghdadi—who had taken over leadership of the Iraqi group in 2010—initially sent small numbers of fighters into Syria to build an organization. Syria was in chaos, and the Iraqi jihadists established secure bases of operations there, raising money and winning new recruits to their cause. Their ambitions grew along with their organization, expanding to include Syria as well as Iraq. These Iraqi jihadists, by 2013 calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to reflect their new, broader orientation, also faced less pressure in Iraq with the departure of U.S. forces at the end of 2011. In Syria, the group carved out more and more territory, benefiting as the Syrian regime focused on more moderate groups. At the same time, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki put in place a series of disastrous policies to win favor among his Shia base, systematically excluding Iraqi Sunnis from power. Thus Baghdadi’s organization steadily shored up popular support, regained its legitimacy in Iraq, built a base in Syria and replenished its ranks. 

ALTHOUGH THE Syrian conflict revived the Iraqi jihadist movement, it also eventually led it to break away from the Al Qaeda leadership. Zawahiri encouraged the Iraqi affiliate to move into Syria, but he also wanted to establish a separate group under separate command, with Syrians in the lead to give it a local face. Zawahiri probably also wanted a separate group because of his past doubts about AQI’s loyalty and wisdom. Jabhat al-Nusra was thus created as the Syrian spin-off. But whereas Zawahiri saw this as a positive development, Baghdadi and other Iraqi leaders feared the group had simply gone native and become too independent, focusing too much on Syria and ignoring Iraq and the original leadership. In an attempt to rein it in—and to reestablish his authority over the group—Baghdadi declared Jabhat al-Nusra part of his organization. Jabhat al-Nusra’s leaders balked, pledging a direct oath to Zawahiri as a way of retaining their independence. Zawahiri found this lack of unity frustrating; in an attempt to settle the matter, he proclaimed Jabhat al-Nusra to be the official Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria and Baghdadi’s group to be the official Al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, and in late 2013 ordered Baghdadi to accept this decision. Baghdadi refused and once again declared Jabhat al-Nusra subordinate to him, a move that sparked a broader clash in which perhaps four thousand fighters from both groups died. In February 2014, Zawahiri publicly disavowed Baghdadi’s group, formally ending their affiliation. 

In June 2014, Baghdadi’s forces shocked just about everyone when they swept across Iraq, capturing not only large parts of Iraq’s remote areas but also major cities like Mosul and Tikrit, important resources like hydroelectric dams and oil refineries, and several strategic border crossings with Syria. Within a month, the group—now calling itself the Islamic State—would officially declare the establishment of a caliphate in the territory under its control, naming Baghdadi the caliph and “leader of Muslims everywhere.”

A number of jihadist groups—and even some members of official Al Qaeda affiliates—publicly expressed support for Baghdadi and the Islamic State, though they did not abandon Al Qaeda completely. A leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a group with many long-standing ties to the Iraqi jihad, declared his support for the Islamic State and stated, “We are still waiting for Al Qaeda branches across the world to reveal their stance and declare their support for you,” which some interpreted as a thinly veiled criticism of Zawahiri and the Al Qaeda leadership’s refusal to support the Islamic State. Small factions in Libya have declared their allegiance to the Islamic State, carrying out attacks in its name. Zawahiri and the other remaining members of the Al Qaeda core are no longer at the forefront of the global jihad; instead, the group that Zawahiri disowned out of concern it would damage the global jihadist project is now vying to lead it. 

THE DISPUTE between the Islamic State and Al Qaeda is more than just a fight for power within the jihadist movement. The two organizations differ fundamentally on whom they see as their main enemy, which strategies and tactics to use in attacking that enemy, and which social issues and other concerns to emphasize.

Although the ultimate goal of Al Qaeda is to overthrow the corrupt “apostate” regimes in the Middle East and replace them with “true” Islamic governments, Al Qaeda’s primary enemy is the United States, which it sees as the root cause of the Middle East’s problems. The logic behind this “far enemy” strategy is based on the idea that U.S. military and economic support for corrupt dictators in the Middle East—such as the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia—is what has enabled these regimes to withstand attempts by “the people” (namely, the jihadists) to overthrow them. By targeting the United States, Al Qaeda believes it will eventually force the United States to withdraw its support for these regimes and pull out of the region altogether, thus leaving the regimes vulnerable to attack from within.

Al Qaeda considers Shia Muslims to be apostates but sees killing sprees against them as too extreme and thus detrimental to the broader jihadist project. Zawahiri criticized AQI’s killing of Shia in private correspondence captured by U.S. forces (asking Zarqawi, “Why kill ordinary Shia considering that they are forgiven because of their ignorance?”) and argued that this was a distraction from targeting the Americans. Strategically, Al Qaeda believes that the “Muslim masses,” without whose support Al Qaeda will wither and die, do not really understand or particularly care about the doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shia, and when they see jihadists blowing up Shia mosques or slaughtering Shia civilians, all they see are Muslims killing other Muslims. 

The Islamic State does not follow Al Qaeda’s “far enemy” strategy, preferring instead the “near enemy” strategy, albeit on a regional level. As such, the primary target of the Islamic State has not been the United States, but rather apostate regimes in the Arab world—namely, the Assad regime in Syria and the Abadi regime in Iraq. Like his predecessors in AQI, Baghdadi favors first purifying the Islamic community by attacking Shia and other religious minorities as well as rival jihadist groups. The Islamic State’s long list of enemies includes the Iraqi Shia, Hezbollah, the Yazidis (a Kurdish ethnoreligious minority located predominantly in Iraq), the wider Kurdish community in Iraq, the Kurds in Syria and rival opposition groups in Syria (including Jabhat al-Nusra).

In addition to this difference in focus, Al Qaeda believes in playing nice with others; the Islamic State does not. Jabhat al-Nusra, Zawahiri’s designated affiliate in Syria and the Islamic State’s rival, works with other Syrian fighters against the Assad regime and, by the low standards of the Syrian civil war, is relatively restrained in attacks on civilians—in fact, at the same time the Islamic State was making headlines for beheading captured Americans, Jabhat al-Nusra made headlines for releasing the UN peacekeepers it had captured. Having learned from AQI’s disaster in Iraq when the population turned against it, in areas Jabhat al-Nusra controls, it proselytizes rather than terrorizes to convince Muslims to embrace “true” Islam. When U.S. forces bombed Jabhat al-Nusra because of its links to Al Qaeda, many Syrians were outraged, believing America was striking a dedicated foe of the Assad regime. 

Al Qaeda has long used a mix of strategies to achieve its objectives. To fight the United States, Al Qaeda plots terrorism “spectaculars” to electrify the Muslim world (and get Muslims to follow Al Qaeda’s banner) and to convince the United States to retreat from the Muslim world. The model is based on the U.S. withdrawals from Lebanon after Hezbollah bombed the Marine barracks and U.S. embassy there and the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia. In addition, Al Qaeda supports insurgents that fight against U.S.-backed regimes (and U.S. forces in places like Afghanistan, where it hopes to replicate the Soviet experience). Finally, Al Qaeda issues a flood of propaganda to convince Muslims that jihad is their obligation and to convince jihadists to adopt Al Qaeda’s goals over their local ones.

The Islamic State embraces some of these goals, but even where there is agreement in principle, its approach is quite different. The Islamic State seeks to build, well, an Islamic state. So its strategy is to control territory, steadily consolidating and expanding its position. Part of this is ideological: it wants to create a government where Muslims can live under Islamic law (or the Islamic State’s twisted version of it). Part of this is inspirational: by creating an Islamic state, it excites many Muslims, who then embrace the group. And part of it is basic strategy: by controlling territory it can build an army, and by using its army it can control more territory.

Al Qaeda in theory supports a caliphate, but Zawahiri envisioned this as a long-term goal. Back in the day, although bin Laden and Zawahiri supported AQI publicly, in private they did not approve of its declaration of an Islamic state in Iraq. In particular, Zawahiri feared that AQI was putting the cart before the horse: you need full control over territory and popular support before proclaiming an Islamic state, not the other way around. 

Al Qaeda has never shown much interest in taking or holding territory in order to set up an Islamic state and govern, despite the fact that doing so is one of its stated goals; on the contrary, the only reason it has ever shown interest in territory is as a safe haven and as a place to set up training camps. For example, although Al Qaeda declared the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar to be the caliph of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda leadership never showed any interest in trying to become part of the governing apparatus of the Taliban. Rather, it used its safe haven in Taliban territory as a base from which to plan additional attacks against the United States and support other jihadists in their fights against area regimes. 

The two groups’ preferred tactics reflect these strategic differences. Al Qaeda has long favored large-scale, dramatic attacks against strategic or symbolic targets. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11 are the most prominent, but the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the attack on USS Cole in the Port of Aden in 2000 and plots like the 2005 attempt to down more than ten transatlantic flights all show an emphasis on the spectacular. At the same time, Al Qaeda has backed an array of smaller terrorist attacks on Western, Jewish and other enemy targets, trained insurgents and otherwise tried to build guerrilla armies.

Yet although Al Qaeda has repeatedly called for attacks against Westerners, and especially Americans, it has refrained from killing Westerners when it suited its purposes. The most notable example of this is Al Qaeda’s decision on multiple occasions to grant Western journalists safe passage into Al Qaeda safe havens and allow them to interview bin Laden face to face. Terrorism doesn’t work if no one is watching, and in the days before YouTube and Twitter, Al Qaeda needed journalists to bring its message to its target audience. 

The Islamic State evolved out of the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, and its tactics reflect this context. The Islamic State seeks to conquer, and thus it deploys artillery, massed forces and even tanks as it sweeps into new areas or defends existing holdings. Terrorism, in this context, is part of revolutionary war: it is used to undermine morale in the army and police, force a sectarian backlash or otherwise create dynamics that help conquest on the ground. But it is an adjunct to a more conventional struggle.

In territory it controls, the Islamic State uses mass executions, public beheadings, rape and symbolic crucifixion displays to terrorize the population into submission and “purify” the community, and at the same time provides basic (if minimal) services. This mix earns them some support, or at least acquiescence, from the population. Al Qaeda, in contrast, favors a more measured approach. A decade ago Zawahiri chastised the Iraqi jihadists for their brutality, correctly believing this would turn the population against them and alienate the broader Muslim community, and he has raised this issue in the current conflict as well. Al Qaeda recommends proselytizing in the parts of Syria where its affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra holds sway, trying to convince local Muslims to adopt Al Qaeda’s views rather than forcing them to do so. 

HELPING THE Islamic State’s meteoric rise and its ability to attract tens of thousands of young men (and a few women) to its ranks from around the world, including from many Western countries, is its ability to use social media to disseminate its propaganda to its target demographic: angsty Muslim males roughly between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. The leaders and members of the Islamic State are a generation younger than those of Al Qaeda (Baghdadi is believed to be around forty-three years old, whereas Zawahiri is sixty-three years old), and the generation gap shows.

As Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communication at Haifa University in Israel who studies terrorists’ Internet use, points out, the Al Qaeda core continues to rely heavily on “older” Internet platforms like websites and online forums rather than more modern social-media platforms frequented by young people (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.). This makes sense: on September 11, 2001, at the height of Al Qaeda’s power and influence, the very first iPod had yet to be released, laptops with built-in Wi-Fi were the hot new technology and Myspace wouldn’t even be launched for another two years—let alone Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. 

The Islamic State, on the other hand, came of age in the world of smart phones, hashtags and viral videos, and its public-relations methods reflect this: the group issues propaganda in multiple languages across multiple social-media platforms, even hijacking hashtags like “#WorldCup2014” to get its message out. Some of its propaganda comes from the top, but much is generated from below, enabling it to crowdsource jihad—recruiters even encourage incoming fighters to bring their smart phones with them so they can share their exploits on the battlefield on Twitter and Instagram. Indeed, Islamic State supporters reportedly were behind the January hacking of the U.S. Central Command Twitter feed. 

Some of Al Qaeda’s affiliates—particularly Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group behind the online magazine Inspire—have updated their online propaganda efforts to keep up with the times. But the Al Qaeda core still mostly produces variants of the same tired old content it has been putting out since 2001—long videos featuring senior Al Qaeda ideologues pontificating about various aspects of jihad and quoting extensively from the Koran. Compare this to the video released by the Islamic State titled Flames of War, which features rousing music; dramatic explosions; clips of Barack Obama and George W. Bush overlaid with CGI flames; footage of jihadists firing RPGs in the midst of battle; graphic, blood-soaked images of dead enemies; and a voice-over (in English, of course, with Arabic subtitles) detailing the glorious rise of the Islamic State. Which do you think is more likely to attract the attention of an eighteen-year-old dreaming of adventure and glory? 

TRADITIONAL JIHADIST ideologues oppose the Islamic State. Even the extremely influential Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who mentored Zarqawi when the two were together in Jordan, has called the Islamic State, the successor organization to Zarqawi’s group, “deviant.” The Islamic State, however, is doing an end run around Al Qaeda and other senior jihadist voices to become the dominant jihadist organization today.

For now the momentum is on the Islamic State’s side. Unlike Al Qaeda, it looks like a winner: triumphant in Iraq and Syria, taking on the Shia apostates and even the United States at a local level, and presenting a vision of Islamic governance that Al Qaeda cannot match. Yet this ascendance may be transitory. The Islamic State’s fate is tied to Iraq and Syria, and reversals on the battlefield—more likely now that the United States and its allies are more engaged—could erode its appeal. Like its predecessor organization in Iraq, the Islamic State may also find that its brutality repels more than it attracts, diminishing its luster among potential supporters and making it vulnerable when the people suddenly turn against it. 

However, the Islamic State’s triumphs so far have profound implications for U.S. counterterrorism. The good news is that the Islamic State is not targeting the American homeland—at least for now. Its emphasis is on consolidating and expanding its state, and even the many foreign fighters who have flocked to its banner are being used in suicide bombings or other attacks on its immediate enemies, not on plots back in the West. The bad news is that the Islamic State is far more successful in achieving its goals than Al Qaeda has been: like it or not, the Islamic State really is a “state” in that it controls territory and governs it. Its military presence is roiling Iraq and Syria, and the threat it poses extends to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and especially Lebanon. The more than ten thousand foreign fighters under its banner are a recipe for regional instability at the very least, and U.S. officials legitimately fear they pose a counterterrorism problem for the West. Ideologically, the sectarianism it foments is worsening Shia-Sunni tension throughout the region. So the Islamic State is a much bigger threat to Middle Eastern stability than Al Qaeda ever was. In addition, young Muslims in the West find it inspiring, and those who don’t fight directly under its banners might decide to attempt attacks in the West instead in the Islamic State’s name. 

The United States and its allies should try to exploit the fight between the Islamic State and Al Qaeda and, ideally, diminish them both. The infighting goes against what either organization claims to want, and it diminishes the appeal of jihad if volunteers believe they’ll be fighting the jihadist down the block rather than the Assad regime, Americans, Shia or other enemies. Efforts to stop foreign fighters should stress this infighting. The Islamic State’s social-media strategy is also a propaganda weakness: because the organization allows bottom-up efforts, it risks allowing the most foolish or horrific low-level member to define the group. Playing up its atrocities, especially against other Sunni Muslims, will steadily discredit the group.

Military efforts also matter tremendously. For Al Qaeda, the constant drone campaign has diminished its core in Pakistan and made it harder for it to exercise control over the broader movement. For the Islamic State, defeat on the ground will do more to diminish its appeal than any propaganda measure. Washington should also work with regional allies to ensure cooperation on intelligence and border security. 

Some degree of continued infighting between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State is the most likely outcome. As such, the United States should prepare to confront a divided foe. The good news is that the fight within may consume most of our adversaries’ attention; the bad news is that anti-American violence or high-profile attacks in the Middle East may become more intense as each side seeks to outmatch its rival. Indeed, the January 2015 attacks in Paris may have been an attempt by AQAP, Al Qaeda’s most important affiliate, to prove the group is relevant. Yet while spikes in violence may occur, such infighting will undermine our enemies’ ability to shape regional politics, diminish both movements’ influence and discredit jihadism in general.

This piece originally appeared in 
The National Interest