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

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.