Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the November issue of Townhall Magazine.
Since the September 11 attacks, al Qaeda has been a household name in America, one that’s been seared into the minds of the national consciousness as the country’s preeminent terrorist threat. But on the eve of September 11 this year, President Obama spoke from the White House about a new threat: the Islamic State.
Thanks to the group’s affinity for global propaganda, the world has witnessed in an unprecedented way the beheadings, crucifixions, rapes, torture, and genocide that have become hallmarks of their bloody expansion in Iraq and Syria.
By early September, the Islamic State occupied a significant portion of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, they had an estimated 20,000–31,500 battle-hardened fighters under their control across Iraq and Syria, and money derived from extortion and crime networks, hostages, oil, and donations, made them one of the richest terror groups in the world.
The Islamic State’s meteoric ascendency took many in the United States by surprise, but it is a group that, while operating under different names and in various shapes, has been in the making for more than two decades. And despite having the exact same goal as al Qaeda, namely, the reestablishment of the caliphate, they are different organizations whose relationship with each other has been fraught with enmity, distrust, and competition for quite some time.
Given IS’s current stature, and now that the groups have officially separated, many are wondering whether the Islamic State will eclipse al Qaeda as the world’s most powerful jihadi force—or if it already has.
A Grisly Path to Power
The Islamic State’s story begins with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian mastermind behind some of Iraq’s bloodiest attacks during the insurgency.
A onetime street thug, Zarqawi met Osama bin Laden in 1999 and “it was loathing at first sight,” journalist Mary Anne Weaver reported. Zarqawi’s criminal past, extreme hatred of Shias, and overbearing personality created friction and distrust from the start.
But Zarqawi wasn’t at that initial meeting to join al Qaeda—he was seek- ing assistance for setting up a wholly separate entity: a terrorist training camp in western Afghanistan.
The question over who the primary target should be was also an important divide between the two leaders. Zarqawi fell into the “near enemy” camp (Arab regimes deemed ‘un-Islamic’) and sought to overthrow apostate regimes in the Levant. While bin Laden thought efforts should be focused on the “far enemy” (the U.S. and other Western regimes). After much debate, bin Laden agreed to give Zarqawi a small amount of seed money to start the camp.
In 2001, the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan pushed Zarqawi’s network into Iraq, where he linked up with local terror groups before branching off to form his own independent organization, Jama’at al-Tawhid Wa’al-Jihad, which flourished amid the sectarian tensions that followed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Zarqawi, like Baghdadi and the rest of IS today, relished in brutality. His campaign of suicide bombings, hostage- takings, and beheadings across the country led to great notoriety, reaching a zenith with the videotaped beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg at the hands of Zarqawi himself. By this point, The Atlantic notes, Zarqawi had become a “superstar of the international “jihadi” movement.”
Despite U.S.-led efforts in mid-2004 to nab Zarqawi and his network, JTJ not only survived, but Zarqawi sought to expand the group’s operations and looked once again to al Qaeda. After months of negotiations—and years of resisting— Zarqawi pledged his allegiance to bin Laden in October of that year, turning JTJ into al Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI.
Aaron Zelin of The Washington Institute for Near Easy Policy describes the merger as a “marriage of convenience” more than anything else—one that “sowed the initial seeds of today’s conflict between the two groups.”
“The move allowed al-Zarqawi greater access to Al Qaeda’s technical and operational expertise. Most important, Al Qaeda offered Al-Zarqawi both a brand name and a larger platform from which he could draw recruits,” writes Peter Chalk, author of the “Encyclopedia of Terrorism.” All of which served the greater purpose of fomenting a sectarian civil war in the country to prevent Western powers from establishing a functioning democracy. This, in turn, would clear the way for al Qaeda and its affiliates to set up an Islamic emirate in Iraq.
And for al Qaeda, “attaching its name to Zarqawi’s activities enabled it to maintain relevance even as its core forces were destroyed [in Afghanistan] or on the run,” writes Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism fellow at the New America Foundation.
Overreach and Defeat
The ideological divide between the two leaders began to manifest on the battlefield, however. In 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then deputy head of al Qaeda and its current leader, wrote to Zarqawi warn- ing him about his excessive violence, particularly against Iraq’s majority Shia population, which al Qaeda believed would erode support for the group in the region.
“Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable— also—are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God,” Zawahiri wrote in a lengthy letter dated July 9, 2005. “[W]e are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.”
Not only did these warnings go un- heeded, Zarqawi stepped up his pursuit of sectarian war.
Things soon took a turn for the worse for the group, however. In June 2006, the organization’s leadership received a major blow when Zarqawi was killed in a targeted U.S. airstrike. And during 2006 and 2007 in the Anbar Province, where AQI was the dominant insurgent group, Sunni tribes began to fight back. Sick of AQI’s brutality and extreme Islamic agenda, they turned toward their enemy—the U.S.—for help. After teaming up with the Americans in what is famously known as the Awakening campaign, AQI’s cadre of foreign fighters were all but defeated. And as the war in Iraq began to wind down, the U.S. was careful to eliminate as much of AQI’s leadership as they could.
In light of this, private intelligence company Stratfor noted in a June 2010 report that “the militant organization’s future for success looks bleak.” Nevertheless, it continued, its “intent to establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq has not diminished.”
America Leaves, Terror Returns
By late 2011, the U.S. troop withdrawal in Iraq was complete, and a regrouped AQI, rebranded under the name the Islamic State of Iraq to represent its broader ambitions, began increasing attacks on Shia targets in an attempt to reignite conflict between the Sunni minority and former-Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government.
“Heavy-handed actions taken by Maliki to consolidate power in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal have alienated much of the Sunni minority, and ISIS has since exploited the “failed social contract,”” according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also took steps to pave the way for the group’s resurgence, such as the assassination of rivals and a yearlong campaign of prison breaks to replenish the group’s veteran manpower. He also began diversifying the group’s sources of funding to decrease dependence on al Qaeda’s central authorities.
Meanwhile, the conflict in Syria attracted the Sunni jihadists to the rebellion against the Assad regime, but the group’s expansion into the country proved to be a controversial one.
Al Qaeda No More
In April 2013, Baghdadi unilaterally declared a merger with the al Nusra Front (an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria), creating a cross-border movement by the name the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, or ISIS.
But Zawahiri, now head of “core al Qaeda,” rejected the merger and told Baghdadi that his operations must remain within Iraq.
After repeatedly disobeying Zawahiri’s orders, and after public reconciliation efforts failed, al Qaeda’s General Command issued a statement on February 2, 2014 officially expelling ISIS from their network.
And in the months that followed, the hostility between the groups became exceedingly evident. ISIS released a num- ber of statements challenging Zawahiri’s leadership and even killed a high-level member of al Qaeda shortly after the breakup.
In April 2014, the group’s spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, said, “Verily al Qaeda today has ceased to be the base of jihad, rather its leadership has become an axe supporting the destruction of the project of the Islamic State and the coming khilafa (caliphate).”
But ISIS’s most direct challenge to al Qaeda and its senior leadership would come on June 29, when, after a successful offensive against the Iraqi government, Adnani announced the reestablishment of the caliphate—“a dream,” he described, “that lives in the depths of every Muslim believer.” The group named Baghdadi as caliph and changed its name to simply the Islamic State.
The reestablishment of the caliphate is a shared goal among jihadists, al Qaeda included. But terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer explains on the Lawfare Blog that thus far, jihadis have viewed it as a sort of utopia, namely because the Islamic legal conditions are so difficult to meet in today’s international system. “In theory, the leader of a caliphate rules all Muslims and has supreme executive authority in military matters,” he writes, which is exactly what Adnani declared in the announcement when he said “the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliphate’s authority.”
Though the announcement called on factions worldwide to pledge their allegiance, none of al Qaeda’s official branches defected because they view the declaration as being premature and not having met the Sharia requirements. Moreover, even though ISIS certainly has support from grassroots sympathizers, some minor clerics, and a small number of dissidents within al Qaeda branches, prominent clerics close to al Qaeda have criticized the announcement and the Nusra Front has mocked it, calling it a Twitter Caliphate. Thus far they have failed to develop their network outside of Syria and Iraq. As J.M. Berger of Intelwire wrote in July, “it’s starting to look like that time ISIS threw a caliphate party and nobody came.”
The Islamic State, however questionably, has reestablished the caliphate, they control significant territory and resources, they’re killing ruthlessly throughout Iraq and Syria, and their ambitions at the moment are sky high.
Time magazine has crowned Baghdadi with the “world’s most dangerous man” title, Le Monde has referred to the leader as “the new bin Laden,” Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, described the organization as being “worse than al Qaeda,” and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said they’re “beyond anything we’ve seen.”
Al Qaeda, on the other hand? “For the last 10 years or more, [Zawahiri] has been holed up in the Afghanistan- Pakistan border area and hasn’t really done very much more than issue a few statements and videos,” Richard Barrett, a former counterterrorism chief with the British foreign intelligence service, told AFP in June. And Charlie Cooper, a researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, said, “al Qaeda has become increasingly irrelevant in the face of ISIS skyrocketing to the position it’s in now”—a sentiment echoed by many commentators in light of the group’s exploits this summer.
If we look at public discourse on which group is winning the war to become the jihadi superpower, it appears the wind is blowing in the Islamic State’s direction. While acknowledging that IS is currently a more formidable force than al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, believes that many commentators are overestimating the group’s strengths, while at the same time underestimating al Qaeda’s.
“They’re brilliant tacticians, but overall they have a way of making more and more enemies and more and more groups to fight constantly, which is eventually going to work against them,” he tells Townhall. Despite already fighting on multiple fronts, the fact that IS opened up a new front in Kurdistan when the Kuridsh forces weren’t even fighting them is a case in point.
The gratuitous violence employed by IS, while a strategy that’s not necessarily doomed to fail, is one that also has the potential to draw in new enemies.
“They are so radical, they’re so violent, that they run the risk of turning their more natural supportive constituencies against them,” Dr. Steven Bucci of The Heritage Foundation tells Townhall, pointing to what happened during the Awakening.
“This very brutal image, which many people think is so helpful to them, is probably only helpful insofar as they’re winning,” Gartenstein-Ross says. “Once AQI started losing, Zarqawi’s brutal image really worked against the organization.”
A More Rational Version of Jihad
Al Qaeda learned its lesson from that experience and is able to use what’s happening with IS as a way to rebrand itself as a more “rational version of jihad,” he says. The Islamic State, on the other hand, is doing everything AQI did and more.
But aside from the inherent weaknesses to being a violent non-state actor, al Qaeda is in a relatively strong position, Gartenstein-Ross argues.
Al Qaeda has a powerful international network that is very much intact and growing. In September, for example, Zawahiri announced a new affiliate on the Indian subcontinent, directly challenging the notion that they’ve become irrelevant. There’s also no compelling evidence that they’re hurting for recruits, Gartenstein-Ross says, noting that it is, after all, a clandestine organization. And the U.S. drawing down from Afghanistan presents the possibility of another safe haven emerging in the country.
Bucci also believes people are dismissing al Qaeda’s threat prematurely.
“There have been some folks that have said ISIS is like a roman candle—it’s going great guns right now but it’s gonna burn out very quickly. I think that’s overly optimistic, they could burn out quickly but they’re gonna need some help doing it, help in the negative sense. So I think al Qaeda is still a threat, it is premature to dismiss them. Even if ISIS becomes more of a threat, that doesn’t mean that al Qaeda is not a threat any longer.”
While the Islamic State’s focus has been on the ‘near enemy,’ the group has threatened the West and taunted Americans at large through social media.
Bucci believes we should not ignore their warnings against the U.S. as we did with al Qaeda before September 11.
“You don’t necessarily need a nuclear weapon or even a radiological dispersal device or something like that to do a pretty significant event here in America,” Bucci explains. “Would it be any less significant if they blow up a big bomb somewhere or if they do five Mumbai- style attacks in five different cities around America? ... It’s not that hard to do ... so I would never dismiss a group as dedicated and radical as ISIS and say they can’t do anything.”
In the near term, at least, Gartenstein-Ross says that the likelihood of a 9/11-style attack in the U.S. from the group is low, although certainly a possibility.
“Their external operations capabilities, as far as I can tell, have not been as developed as al Qaeda’s of 9/11,” he says, “and even al Qaeda would be hard- pressed to carry out another 9/11 because we’ve implemented a lot of procedures to try to prevent an attack like that.”
Al Qaeda in Wait
The reality is that al Qaeda doesn’t have to carry out a major attack on the U.S. in the near future to prove its relevancy, as many analysts and commentators have suggested. Right now, they’re sitting back watching their two enemies fight each other. Attacking America, then, would be extremely counterproductive, as it would divert the United States’ attention away from IS and onto them.
Al Qaeda wants Baghdadi dead and IS to be broken up so they can “reabsorb the parts of ISIS that could help them,” Gartenstein-Ross explains—and that’s exactly what the U.S. is attempting to do right now. “They’d like to take back the network, just as they were part of the network previously.”
No End in Sight
When Obama finally spoke to the American people about the Islamic State in September, he laid out a four-point plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group. But with tens of thousands of fighters under their wing in Iraq and Syria, and no nation willing to supply ground troops to fight them, it is clear that IS, like al Qaeda, will be with us for years to come. •