Osama bin Laden’s original al Qaeda network and the newer, upstart Islamic State movement are competing to outperform each other in a global battle for jihadi supremacy, fueling fears that the rivalry will mean more terrorist attacks on the U.S. and its allies until one side establishes supremacy.
Like drug gangs fighting over recruits and disputed street corners, Islamic State and the al Qaeda affiliates are engaged in a tit-for-tat battle for influence and attention — most notably in Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula.
While Islamic State surges in Libya and has won a pledge of loyalty from Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — the al Qaeda branch in North Africa — has been expanding its operations against Westernized targets into new territory. The result, according to one newly released analysis of the competition, “will likely include more terrorist attacks on the West.”
AQIM claimed responsibility for an assault that killed 29 people at a luxury hotel popular with international tourists in Burkina Faso on Jan. 15. The first-ever al Qaeda attack in the tiny West African nation came just two months after the group had carried out a similar hotel strike that killed 22 people in Mali.
The West will likely be one of the chief targets as the rivalry heats up. That’s the core assessment of a new Brookings Institution analysis on the expanding rift between the two extremist Sunni Muslim terrorist organizations, whose leaders have “engaged in full-scale verbal hostilities” toward each other since mid-2014.
The Islamic State “has evolved from being an Iraq-based terrorist organization to a transnational insurgent movement,” the analysis said. “Moreover, it has definitively challenged al Qaeda’s status as the world’s preeminent Sunni jihadi organization.”
The group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, now includes “provinces” in nearly a dozen nations — the most prominent in Libya, where intelligence sources cite surges in foreign fighters streaming in to join the group.
Former CIA Director Michael J. Morell testified at a congressional hearing last month that he “would not be surprised if we woke up one morning and ISIS in Libya had grabbed a large part of Libyan territory the same kind of blitzkrieg on a smaller scale that we saw in Iraq.”
But debate is still heated over the extent to which Islamic State has actually supplanted al Qaeda on the world stage.
Some intelligence sources warn that bin Laden’s original group and its web of seasoned affiliates — including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and AQIM — could surge back into global prominence even as Islamic State’s digitally savvy appeal continues to spread among younger extremists.
Battle for influence
The analysis last week by the Brookings Doha Center found that al Qaeda is shifting increasingly away from being a clandestine global network plotting on mass-casualty attacks on the West and toward a more locally minded organization focused on holding territory that might otherwise fall to Islamic State.
“Having faced a decade of concerted international counterterrorism measures and the new and intensely competitive threat of [Islamic State], al Qaeda has adapted and refocused its strategy around localist objectives,” the analysis said. “Al Qaeda affiliates — particularly Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and [AQAP] in Yemen — are now playing a long game, focused on building alliances and growing durable and deep roots within unstable and repressed societies.”
The Associated Press reported Monday that AQAP had seized new territory in Yemen, where Islamic State also has its own burgeoning provincial operation.
And while many in Washington see Islamic State — once dismissed by President Obama as the terrorist “JV team” — as the primary terror threat at the moment, last week’s Brookings analysis suggested al Qaeda’s older generation of jihadis may have a strategic edge in the long run.
While not matching Islamic State’s expertise at propaganda and the use of social media, al Qaeda and its affiliates take care to avoid alienating local populations by embracing a far less strict posture than Islamic State when it comes to the imposition of extremist Shariah law.
Where Islamic State is obsessed with harsh Shariah and “avoids compromising its severe religious mores by intensively collecting local intelligence, strictly controlling local populations, and brutally suppressing dissent,” the analysis said, al Qaeda seeks to “durably root itself within Muslim societies and build a sustainable jihad capable of simultaneously targeting the ‘near’ and ‘far’ enemies.”
Islamic State’s high profile and momentum may be garnering global headlines, but al Qaeda’s “traditionalist trend continues to attract a steady stream of recruits around the world,” the analysis said.
It added that while Islamic State’s establishment of a “caliphate” allowed the group to claim an achievement that al Qaeda had failed for 20 years to do, the speed of Islamic State’s subsequent international expansion “makes it vulnerable.”
“Throughout much of its controlled territories, [Islamic State] has decidedly shallow roots compared to al Qaeda, which may negatively impact its capacity to retain its momentum and to define itself as a state, let alone a caliphate.”
It’s a factor than many experts say embodies the main gap in strategy between Islamic State founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Ayman al-Zawahri, who took over al Qaeda and its affiliates following the 2011 U.S. Special Forces raid that killed bin Laden.
“This is a core reason that al Qaeda’s top leaders always resisted declaring a caliphate,” said Bill Roggio, a counterterrorism expert and editor of The Long War Journal published by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“It’s the whole crux of the disagreement between ISIS and al Qaeda, whose leaders always said that the premature declaration of a caliphate was dangerous because, if it was lost quickly, it would delegitimize their overall movement,” Mr. Roggio said in a recent interview.
What follows, he added, is the “million-dollar question” of why the U.S. and its allies have been unable to destroy Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria and Iraq. “If you take away that territory,” Mr. Roggio said, “ISIS will no longer have the justification of calling itself a state, and I think you’ll see the provinces beyond Syria and Iraq wither.”
“The jihadists won’t go away, but you might see a fracturing of ISIS provinces, and elements of them will probably get absorbed back into al Qaeda,” he said.
Which is more dangerous?
One former high-level U.S. intelligence official argues that the differences between al Qaeda and Islamic State — specifically Islamic State’s relative tactical impulsiveness compared to al Qaeda — are cause for concern when assessing the kinds of terrorist attacks the newer group may be willing to pursue.
“The group operates with fewer restraints than any other terrorists we’ve encountered since 9/11,” John McLaughlin, a former deputy and acting director of the CIA, wrote in an article published last week by Ozy Media.
He argued that while al Qaeda leaders once scolded Islamic State’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, for “killing too many Muslims,” the current leaders of Islamic State seem to “have no qualms about killing Muslims.”
When it comes to the use of such unconventional warfare as chemical or nuclear weapons, Mr. McLaughlin wrote, “even terrorist groups that have sought them may have hesitated because of the certainty that using such weapons would draw sharper retaliation from the U.S. and others.”
“But [Islamic State] seems to want nothing more than to pull us into direct confrontation, on the theory that it could draw coalition blood and hasten the violent final confrontation with ‘infidels’ that its bizarre theology predicts and seeks.”
Current intelligence officials note that mass-casualty attacks carried out by al Qaeda during the late-1990s and early-2000s — a history climaxed by 9/11 — still far outweigh anything Islamic State has so far achieved in terms of terrorism on Western targets.
Some suggest that al Qaeda may be just as likely as Islamic State to pursue spectacular attacks on the West going forward.
CIA Director John Brennan said last fall that while Islamic State has established itself as “the epitome of a cancer that’s metastasizing,” it would only take one grand operation to reestablish al Qaeda’s global preeminence.
During a roundtable with reporters in September, Mr. Brennan said it was difficult to rank the two groups in terms of which presents a greater threat to U.S. national security.
“You cannot really address that question with an either/or answer,” he said. “Clearly al Qaeda, because of what it has done over the years, still represents a significant threat.”