ISIS, al-Qaeda: Two enemies are better than one

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Global terror is today dominated by a two-headed monster- al-Qaeda, the original militant Sunni Islamist network, spread and divided like a terrible virus.

Despite the disarray caused by several strategic reversals over the years, the core of al-Qaeda remains a potent force.


The other powerful incarnation of terrorism arose in mid-2014 from al-Qaeda's regional franchise in Iraq; it is now infamous as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, writes, Animesh Roul, Executive Director of Research at the New Delhi-based Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict (SSPC).

In this very interesting analysis, Roul writes in the Global Intelligence that although the origin and objectives of both these outfits remain similar, sparring between them has widened the gap over ideology, space, and operational tactics.

The two now compete for global standing, new recruits, and funds to sustain them against their Western enemies. Understanding the difference between these two jihadist organizations will be essential to defeating them.

The Jihadist Hydra

Much of the jihadist worldview that al-Qaeda and ISIS hold in common can be traced to the writings and teachings of al-Qaeda's present leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Where they differ ISIS's brutal sectarian violence and bold military expansion stems from the operational influence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi during the Iraq War.

The theological and strategic differences between the two groups were known much earlier, but they did not divide until ISIS's extreme violent ideals, territorial ambition, and possible expansion into the strongholds of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Yemen forced al-Qaeda to dissociate itself from ISIS in February 2014.

The June 2014 Mosul assault demonstrated ISIS's ability to control territory and desire to establish a functional state with all aspects of military, civil, and religious governance.

By seizing and controlling huge swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and establishing its so-called caliphate, ISIS has pushed al-Qaeda from its once dominant position in the jihadist movement.

This territorial aggrandizement remains the foundation of ISIS's overarching criticism of al-Qaeda, underscoring the latter's failure to work toward the establishment of an Islamic state.

al-Qaeda has emphasized that ISIS does not have the authority to rule all Muslims, and that ISIS's declarations apply to no-one but themselves.

One cleric, who once mentored ISIS's slain spiritual leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, criticized them for their violence against fellow Muslims and advised them to "Reform, repent, and to stop killing Muslims and distorting the religion."

In September 2015, al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri released an audio message that accused ISIS's al-Baghdadi of sedition and again contended that al-Baghdadi is not the leader of all Muslims.

Nonetheless, according to the Global Terrorism Index created by the International Institute of Economics and Peace, ISIS is now the richest and most violent jihadist group in modern history, with support from more than 40 different international militant Islamist groups including the deadliest in West Africa, Boko Haram.

al-Qaeda has desperately attempted to consolidate its position with a call for grassroots radi-calization programs in Muslim majority and minority countries, but it cannot compete with the sponsorship or recruits received by ISIS.

Why two enemies are better than one?

Tough numbers are not fully known, it seems the manpower of ISIS is also much more than al-Qaeda because of the foreign volunteers enticed by its propaganda.

ISIS can be open in its recruitment methods, telling others to come to it in Iraq, whereas al-Qaeda must be more secretive.

al-Qaeda's dwindling number of foot soldiers is due not only to mass defections in regions dominated by its a liates, but also to its dependence on the slow recruiting methods of Mosques and Madrasa training.

By recruiting openly on social media, however, ISIS has been able to romanticize jihad for many disillusioned youths. Fighters and service men are pouring into Syria and Iraq to join the group.

There have been mass outcries against the gruesome methods displayed by ISIS on social media, which has largely distinguished its brand of terrorism from others.

The beheadings, burning of prisoners, and open executions that ISIS conducts have been criticized by senior al-Qaeda commanders.

al-Qaeda leaderships called these violent displays "barbaric", while empha- sizing to its followers that al-Qaeda's jihadist strategy is more sustainable and a better way to defeat the Western democracies in a long religious battle.

As noticed in the recent Mali attacks, when al-Qaeda released any hostage who could recite the Shahada (the Islamic statement of faith), al-Qaeda has become more sympathetic to fellow Muslims.

Organization has apparently mellowed from its earlier blood-lust, when it occasionally targeted other Muslims along sectarian lines.

ISIS, however, shows no remorse in killing Muslims and doesn't tolerate dissent or desertions among its ranks. Though both groups consider Shia Muslims to be apostates, al-Qaeda has criticized ISIS's targeting of Shia and other sects of Muslims as too extreme.

Despite the conflicts between the two organizations, there is also the threat of a future strategic convergence between ISIS and al-Qaeda against a common foe.

Significant progress by Western forces might unite the two. The main schism between al-Qaeda and ISIS is rivalry over control of Syria; there is risk that they could resolve this amicably in order to face a larger and stronger common enemy.

Successes by the newly created anti-terrorism coalition of 34 Muslim nations led by Saudi Arabia, however, might not have the same effect.

If it were to strategically target ISIS exclusively, it could encourage al-Qaeda to distance itself further.

ISIS has already declared war against Saudi Arabia following the formation of the latter's coalition. The next major indicator of the relationship between the two jihadist organizations will be whether al-Qaeda, which has long been accused of being hand in glove with Saudi agencies in the Yemen civil war, will ultimately stand with or against ISIS in the ongoing ideological and military battle in the Muslim world.

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