ISIS vs. Al Qaeda: Jihadism’s Global Civil War

Al Qaeda and its rogue stepchild, the Islamic State, are locked in mortal combat. The two are now competing for more than the leadership of the jihadist movement—they are competing for its soul.

March-April 2015

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.