Is there competition between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS)?
Yes there is, but it is neither absolute nor so consequential by now. The Islamic State in Iraq’s April 2013 decision to expand to Syria/the Levant took Al Qaeda by surprise. Just as he was not able to take the Al Qaeda project forward after Osama Bin Laden’s death, Ayman al Dhawahiri has failed to address the issues raised by the gradual independence and, in time, the full break by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization. In reacting indecisively – he initially called for a cancellation of the ISIS project twice in May and November 2013 and dispatched a failed mediation in January 2014 – al Dhawahiri opened the way for Al Baghdadi to up the ante and make a full run for the leadership of the global Islamist movement. This was embodied forcefully in the June 2014 dual statement about the birth of the Islamic State and the claim to the Caliphate. From that point onwards, Al Qaeda and ISIS were formally on competitive tracks, with in effect the original group playing catch up. Al Qaeda is also able to push back a bit more operationally through the association with its local representative, Jabhat Al Nusra, in Syria. Two caveats are, however, in order. Firstly, these two groups share a common history with what is today ISIS having been between October 2004 and January 2006, Al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq (Al Qaeda in Iraq, AQI). Secondly, self-limitations are to some extent imposed on both sides as Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musab al Zarqawi, AQI’s leader, are key founding figures shared by both groups. Ultimately, though, Al Qaeda is slowly ending and ISIS is fast rising.
The Islamic State used indeed to be Al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch but they gradually drifted apart. Eventually, Al Qaeda decided to cut all ties with its affiliate in February 2014. Is ISIS now trying to compete with Al Qaeda by taking inspiration from its methods, or has it developed a whole new strategy?
The rupture with Al Qaeda is itself the result not merely of familiar group competition or ‘turf wars’ but of a deeper shift in strategy. Part of this is historical – the waxing and waning of irredentist armed militancy – and part of it is behavioral. For all the talk about Al Qaeda being a thing of the past and having been displaced by ISIS, we must remember that Al Qaeda’s twenty years saga, since 1989, was naturally coming to a slowdown, if not an end by the late 2000s. With Bin Laden’s death and Dhawahiri’s inability to take the project forward, as noted, the Al Qaeda story was slowly closing. This in effect opened a window for any group willing and able to fill that vacuum to do so. It took an Al Qaeda franchise to do it with al Baghdadi in Iraq positioning himself in that regard forcefully and indeed quite opportunistically. The key decision on his part was to capitalize on the post-2011 strife in Syria to both expend his domain of operation – the Islamic State in Iraq was now folding the Levant in its envisioned jurisdiction – and to gain added military experience. The result, two years later, was a reborn entity that is eminently hybrid, part Al Qaeda, part Iraqi, part Syrian, and part global fighters. ISIS is therefore able – most efficiently – to pursue and deepen Al Qaeda’s transnational mode of force projection while focusing on a territorial center of gravity it controls between Mosul and Raqqa.
Are there ideological differences between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State?
It essentially depends on the level at which one is considering these ideological commonalities and differences. Religiously, they are both Sunni neo-Salafist radical Islamist groups. Ideologically per se, Al Qaeda was an eminently transnational entity focused on displacement of its war onto ‘the far enemy’ (the US in its case) and dealing secondarily with the ‘near enemy’ (local Arab authoritarian regimes). ISIS, for its part, works in the opposite direction. It starts off as a local Iraqi story, builds up momentum with the Syrian issue, and moves then to the global chessboard, inviting not so much ‘franchises’ as Al Qaeda did but rather ‘provinces’ (Wilayas). Finally, politically, Al Qaeda was a post-Cold War and post-globalization development representing the entry of political Islam on the global level. ISIS is a post-modern story-in-the-making, only partly related to Islamism and indeed the Middle East. There is a larger dimension at play in the case of ISIS which connects with the violence projected from (2003 invasion of Iraq, etc…) and back to the Western metropolis.
While Osama bin Laden cultivated his image as Al Qaeda leader by starring in many propaganda videos, ISIS head Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi is particularly discreet and prefers to relay messages through written or audio releases. Does it mean that the cult of the leader’s personality is less important in the Islamic State?
I believe it is the other way around. Bin Laden was notoriously modest and his messages constituted strategic communications, seldom concerned with his persona. He meant to send political messages, often thematically identified. Al Baghdadi, on the other hand, makes an entrance in July of 2014 to announce that he is ‘Caliph Ibrahim’, and goes on to explain that he is reluctantly accepting this responsibility… The absence of video messages over the past few months – he last released an audio message on May 15 – is due, in my view, to security considerations. We can certainly expect another video in the next phase.
What is the relationship between the current leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi?
Strained, competitive, and most probably irreconcilable. Al Baghdadi has conducted a coup on al Dhawahiri. They are also of different generations, have experienced different battlefields (Afghanistan 1980s vs. Iraq 2000s), and harken back to different social backgrounds; a bourgeois surgeon from Cairo, on the one hand, and a working class religion student from Samarra, on the other. Everything conspires to keep them estranged from one another.
Al Qaeda and the Islamic State seem to have engaged in a violent battle for influence. Do you think a turnaround is conceivable? If so, could the two organizations be allied again?
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks in January 2015, there was a lot of conjecture about that. Terrorist ‘experts’ and journalists always like to indulge instant theories. As it is, however, we have not seen any tangible evidence of such potential partnership. The issue arose because Cherif Kouachi declared to the French news channel BFM that he had been sent by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and financed by its then-leader Anwar al Awlaqi; while Amedy Coulibaly stated in his video message that he was affiliated with the Islamic State. Yet Kouachi’s alleged AQAP connections go back to an earlier, pre-ISIS phase, and with al Awlaqi now dead too, and Coulibaly’s statement is more akin to a pledge of allegiance than a revelation of operational links. Beyond this undecided episode, the relationship is very much one of competition in the Levant and in the Gulf. An alliance, however, cannot of course be fully discounted and remains always a possibility.