Iraq's ISIS Is Eclipsing Al-Qaeda, Especially With Young Jihadists

A new study from Brookings creates a snapshot of the network and how supporters use it. Reuters

The biggest threat to Al-Qaeda may now be its erstwhile allies. In fact, the extremist group that has long been the international symbol of jihadist terrorism faces a growing risk of irrelevance, and that poses new dangers to the West.

The strongest evidence of this comes from a recent declaration by a Sunni fundamentalist group in Iraq that it was founding a global Islamic state and naming its own leader as the supreme religious and political ruler of the new sovereign nation. In recognition of its decision, the group—previously called Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS)—also announced that it was changing its name to the more grandiose "Islamic State" (IS).

The pronouncement that IS is forming what is known as a caliphate may seem inconsequential to some in the West—a bit of hubris perhaps, or maybe a public relations move by a savvy extremist group looking to raise its prominence on the international stage. It is anything but. "The challenge is direct to Al-Qaeda," says Richard Barrett, who for nine years headed the United Nations Monitoring Team concerning Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and who is now a senior vice president of the Soufan Group, a strategic intelligence firm. "[IS leaders] have thrown the glove down. They are saying Al-Qaeda should swear allegiance to them, and that they are obeying God."

The declaration of a caliphate hearkens back to a simpler, romanticized time that links directly to the prophet Muhammad. The first caliphate was led by Muhammad's immediate followers to perpetuate the religious disciplines and rules he had established. From then on, the subsequent leaders of the caliphate—known as the caliph—have each been deemed the successor to Muhammad as the political, military, spiritual and administrative leader of all Muslims.

Islam flourished in the time of the caliphates. Muslims became leaders in disciplines like math, science and the arts. Islamic mathematicians, in turn, significantly influenced the development of science in Europe. But after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who would go on to be the first president of Turkey, officially abolished the caliphate. What followed were decades of corrupt and inept governments throughout the Middle East that attempted—with limited success—to advance national pride over Islamic unity. But rampant inequality and a rickety commitment to law by these governments contributed to the growth of radical Islam, with jihadists seeing the formation of a new caliphate as one of their ultimate goals.

Thus, the declaration by IS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, of a new caliphate is a direct appeal to Muslims, urging them to return the Middle East to its prominence during the medieval era. Toward that end, IS has demanded that all Islamic groups be disbanded and their leaders pledge allegiance to Baghdadi.

While it may seem odd that a relatively small group of jihadists can independently proclaim themselves to be the leaders of all Muslims worldwide, the move falls within the allowable ways a caliph can be chosen. Under the historical rules, if there is no caliph, someone can seize control of land, offer services to Muslims and then declare himself caliph if he agrees to abide by his responsibilities under Islam.

Still, IS's edict is audacious. As recently as early 2011, ISIS was a floundering jihadist group, whose seven-year focus on overthrowing the Iraqi government had seen little success. Then, that summer, Syria exploded in violence and the then-struggling ISIS joined in the heavy fighting, along the way winning weapons, money and recruits. Its greater radicalization, coupled with increased experience and firepower, helped it to launch an offensive in Iraq in recent weeks. These two battles—in Syria and in Iraq—have propelled the group to the top of the jihadist hierarchy, outshining Al-Qaeda among fundamentalists.

A greater interest in IS among extremists also stems from generational change. The brutal attacks of 9/11 were almost 13 years ago; many of the jihadist fighters on the front lines now were children then. They have grown up seeing Al-Qaeda on the defensive, with few successes of its own, while ISIS has stunned the world with its victories in Syria and Iraq. "To younger potential supporters, [Al-Qaeda] is increasingly seen as the scolding grandfather of terrorist groups, while IS, with its grandiose if temporary successes and slick online presence is most certainly not your grandfather's terrorist group," says an analytical report released July 3 by Soufan. "[Al-Qaeda] is less and less a part of the global terrorism conversation."

And, with the caliphate declaration, the nature of that conversation is changing as well. The jihadist philosophies of Al-Qaeda and IS are almost diametrically opposed: the older group formed by Osama bin Laden focused primarily on attacking the West in hopes of luring America and its allies into a war that would end with those countries pulling out of the Middle East. But, by waging its battles against established Middle Eastern governments, IS is killing Muslims.

For that reason, analysts say, if IS continues to gain credibility through future military successes, Al-Qaeda will be driven toward launching a new attack against the West to establish its continued relevance to younger jihadists. Indeed, the pressure to prove relevance could cause the group to abandon its traditional path of buttoning down all details of an attack over many years in hopes of ensuring success, and instead gamble on a more risky strike with a higher potential for failure.

"If [Al-Qaeda] could do something in the near term, they will do something in the near term," says Barrett. "They would see making a demonstration in the West as an excellent thing for them to do, and I am sure that is something they are talking about doing, even if it is something that gets botched."