In theory anywrought, it may seem like aQ and ISIS should be hip and haunch on their drive to change the ME.
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?
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 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.
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.
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.