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

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.

Daniel Byman is a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and the research director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Follow him on Twitter at @dbyman. Jennifer Williams is a research assistant at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Follow her on Twitter at @jenn_ruth.