Al-Qaeda vs. ISIS: The Battle for the Soul of Jihad

Al Qaeda
Osama bin Laden, left, sits with his adviser Ayman al-Zawahiri in November 2001. The Islamic State’s rise risks Al-Qaeda’s demise. Hamid Mir/Ausaf Newspaper for Daily Dawn/Reuters

Almost overnight, the Islamic State sent its enemies reeling—and turned U.S. policy in the Middle East upside down.

As troubling as the Islamic State’s successes are for U.S. officials, there is one person for whom they are even more troubling: Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although the Al-Qaeda leader might be expected to rejoice at the emergence of a strong jihadist group that delights in beheading Americans (among other horrors), in reality the Islamic State’s rise risks Al-Qaeda’s demise.

When Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rejected Al-Qaeda’s authority and later declared a ca­liphate, he split the fractious jihadist move­ment. The two are now competing for more than the leadership of the jihadist move­ment: They are competing for its soul.

Who will emerge triumphant is not clear. But the implications of one side’s vic­tory or of continuing division are profound for the Middle East and for the United States, shaping the likely targets of the jihad­ist movement, its ability to achieve its goals and the overall stability of the Middle East. The United States can exploit this split, both to decrease the threat and to weaken the movement as a whole.

The Islamic State and Al-Qaeda fundamentally differ on whom they see as their main enemy, which strategies and tactics to use in attacking that enemy and which social issues and other concerns to emphasize.

Although the ultimate goal of Al-Qaeda is to overthrow the corrupt “apostate” regimes in the Middle East and replace them with “true” Islamic governments, Al-Qaeda’s pri­mary enemy is the United States, which it sees as the root cause of the Middle East’s problems.

The logic behind this “far enemy” strategy is based on the idea that U.S. mili­tary and economic support for corrupt dic­tators in the Middle East—such as the lead­ers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia—is what has enabled these regimes to withstand attempts to overthrow them. By targeting the United States, Al-Qaeda believes it will eventually force the United States to withdraw its sup­port for these regimes and pull out of the region altogether, thus leaving the regimes vulnerable to attack from within.

The Islamic State does not follow Al-Qa­eda’s “far enemy” strategy, preferring instead the “near enemy” strategy, albeit on a re­gional level. As such, the primary target of the Islamic State has not been the United States, but rather apostate regimes in the Arab world—namely, the Bashar Assad regime in Syria and the Haider al-Abadi regime in Iraq.

Baghdadi favors first purifying the Islamic community by at­tacking Shia and other religious minorities as well as rival jihadist groups. The Islamic State’s long list of enemies includes the Iraqi Shia, Hezbollah, the Yazidis (a Kurdish eth­no-religious minority located predominantly in Iraq), the wider Kurdish community in Iraq, the Kurds in Syria and rival opposition groups in Syria (including Jabhat al-Nusra). And (surprise!) the Jews.

Al-Qaeda considers Shia Muslims to be apostates but sees killing sprees against them as too extreme and thus detrimental to the broader jihadist project. Al-Qaeda believes that the “Muslim masses,” without whose sup­port Al-Qaeda will wither and die, do not really understand or particularly care about the doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shia, and when they see jihadists blowing up Shia mosques or slaughtering Shia civilians, all they see are Muslims kill­ing other Muslims.

In fact, Al-Qaeda believes in playing nice with other jihadists in general; the Islamic State does not. Jabhat al-Nusra, Zawahiri’s designated affiliate in Syria and the Islamic State’s rival, works with other Syrian fighters against the Assad regime and, by the low standards of the Syrian civil war, is relatively restrained in attacks on civilians—in fact, at the same time the Islamic State was making head­lines for beheading captured Americans, Jabhat al-Nusra made headlines for releasing the U.N. peacekeepers it had captured.

Having learned from Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) disaster when the population turned against it, in areas Jabhat al-Nusra controls it proselytizes rather than terrorizes to convince Muslims to embrace “true” Islam. When U.S. forces bombed Jabhat al-Nusra because of its links to Al-Qaeda, many Syrians were outraged, believing America was striking a dedicated foe of the Assad regime.

Somewhat incredibly, the Islamic State’s lesson from Iraq was that it didn’t use enough terror to ensure that the population stayed in line.

Al-Qaeda has long used a mix of strategies to achieve its objec­tives. To fight the United States, Al-Qaeda plots terrorism “spec­taculars” like 9/11 to electrify the Muslim world (and get Muslims to follow Al-Qaeda’s banner) and to convince the United States to retreat from the Muslim world.

The model is based on the U.S. withdrawals from Leba­non after Hezbollah bombed the Marine barracks and U.S. embassy there and the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia and, especially, the anti-Soviet experience.

In addition, Al-Qaeda supports insurgents that fight against U.S.-backed regimes (and U.S. forces in places like Afghanistan, where it hopes to replicate the Soviet experience). Finally, Al-Qaeda issues a flood of propa­ganda to convince Muslims that jihad is their obligation and to convince jihadists to adopt Al-Qaeda’s goals over their local ones.

The Islamic State embraces some of these goals, but even where there is agreement in principle, its approach is quite differ­ent. The Islamic State seeks to build, well, an Islamic state. So its strategy is to con­trol territory, steadily consolidating and expanding its position.

Part of this is ideo­logical: It wants to create a government where Muslims can live under Islamic law (or the Islamic State’s twisted version of it). Part of this is inspirational: by creating an Islamic state, it excites many Muslims, who then embrace the group. And part of it is basic strategy: by controlling territory it can build an army, and by using its army it can control more territory.

Al-Qaeda in theory supports a caliphate, but Zawahiri envisioned this as a long-term goal. Back in the day, although Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri supported Al-Qaeda in Iraq publicly, in private they did not approve of its declara­tion of an Islamic state in Iraq. In particu­lar, Zawahiri feared that AQI was putting the cart before the horse: you need full control over territory and popular support before proclaiming an Islamic state, not the other way around.

Indeed, Al-Qaeda has never shown much interest in taking or holding territory in order to set up an Islamic state and govern, despite the fact that doing so is one of its stated goals; on the contrary, the only reason it has ever shown interest in territory is as a safe haven and as a place to set up training camps.

The two groups’ preferred tactics reflect these strategic differences. Al-Qaeda has long favored large-scale, dramatic attacks against strategic or symbolic targets. The Islamic State evolved out of the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, and its tactics reflect this context.

The Islamic State seeks to con­quer, and thus it deploys artillery, massed forces and even tanks as it sweeps into new areas or defends existing holdings. Terror­ism, in this context, is part of revolutionary war: it is used to undermine morale in the army and police, force a sectarian backlash or otherwise create dynamics that help con­quest on the ground.


Islamic State A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, makes what would be his first public appearance at a mosque in the center of Mosul. Social Media Website via Reuters But it is an adjunct to a more conventional struggle. In territory it controls, the Islamic State uses mass executions, public beheadings, rape and symbolic crucifixion displays to terrorize the population into submission and “purify” the community, and at the same time provides basic (if minimal) ser­vices. This mix earns them some support, or at least acquiescence, from the popula­tion.

Helping the Islamic State’s meteoric rise and its ability to attract tens of thousands of young men to its ranks is its ability to use social media to disseminate its propaganda to its target demographic: angsty Muslim males roughly between the ages of 18 and 35. The leaders and members of the Islamic State are a generation younger than those of Al-Qaeda (Baghdadi is believed to be around 43 years old, whereas Zawa­hiri is 63 years old), and the genera­tion gap shows.

On September 11, 2001, at the height of Al-Qaeda’s power and influence, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube didn’t exist. The way it disseminated its propaganda, therefore, was by sending written statements and videos to news outlets such as Al Jazeera, launching big attacks guaranteed to make the international news and communicating with other jihadists in relatively obscure online forums.

For the most part, the Al-Qaeda core still mostly produces variants of the same tired old content it has been putting out since 2001—long videos featuring senior Al-Qaeda ideologues pontificating about various aspects of jihad and quoting ex­tensively from the Koran.

The Islamic State, on the other hand, came of age in the world of smart phones, hashtags and viral videos, and its recruitment tactics reflect this: the group issues propaganda in multiple languages across multiple social-media platforms, even hi­jacking hashtags like “#WorldCup2014” to get its message out.

In part because the group hasn’t had to worry about producing content safe enough to be shown on television (unlike Al-Qaeda), it is able to create much more visceral content, like the beheading videos and the short film Flames of War, which features rous­ing music, dramatic explosions and graphic, blood-soaked images of dead enemies.

Which do you think is more likely to attract the attention of an 18-year-old boy dreaming of adventure and glory: a badass video with CGI flames and explosions, or a two-hour lecture on the Koran from a gray-haired old man?

For now, the momentum is still on the Is­lamic State’s side. Unlike Al-Qaeda, it looks like a winner: triumphant in Iraq and Syria, taking on the Shia apostates and even the United States at a local level and present­ing a vision of Islamic governance that Al-Qaeda cannot match.

But this may not last. The Islamic State’s fate is tied to Iraq and Syria, and reversals on the battlefield could erode its appeal. Like its predecessor organization in Iraq, the Islamic State may also find that its brutality repels more than it attracts, diminishing its luster among po­tential supporters and making it vulnerable when the people suddenly turn against it.

The United States and its allies should try to exploit the fight between the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda and, ideally, diminish them both. The infighting goes against what either organization claims to want, and it diminishes the appeal of jihad if volunteers believe they’ll be fighting the jihadist down the block rather than the Assad regime, Americans, Shia, or other enemies. Efforts to stop foreign fighters should stress this infighting.

The Islamic State’s social media strategy is also a propa­ganda weakness: because the organization allows bottom-up efforts, it risks allow­ing the most foolish or horrific low-level member to define the group. Playing up its atrocities, especially against other Sunni Muslims, will steadily discredit the group.

Military efforts also matter tremendously. For Al-Qaeda, the constant drone campaign has diminished its core in Pakistan and made it harder for it to exercise control over the broader movement. For the Islamic State, defeat on the ground will do more to diminish its appeal than any propaganda measure. Washington should also work with regional allies to ensure cooperation on in­telligence and border security.

Only time will tell how this all ends, but in the immediate future, some degree of continued infighting between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State is the most likely outcome. The good news is that the fight within may consume much of the two groups’ at­tention; the bad news is that anti-American violence or high-profile attacks in the Mid­dle East may become more intense as each side seeks to outmatch its rival.

Yet while spikes in violence may occur, such infighting will undermine our enemies’ ability to shape regional politics, diminish both movements’ influence and discredit jihadism in general.

Daniel Byman is foreign policy editor of Lawfare and research director and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is also a professor at Georgetown University's Security Studies Program. He served as a staff member on the 9/11 Commission. His most recent book is "A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism." Jennifer Williams is a research assistant at the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. This piece is based on a longer article which first appeared in The National Interest.


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