For all of al-Qaeda’s attempts at moderation, IS has behaved in an entirely opposite manner, as it pursued an uncompromising strategy of sectarianism, barbarity, and conquest. IS fully embraced sectarianism, seemingly making the killing of Shiites its raison d’être. And while al-Qaeda’s propaganda might still be peppered with derogatory references to Shiites, in general it favors a much more measured approach than IS. The groups are different in many ways, some subtle and others not. For example, rather than working with local groups, IS consistently acted as a conquering army, routing local militant leaders rather than working alongside them. In addition, locals were taxed, extorted, and closely policed by IS religious patrols to ensure strict adherence to sharia law.
IS’s approach to warfare was reflected in its fighting style, whereby the group relied on conventional means of warfare, including artillery and tanks, in combination with some asymmetric tactics. When IS assumed control of a certain swath of territory, it often installed foreigners (Chechens, Tunisians, and Uzbeks) in command of the area. But its success came with a price. The more territory IS took over and the more brazen its displays of military might, the more likely the Coalition could no longer ignore its actions. The result was that, compared to other Salafi-jihadist groups operating in Syria, IS bore the brunt of Wester counterterrorism operations, a development that suited al-Qaeda just fine. The relentless stream of IS propaganda directed at the West – particularly the gruesome videos of beheadings, burnings, and crucifixions – left the Coalition with little choice but to set its sights on the caliphate. The success IS experienced in building its proto-state elevated it to the top priority for the Coalition. Accordingly, al-Qaeda in Syria was given breathing room to patiently rebuild its credibility and political legitimacy among locals. Gartenstein-Ross has described this as a “strategy of deliberate yet low-key growth.”
The future of al-Qaeda and IS will be largely defined by the competition between the two. There is little debate that, beginning around 2014, IS could successfully lay claim to be the undisputed leader of the global jihadist movement. Once its caliphate collapsed, that began to change, and its current decline may be accompanied by al-Qaeda’s rise back to preeminence. There are clear signs that al-Qaeda has modified its tactics to take advantage of what it sees as a unique opportunity. In Syria’s Idlib province, al-Qaeda successfully cultivated grassroots support and by mid-2017 was beginning to accept former IS fighters into its ranks, a development most would have thought unthinkable just a year or two earlier. Al-Qaeda’s leadership realizes that its response to the Arab Spring was sclerotic and is now making amends, focusing its resources and energy on the concerns most salient to Sunnis, a strategy that has helped the group spread its roots throughout northwestern Syria. It has also used this strategy successfully throughout parts of Yemen, where it operates under various front organizations, branches of Ansar Sharia, and other Salafi groups.
Al-Qaeda’s more balanced and predictable approach to governing is geared toward winning the popular support of civilian populations. Life under the Islamic State, even for its own loyal subjects, was enforced by draconian religious interpretations and subsequent enforcement of punishments for those who were not fastidious and completely obedient. Al-Qaeda was far less stringent and could be indifferent to perceived offenses that would draw harsh rebuke from the Islamic State. The year 2018 marks the 30-year anniversary of al-Qaeda’s founding and it is clear that the group has evolved, adapted, and learned over time. Its ability to establish widespread political legitimacy through a refurbished image could propel the group through well into its fourth decade.
This shift over time by al-Qaeda to a more tolerant organization was in part a result of Zawahiri’s leadership. For all of the criticism he endures for lacking charisma, a critique most jihadist scholars find unassailable, Zawahiri does give al-Qaeda the benefit of continuity and a historical appreciation for what has traditionally worked and what has failed in the jihadists’ ongoing struggle against their adversaries. With his direction, the group has made course corrections based on trial and error and actively sought to amend previous errors in doctrine and strategy.
Al-Qaeda in Syria has gone to great lengths to protect its image by rebranding its affiliate several times already. Bilaad al-Shaam, or the Land of the Levantine People, is highly coveted by multiple groups within the global jihadist movement for religious and geographical reasons. Zawahiri sees Syria as an opportunity to demonstrate relevance, juxtapose al-Qaeda to the Islamic State, and position his group as the more capable and pragmatic entity and, thus, the group worth siding with as the competition continues.
Perhaps the most interesting change in al-Qaeda’s behavior since the death of bin Laden is that the group no longer seems obsessed with striking the West and, indeed, according to Bruce Hoffman, in 2015 Zawahiri issued strict orders to Mohammed al-Jolani not to use Syria as a launching pad to attack the West. There are several possible reasons for this decision, including that al-Qaeda’s infrastructure in Europe was not nearly as robust as that of the Islamic State, and thus any attack was probably going to pale in comparison to what IS had already achieved.
Another, more nefarious possibility is that Zawahiri is merely playing the “long game” while strategically concealing its Khorasan Group assets as IS is further attenuated. Again, this might be changing with the continued splintering of groups in Syria and the emergence of Tanzim Hurras al-Din. At least in terms of capability, if not intent, discerning a group’s organizational structure could provide clues to its reach and ability to conduct external attacks. Do groups adopt a more decentralized structure to conduct external attacks, or are attacks outside of the group’s main territory a byproduct of a flatter structure? Relatedly, it is possible that too much structure is assigned to jihadist groups by those attempting to analyze them. Al-Qaeda and IS, in addition to their respective affiliates, may in reality be far less monolithic than scholars and analysts believe.
Colin P. Clarke is a Senior Research Fellow at The Soufan Center and a senior adjunct political scientist at the RAND Corporation.