The Islamic State vs. al-Qaeda:

Strategic Dimensions of a Patricidal Conflict

December 4, 2015: The latest report on the competition between ISIS and al-Qaeda by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Jason Fritz, Nathaniel Barr, and Bridget Moreng is released by New America.


Key Findings:

The Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda are currently involved in an intense competition. Though the groups share the same end goal—the creation of a global caliphate ruled by a strict version of sharia (Islamic law)—the two groups’ strategies for attaining this goal are very different. Al-Qaeda has attempted to soften its image in recent years, particularly since the onset of revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa and has largely adhered to a Maoist revolutionary strategy, which prioritizes the development of political bases of support over the initiation of military action. As it develops this base of support, al-Qaeda also seeks to reduce its exposure to counterinsurgent forces: Thus, the group maintains a relatively low public profile, makes use of front groups with no explicit organizational connection to al-Qaeda, pursues a cautious military strategy, and adopts a gradualist, population-centric approach to religious governance.

Al-Qaeda’s deliberate approach stands in stark contrast to IS’s hyper-aggressive strategy. IS’s approach resembles the Focoist model of revolutionary warfare, which holds that the political foundation necessary for revolution can be crafted through violence. In order to distinguish itself from, and demonstrate its superiority over, al-Qaeda, IS has advertised and sometimes exaggerated its military exploits. It engages in shocking brutality, a technique that has definite risks but is also designed to foster a perception of strength and a perception that IS possesses constant momentum. By presenting itself as the more successful jihadist group, IS seeks to attract the support and allegiance of al-Qaeda affiliates, unaligned jihadist groups, and foreign fighters. Attracting this cohort of supporters will in turn allow IS to sustain its global expansion efforts, which are integral to the group’s success.

The competition between IS and al-Qaeda has fundamentally reshaped the jihadist environment globally. IS has challenged al-Qaeda’s dominance over the jihadist movement. Thus far, al-Qaeda has responded not by mimicking IS, but rather by continuing to pursue its Maoist-style strategy, and even attempting to “rebrand” by contrasting itself to IS’s over-the-top violence. Al-Qaeda has presented itself to both Sunni states and local Sunni populations as a more reasonable and controllable alternative to IS. As IS and al-Qaeda continue to pursue their divergent strategies, the future of the jihadist movement, and the security of the Middle East and North Africa, hangs in the balance.

Image by: New America