March 25, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State: Same in All but Name

• The Islamic State and al-Qaeda have more in common than sets them apart, as both groups embrace ‘bin Ladinism’ even as their leaderships differ on tactics and priorities

• As the fortunes of the two groups wax and wane, their shared characteristics are likely to become more pronounced and their rivalries less so

• For the moment, the competition between them weakens their appeal and blunts their impact; any trend towards reconciliation or partnership could magnify the threat they pose across the Arab world. 


Although the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda appear locked in lethal competition, there is far more that unites them than divides them. They may compete for members and influence within the world of violent extremism, but most of their recruits below the leadership level would struggle to explain how the groups differ in terms of their objectives or ideology. If a new arrival chooses one group over the other, it is likely to be more of a matter of opportunity and convenience than of careful consideration of their differences.

At its most basic level, the Islamic State believes that its control of territory has allowed—and obliged—it to declare the reestablishment of the Caliphate, whereas al-Qaeda believes that more needs to be done before this stage is reached. Flowing from this difference, the Islamic State believes that it must fight locally to defend and expand its territory, while al-Qaeda believes it must continue to weaken the pillars on which the current rulers in the future Caliphate base their power; primarily Western support for Arab regimes.

Both groups make claims of religious legitimacy for their objectives and religious justification for their actions, quoting the same texts and providing identical analysis. They both argue that Muslims have no choice but to support them in defense of their religion, which is under attack from non-Muslims, or, even worse, from people who pretend to be Muslims but are not. Both groups define this as jihad, and both groups claim the right to identify their enemies and to determine their punishment, which is almost invariably death. There is clearly, therefore, no difference in their basic beliefs, or in their levels of arrogance. Nor is there any difference in their reliance on violence to spread their message and keep their movements alive. This is the essence of bin Ladinism.

Where they diverge is over leadership and tactics. Differences over leadership are hard to reconcile, and will probably remain until Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, disappears completely from the scene. His link to Usama bin Ladin and his association with the handful of iconic attacks that still sets al-Qaeda apart from any other terrorist group provide him some residual authority and relevance in a world that has otherwise left him behind. A successor, whoever it is, whether one of his South Asian coterie or Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen, his most loyal overseas lieutenant, or Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the leader of al-Qaeda in Syria, his most active overseas lieutenant, is likely to change the group’s name and make a fresh start in close alignment with the Islamic State.

Even more likely though, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State will join forces, recognizing that they are essentially the same organization. Increasingly, all that divides them is their leadership. Tactically, they are already reaching the same conclusions about the opportunities that exist and the best ways to exploit them. If al-Qaeda used to avoid holding territory, this is no longer the case. Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, has for the last three years increased its holdings in Syria at the expense of both the regime and of other opposition groups. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has done the same, carving out an area of control in Yemen that expands and contracts in accordance with the forces arranged against it.

But if al-Qaeda has adopted some of the characteristics of the Islamic State, the same is also true in reverse. The Islamic State has copied al-Qaeda in accepting the allegiance of groups elsewhere in the world, even if they do not have firm control of territory or lack any relevance to the immediate objectives of the Islamic State. It may call them new provinces of the Caliphate rather than affiliates, but the result is the same. For example, the Islamic State has recently announced two new provinces in Yemen, Sana’a and Lahij, both areas where its presence is sporadic at best and certainly not backed up by the elaborate administrative structure previously associate with the Caliphate. The same is true with its provinces in Sinai and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.

There seems to be a tendency therefore for both groups to follow the same tactic of projecting power and influence by claiming control of territory over which no other group can make a more persuasive claim. And as the Islamic State loses momentum in Iraq, it has not only been pushing west in Syria, but also encouraging expansion through the absorption of groups that are fighting a completely different battle, like Boko Haram, which announced its allegiance to the Islamic State on March 5, being accepted into the Caliphate on March 12, and al-Shabab in Somalia, which was invited to join the Islamic State on March 5 and is still considering its options. For these groups that until now might have been closer to or part of al-Qaeda, the change of allegiance reflects nothing more than a local calculation as to which group may better help them to survive. Al-Qaeda no longer provides the cachet that it did, and cannot provide money or other resources. It is doubtful that the Islamic State is in any position to help much either, but its image is more dynamic.

Despite a decade of counterterrorism efforts, the ideology of bin Ladinism remains as popular as ever, and both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are merely two sides of the same lethal coin. The social and political upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa have allowed them space to grow, and although it is unlikely that they will ever be able to operate across widely dispersed areas in a fully coordinated way, logic brings them closer. Unfortunately, the closer they become, the more lethal they will be.


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