ISIS's Fight with Al Qaeda is Making Both Stronger

Inter-jihadi competition is bolstering worldwide recruitment.

Is Islamic terrorism having a civil war? Does the hostility and aggression between ISIS and Al Qaeda mean that each will damage the other? For months, experts have predicted that the rise of ISIS would be disastrous for Al Qaeda. “The good news is that this power struggle [between ISIS and Al Qaeda] may weaken both of them,” one report concluded.

The belief was that Osama bin Laden’s brainchild would lose ground to the more violent and radical group. Yet, despite The Guardian’s assertion that Al Qaeda is on the verge of collapse, the organization has never been stronger.

Though ISIS has managed to overshadow its ideological predecessor in the media, it is becoming increasingly apparent that ISIS and Al Qaeda are complementary goods rather than substitutes.

The belief that ISIS could weaken Al Qaeda was based on three observations. First, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra has lost several hundred fighters in battles against ISIS. Second, some Al Qaeda-affiliated groups have switched teams and now pledged allegiance to ISIS, as is the case for the Sinai-based insurgency known as Wilayat Sina’ as well as Nigeria’s Boko Haram. Third, numerous fighters have defected from JN to ISIS, which is a trend that largely depends on how the groups are perceived to be faring in battle and which has, at times, been reversed.

Yet, when looking at the bigger picture, we can actually see that both groups have become more powerful in recent years.

Despite the claim that jihadists are flocking to ISIS’s camp, it is clear that many groups have not done so. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Al-Shabab of Somalia have maintained their loyalty to the group.

In fact, many Al Qaeda affiliates have not only remained, but expanded (to paraphrase an ISIS slogan). The strength of any force should be determined by the quantity and its quality, and in recent years Al Qaeda has improved on both counts.

In terms of manpower, Al Qaeda’s growth is particularly evident in the cases of Nusra and AQAP. In September 2011, a Pentagon spokesman estimated Al Qaeda to have a total of between 3,000 to 4,000 members. By 2014, estimates of Nusra—that is, of Al Qaeda’s presence in Syria alone—had surpassed 2011’s estimated total by 1,000 soldiers. Beyond that, AQAP membership had jumped from a few hundred in 2009 to one thousand, or even more, by 2013.

As for the quality of the Al Qaeda troops, there is no doubt that the burning conflicts in the Arab Middle East have provided them with a trial by fire. Much as the jihad in the 1980s against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan transformed ideologues and disaffected youths into soldiers, the conflicts in Yemen and Syria have not only served as rallying cries but also training grounds for Al Qaeda. What they lost in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion, they have found in places such as Yemen. Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution has called AQAP “the one local winner” of the Yemeni civil war, while counterterrorism analysts call it “the most urgent militant threat” in Yemen.

Instead of ISIS “crippling” Al Qaeda by attracting the lion’s share of recruits, a more realistic assessment should explain that the overall number of jihadists is going up as both groups continue to expand.

It should come as no surprise that these two groups, while theoretically battling each other for leadership in the arena of global jihad, are individually experiencing a great deal of success. The belief that these groups are competing in a zero-sum game is based on hopeful assumptions that there are a finite number of resources for jihadist groups, and that a given recruit or donor has to choose between one of the two groups. However, this “one or the other” perspective should be replaced by a view that better fits the reality we are seeing, more along the lines that “there’s something for every jihadist” as a means of broadening the appeal of radical ideology.

In an ideal world, the West would simply sit back and watch Al Qaeda and ISIS destroy each other without having to lift a finger. However, those idyllic predictions have failed to materialize, and it is possible that what we thought would hurt Al Qaeda and ISIS has actually propelled them forward. In fact, a sense of competition without there being as much actual competition as we had hoped may be the worst of both worlds, as it could push both Al Qaeda and ISIS to recruit more vigorously even though there is a bottomless pool of recruits.

Ari Heistein is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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