More than 80, and possibly up to 120, people died Monday in ISIS attacks on regime-controlled territory near Russian bases in Syria. And new reports show that earlier in the month, ISIS took out Russian helicopters working out of a base in central Syria. But Russia and the Syrian regime are hardly ISIS’ only foes. ISIS is engaged in a deadly conflict with al-Qaida in Syria and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Al-Qaida itself sees the threat from the ascendant Islamic State as so serious—and its own position in its base in Pakistan so weak—that it is reportedly moving senior leaders to Syria and considering emulating the Islamic State by establishing its own emirate there.
Understanding the importance, extent, and duration of this rivalry is vital for combating terrorism in the future. Because as dangerous as the groups are separately, it’s frightening to think of what they could accomplish if they were to unite, and the possibility is not as far-fetched as it seems.
Even though they have different aims—with al-Qaida focused more on attacking the United States while ISIS seeks to consolidate and expand its state—the movement as a whole is bound by numerous personal ties, often based on shared fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other fronts. Many of the individuals involved, particularly outside the Iraq and Syria core, see themselves as brothers-in-arms and are not eager to choose sides. Not to mention that both sides are reaching for the same funding sources and recruits, giving them an incentive to pursue similar paths.
Some of the world’s leading terrorism scholars, such as my colleague Bruce Hoffman, argue that a merger may be coming. Hoffman correctly warns that al-Qaida has repeatedly, and wrongly, been counted out many times in the past. And he emphasizes that the ideological similarities between al-Qaida and ISIS are far greater than the differences, unsurprising considering one is an offshoot of the other. Although I agree that the two movements may come together at some point, their differences are profound and a real challenge to any unity.
Divisions have always plagued the modern jihadist movement. Rival jihadists probably were behind the 1989 assassination of Abdullah Azzam, the Pied iper of the Afghan Arab movement, and other jihadists tried to kill Osama Bin Laden himself during his time in Sudan. Al-Qaida emerged as a splinter movement from the broader Arab-Afghan cause, and it often had difficulty working with, let alone controlling, fellow jihadists.
During the late 1990s and the aftermath of 9/11, al-Qaida managed to unite many strands of the modern jihadist movement. It often had access to considerable funding and controlled access to training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even groups that did not share its vision wanted money and to improve the proficiency of their members. That control enabled al-Qaida to direct recruits to their preferred clients, enabling a like-minded group within a country to become stronger and to proselytize when they were there, bringing groups together around a shared vision. Also, Bin Laden’s philosophy and personality were unusual. He was a charismatic yet humble man who did not demand adulation but inspired those around him: an ideal combination for unifying a movement filled with strong and zealous personalities. And, of course, the attacks on the United States gave the group considerable prestige that brought in even more recruits and more funding. Finally, after 9/11, U.S. and allied counterterrorism efforts, which understandably lumped various strands of the jihadist movement together given their many shared goals and training, drove the external apparatus (especially those located in Afghanistan and Pakistan) together for self-preservation.
Al-Qaida itself is now on the defensive, and many—but not all—of these factors have diminished. Al-Qaida probably still has training camps in the Pakistan/Afghanistan area, but Pakistani military efforts and the drone campaign make these a shadow of what the group had established in the pre–9/11 era. Similarly, its access to funding and recruits are both diminished. Ayman al-Zawahiri lacks Bin Laden’s charisma and conciliatory personality, and under his charge the group’s overall prestige has diminished: The core’s operational accomplishments in the last five years are close to nil.
Beyond this decline, the split is based on fundamental differences in ideology and strategy. Although both al-Qaida and the Islamic State share a basic long-term vision of a world governed under Islamic law, they differ dramatically on priorities. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State prioritize building a state and subsume most other goals before that. Zawahiri, in contrast, still prioritizes “the far enemy” and is leery of establishing a state before conditions are ripe, though the popularity of ISIS’ state is leading al-Qaida to reconsider. In areas where it rules, al-Qaida guides its affiliates like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Jabhat al-Nusra to treat minorities well, at least compared to ISIS, and in general be a friend of the people: The Islamic State emphasizes religious purity and the use of terror to impose its will. Al-Qaida and ISIS differ on whether to emphasize the war on the Shiites and how much to cooperate with non-jihadist groups. Finally, some in the Islamic State embrace apocalypticism, which al-Qaida views with disdain.
In the short-term, however, many jihadists—particularly those not attached to established groups that have declared loyalty to one side or another—are likely to work together or go from one group to another depending on which is more prestigious. The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, for example, primarily involved gunmen linked to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, but Amedy Coulibaly—who pledged loyalty to the Islamic State—did simultaneous attacks and was in contact with the core group of shooters. In November in San Bernadino, California, the two perpetrators were radicalized by AQAP ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki and only over time shifted their loyalty to ISIS.
Right now, though, ISIS appears ascendant despite significant recent setbacks on recruiting, and continued al-Qaida inaction combined with possible Islamic State advances could foster crippling defections and a loss of funding for al-Qaida. The death of Zawahiri, who has no obvious successor, would make this even more likely. Conversely, successes by affiliates such as AQAP or al-Nusra might restore the balance between the two groups. Whether unity or division is in the future’s cards, the movement as a whole remains strong—and dangerous.