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The Islamic State vs. al Qaeda

Who’s winning the war to become the jihadi superpower?

Photo by Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images

Since late 2013, it has been clear that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, now rebranded as simply the Islamic State, wants more than just a piece of land to call its own.

The Islamic State has thrown down the gauntlet to al Qaeda and seeks to supplant its former ally as the symbol and leader of a global movement acting out a twisted definition of jihad. Its sweeping military campaign has captured a huge swath of Iraq, even as it fights both Bashar al-Assad’s regime and rival jihadi groups in Syria, while its proclamation in June of an Islamic caliphate has sparked a furious debate about its legitimacy among global terrorists.

The concept that Muslim militants around the world could even have a global leader is relatively novel and arguably unsound. During the 1980s and 1990s, countless independent regional groups were united by little other than a very broad outline of an ideology and, for some, the money and resources provided by Osama bin Laden.

While al Qaeda had influence on these groups — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot — bin Laden did not explicitly take on the mantle of leadership, and though there were endless “al Qaeda links” (the perceived importance of which has fluctuated in the eyes of most observers over the years), most jihadi groups were nominally or meaningfully autonomous most of the time, with a few notable exceptions.

At least on paper, al Qaeda itself was then — and continues to be — subordinate to Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, through a loyalty oath from bin Laden to Mullah Omar, which was reaffirmed last year by al Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and again this summer, in a print publication attributed to al Qaeda.

But in practice, the post-9/11 jihadi movement has split into two major groups — al Qaeda and its declared affiliates, under the leadership of bin Laden and now Zawahiri — and everyone else, a motley collection of more or less like-minded insurgents and terrorists around the world who have maintained their independence, even though many were friendly or linked to al Qaeda through shared resources or personnel.

The current list of official affiliates — over which Zawahiri acknowledges his authority — includes al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP, mostly in Yemen), al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM, mostly in North Africa), al-Shabab (mainly in Somalia), and al-Nusra Front (in Syria).

In the spring of 2014, Zawahiri disavowed the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — at the time considered an al Qaeda affiliate — essentially firing it for failing to follow his orders. After seizing a substantial amount of territory in Iraq during June, ISIS renamed itself the Islamic State and declared that it is a “caliphate,” essentially asserting that it holds dominion over Muslims around the world and demanding that jihadi groups swear loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now restyled as Caliph Ibrahim.

When all the world’s Muslim militants failed to drop to their knees, the online supporters of the Islamic State were baffled and disappointed. The realist leadership of the group probably knew that the announcement would not produce immediate breakthroughs, but it may have been disappointed at the volume of the first wave of rejection. Given how tightly the Islamic State synchronizes its media strategy, it is telling that the group could not arrange even a single high-profile pledge within the first week after the announcement.

Fast-forward to the end of August, and the Islamic State has continued and even expanded its ground war, seizing new territory in Syria, where it is battling and often winning against both the regime and other Islamist rebels, including al-Nusra Front. The Islamic State has now emerged as the world’s second jihadi superpower and possibly the dominant one. And it wants what al Qaeda has — global terrorist credibility and the respect, support, and loyalty of the world’s jihadi organizations.

After a rough start, the Islamic State has gained traction against al Qaeda thanks to a number of developments, but its battle is far from over. Here’s a look at where the struggle for the Terrorist World Championship currently stands.

Aligned with the Islamic State

Since the beginning of this year, a small but notable number of splinter groups from al Qaeda and its affiliates have pledged their loyalty to the Islamic State, including small groups from within AQIM and the core al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. While there is evidence that these splinters are taken seriously within their respective organizations, most of the individuals associated with the splinters are relatively low in profile.

Within AQAP, a prominent cleric named Mamoun Hatem openly declared his support for the Islamic State and has continued his support since the announcement of the caliphate. A number of prominent AQAP figures on social media have also supported the Islamic State, and it is believed that a significant number of AQAP fighters also lean in that direction.

Very few establishment al Qaeda supporters and clerics have come down in favor of the Islamic State, with the notable exception of Abu Bakar Bashir, an Indonesian cleric and the spiritual leader of the former Jemaah Islamiyah, a now-defunct organization with long-standing ties to the original al Qaeda.

Bashir reportedly pledged allegiance to Baghdadi from his prison cell in Indonesia. However, his decision has split the successor group to Jemaah Islamiyah, with Bashir’s sons denouncing the defection and breaking away with some number of supporters. A number of other Indonesian jihadi and Islamist factions support the Islamic State or are internally deliberating about whether to support it.

Bashir is the biggest get for the Islamic State in terms of authoritative figures from the old school, though Hatem is probably pragmatically more important. Southeast Asia in general and Indonesia in particular have been strong centers of support for the Islamic State, with small branches declaring support (or being discovered) in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, including a pledge of loyalty from a senior member of Abu Sayyaf, a formerly al Qaeda-aligned militant organization in the region that has seen better days.

In play

Bigger coups could lie ahead. Another old-school jihadi group with ancient al Qaeda ties telegraphed its possible support for the Islamic State this weekend, with reports that the venerable Afghan militant group Hezb-e-Islami might join the Islamic State. “We know [the Islamic State], and we have links with some [of its] members. We are waiting to see if they meet the requirements for an Islamic caliphate,” a commander told the BBC, though it was unclear whether he spoke for the group’s senior leadership.

Several other groups are leaning toward the Islamic State, without having overtly declared their allegiance. The Egyptian jihadi group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) is believed to have strong ties with the Islamic State, though it has not formally pledged to the caliphate. It recently mimicked one of the Islamic State’s favorite practices, releasing a video featuring graphic decapitations of alleged Mossad spies.

The Islamic State has a significant, possibly substantial, number of supporters in Gaza, including an armed brigade and key technology operatives who support the group’s online presence and appear to directly answer to the organization’s chain of command.

Boko Haram, a hard-line jihadi group in Nigeria, recently declared that part of that country now falls under the authority of the Islamic caliphate, but the rambling statement by its leader, Abubakar Shekau, was decidedly unclear as to whether he was placing the territory under the umbrella of the Islamic State or whether he was creating his own independent caliphate. Subsequent statements will likely clarify this issue.

In Africa, Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) has been in a state of flux, rebranding a substantial part of its network as Shabab al-Tawhid. Analysis of AST members and supporters on social media shows significant sympathies for the Islamic State, as well as some operational links, but the organization has declined to endorse the declaration of the caliphate, despite direct queries from Islamic State supporters online. Its official statements have to some extent followed the lead of the official al Qaeda affiliates (see more on this below). However, there have been reports of conflicting views among the group’s membership and top leaders, and it appears the debate is still working itself out. The Islamic State counts numerous Tunisians among its foreign fighters, including some linked to AST, and authorities claim to have arrested 8,000 more who were trying to join the fight.

The closely related Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL) may have similar issues, though it is more difficult to read the tea leaves there. Libya hosts a large number of factionalized jihadi groups. In July, reports circulated that ASL had declared an Islamic emirate in Benghazi, while a group of jihadists in Derna — once a vital recruiting hub for the Islamic State’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq — pledged its loyalty to the Islamic State.

Dominating with English-speakers

One of the strongest areas of support for the Islamic State lies in English-speaking radical communities. Two of the most important English-language Muslim radical organizations have aligned with the Islamic State, including Authentic Tauheed, led by Jamaican national Abdullah Faisal, and the network formerly known as al-Muhajiroun, led by British cleric Anjem Choudary.

Faisal is best known in the United States as the spiritual leader of the defunct Revolution Muslim, an online collective of al Qaeda supporters, most of whom are now in prison. He has been a loud, active voice in radicalization for decades, with a consistent presence online via audio lectures and the Paltalk forum. Years ago, he once condemned American al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki for not being radical enough (albeit this was before Awlaki came out as a prominent member of al Qaeda). After the announcement of the caliphate in June, Faisal came out strongly in favor of the Islamic State’s caliphate, buttressing it with his “scholarship” and a series of rousing lectures.

Choudary led the radical group al-Muhajiroun, which was banned in Britain, and a series of successor organizations that were, to a greater or lesser extent, the same group under a different name. Despite this, he remains at large and functions as the Islamic State’s primary cheerleader in the Western media.

The al-Muhajiroun network, by any other name, has been one of the most important funnels of British foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, with many of them now fighting under the Islamic State banner and maintaining a robust presence on social media. Al-Muhajiroun’s co-founder, Omar Bakri Muhammad, another high-profile activist in Britain (though born in Syria), is currently in a Lebanese prison awaiting trial for supporting terrorism.

The Islamic State has other important English-speaking clerics it turns to for inspiration, including the Australian Musa Cerantonio and the American Ahmad Musa Jibril, though it is somewhat unclear to what extent their popularity among Islamic State fighters has enhanced their credibility, rather than the other way around. Cerantonio is openly affiliated with the Islamic State, whereas the Michigan-based Jibril is more circumspect, likely due to scrutiny from U.S. officials and a previous criminal record.

Aligned with al Qaeda

Despite all this activity, the Islamic State has still not managed to score an outright win over al Qaeda in its core network — the official affiliates and the most prominent jihadi scholars.

The top leaders of al Qaeda’s affiliates have sworn bayat, a religiously binding oath of fealty, to Zawahiri. While some Islamic State supporters have tried to advance arguments about when such an oath could be rendered void, it would be very difficult for these leaders to break their oaths without losing credibility and sparking questions about the durability of the oaths that their underlings have sworn to them.

The symbolic power of bayat — and the personal loyalties that accompany it — is one of the linchpins holding the global al Qaeda network together at this stage.

Bayat extends from leader to leader, not from organization to organization, so in the event that one of the leaders of the affiliates were killed or otherwise removed from play, the new leader of the affiliate would be required to make a new oath to Zawahiri and have that oath acknowledged in order to stay in the network.

Or put another way, in the event of a death at the leadership level, the organization could choose to disengage its official affiliation with al Qaeda and opt for independence or even realign with the Islamic State. This has some curious implications for counterterrorism strategy.

On Monday, Sept. 1, the United States carried out an apparent drone strike in Somalia, and at the time of this writing, unconfirmed reports suggested that the leader of a- Shabab, Ahmed Godane, may have been killed. If that proves true (a caveat: we’ve heard this before), then al-Shabab’s loyalty oath to al Qaeda would have to be rebooted, and the organization could potentially change its allegiance to the Islamic State. There is also a better-than-average chance that al-Shabab could splinter into multiple factions, given that it has already been racked by infighting.

So while the al Qaeda-affiliate infrastructure continues to endure, any number of variables could potentially upset the balance and result in very rapid changes.

With the exception of the Syrian al Qaeda branch al-Nusra Front, which is engaged in a shooting war with the Islamic State and makes no bones about its open enmity, each affiliate has issued statements since the declaration of the caliphate that have split the difference, affirming allegiance to Zawahiri, with stronger or weaker language, while noting and sometimes praising the successes of the Islamic State.

Zawahiri has also received apparently unsolicited declarations of loyalty or support from Mokhtar Belmokhtar, leader of a terrorist faction separated from AQIM in Africa, and the Caucasus Emirate, a Chechen insurgent group. These are unqualified wins for the al Qaeda leader, but they do not necessarily represent great strength, especially in regards to the Caucasus Emirate, many of whose former members now fight alongside the Islamic State. Zawahiri has not acknowledged either group as a formal part of the al Qaeda network.

Given Zawahiri’s explicit disavowal of what was then ISIS in April, the visible hedging of bets in the affiliates’ statements is notable. Between scattered news reports and analysis of each affiliate’s social media presence, it is nearly certain that the Islamic State has significant support within the ranks of each affiliate. The cautious line walked in the affiliates’ official statements likely reflects concerns that taking sides too emphatically could seriously splinter their own organizations.

Splintering is a growing concern for al Qaeda. Last week, the Pakistani Taliban experienced a very significant split, one that the New York Times described as being “galvanized” by the recent successes of the Islamic State. However, the leader of the breakaway group is believed to have strong links to al Qaeda. A spokesman for the group told the New York Times that though it holds the Islamic State in high regard, it has no plans to officially pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.

This kind of dynamic has the potential to seriously weaken the global jihadi movement, moving it from a state of (relative) cohesion into factions that increasingly compete for resources and support and maybe spend a significant time killing each other instead of attacking their ostensible enemies.

Massive splintering across the global stage is a serious and credible threat to the coherence of the al Qaeda network, but it is not a forgone conclusion. Since the declaration of the caliphate, online global financier networks supporting the Syrian jihad — which have historically leaned toward al Qaeda sympathies and serve as a sort of barometer for what its supporters are thinking — have displayed considerable hostility toward the Islamic State online, which was aggravated by the Islamic State’s recent massacre of hundreds of Sunni tribesman in Syria.

In other words, there are reasons for global jihadi supporters to hate the Islamic State other than blind loyalty to al Qaeda. Aside from its rampant brutality and its declaration that dissenting Sunni Muslims are apostates, which is shocking even to the sensibilities of hardened terrorists and their supporters, the Islamic State had largely failed to convince jihadi scholars (let alone mainstream Muslims) that its caliphate is grounded in religious legitimacy.

Whither al Qaeda?

There is one last wild card left to play out in the al Qaeda network’s continued resistance to the Islamic State’s onslaught: Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s leader, has been silent since the Islamic State declared its caliphate at the end of June.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, one of the most prominent leaders of al-Nusra Front, posted an extraordinary open letter saying that the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate had repeatedly tried to contact Zawahiri since the caliphate announcement but had received no response. In addition, the letter noted reproachfully, Zawahiri had made no public statement condemning the Islamic State’s declaration.

The letter has been underreported, in part because about every other week, a new spate of rumors crops up online that Qahtani is on the outs with al-Nusra’s top leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani. While these rumors may or may not be true, Qahtani nevertheless remains one of Nusra’s most prominent clerics, seemingly always living on to be fired another day.

Whether or not Qahtani has been cut out of the loop as far as private communications (and there is no particular reason to think he has been), Zawahiri’s public silence so far has done little to offset the growing perception that the core al Qaeda has been weakened and put off balance by the Islamic State’s dramatic military advances and its audacious religious demands.

If Zawahiri is unable to communicate with his affiliates (perhaps if he’s even dead, though there have been no reports to suggest this), it is unclear how he can control the groups that function under his name during a period of dramatic transitions.

This isn’t a new problem — there have been signs for many months that al Qaeda’s command-and-control infrastructure is inadequate to respond to several internal problems, such as last year’s internal slaughter within al-Shabab and the split of Belmokhtar from AQIM. But it is a problem dramatically heightened by the Islamic State’s bold defiance of al Qaeda and its lightning-fast communications apparatus.

For some supporters of the global jihadi movement, it must surely look like Zawahiri is cowering while Baghdadi flexes his muscles in the most public way imaginable, overtly daring the United States to come to Iraq and fight his forces. So long after the announcement of the so-called “caliphate,” it’s hard to imagine what kind of statement Zawahiri could possibly make that would project an image of strength.

Al Qaeda could arguably seek to re-establish its credibility through a major terrorist attack on the West, though between the command-and-control problem and the complicated politics of all this jihadi infighting, such a move may not be a forgone conclusion.

There is also an open question of what sort of al Qaeda might emerge post-Zawahiri. Nobody lives forever, and Zawahiri has some unique life-expectancy challenges, including both U.S. and Pakistani counterterrorism efforts. Whether Zawahiri is killed by his enemies, internal or external, or dies from natural causes, the next leader of al Qaeda is likely to have a big mess on his hands. The nature of the man who rises to meet that challenge may determine the ultimate fate of the network Osama bin Laden built.

J.M. Berger is co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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