In the wake of the territorial gains made by the Islamic State (IS) in recent months, its threat has been framed in the context of IS against the Iraqi government; IS against the Syrian government; IS against the West. These contests should not be downplayed, for their outcomes will have a massive impact on global affairs for years to come. But there is another, more subtle battle that stands to have even greater repercussions. IS is currently fighting a battle of ideology and allegiance against its older, more established cousin al-Qaeda, the outcome of which will define the not only the future of IS but the future of the global jihad and international security interests.
Ever since IS made its blitzkrieg debut in Iraq, al-Qaeda has been increasingly vocal in its opposition to IS operations. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader, has publically warned against IS’s attempts to bring al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, under IS influence. He has also expressed al-Qaeda’s more general concern regarding the overly aggressive methodology and ideological tone of IS. In recent months, this competition has taken on an international flavor. Syria, Iraq, and the surrounding region have been the most obvious areas of contention, with al-Qaeda and al-Nusra attracting the support of other regional groups like the Jordanian Salafist-jihadists, while IS ranks have swelled with new recruits. However, the competition has spread well beyond the immediate regional context. IS recently strengthened ties with extremist movements in Southeast Asia, with groups like Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fights (BIFF) pledging their allegiance to the IS cause. In the meantime, Zawahiri publically announced that he intended to extend al-Qaeda’s influence and the global jihad by starting a branch in India. IS’s meteoric rise has drawn in new recruits from all over the world, but its popularity has also led to a decline in perceived influence of al-Qaeda and has shaken the status quo of the global jihad.
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The global jihad is at a crossroads. If al-Qaeda prevails and reestablishes its authority, the dynamics of the global jihad, while still unstable, will at least maintain a familiar form. A return to the status quo with al-Qaeda will stem the flow of jihadists to IS, halting its momentum and allowing the U.S. and the international community to more effectively counter its efforts. But if IS manages to maintain its momentum and push al-Qaeda into the shadows, the size and scope of the regional conflict and the global jihad as a whole will change dramatically. Its violent methods may have been driven in part by the realization that shocking acts of brutality keep the spotlight focused on IS, and the group may ultimately moderate its methods as it becomes more established and the immediate crisis fades. However, regardless of future IS strategy, its current actions are creating momentum towards a more violent form of jihad that will be difficult to harness or reverse. There is already evidence of this as various groups have strengthened their ties to IS, simultaneously pledging their allegiance and ramping up the aggression of their operations, as in the case of the recent Algerian beheading. These instances suggest a trend towards increased violence that will continue even if IS ultimately tones down its own actions and rhetoric.
The IS call for a caliphate further adds to its appeal, for it serves as a tangible rallying point for jihadists. While al-Qaeda has made calls for a caliphate, it has never come as close as IS has in recent months in terms of established territory, funding and support. The current IS-occupied territory gives jihadists all over the world a gravitational center, a place where the idea of a caliphate feels within reach. In contrast to this unifying force, al-Qaeda has often portrayed itself as an elite and exclusive strain of jihadists. While this approach has added to its reputation and brand name, the exclusivity has limited its ability to coordinate on the scale of the current IS effort.
The Future of the Global Jihad
Al-Qaeda has previously held something of a monopoly on the global jihad, but it is currently losing the battle for influence against IS, and the implications of its decline and the parallel rise of IS are massive. The face of terrorism will change completely, and the international community is unprepared for such a change and upswing in violence and coordination. There is already clear evidence of extremist groups taking on the violent methodology of IS, but even more worrying is the potential for mass coordination towards the common cause of a caliphate. In past years, al-Qaeda has supported its various offshoots in different countries but has largely left them to handle their regional operations with a general ideological framework, rather than a clear, unifying goal. In the IS call for a caliphate, extremist groups have found a rallying point around which they can unite. The level of coordination that could develop around IS and affiliate groups would completely change the dynamics of the global war on terror, and the international community must prepare itself for a new class of jihad.
The international spotlight is focused on the skirmishes between IS and various opposing governments. This emphasis is warranted but only allows for a reactive analysis of the situation; focusing on this perspective alone will leave the West two steps behind as IS and its affiliate groups evolve faster than governments can revise their strategies. The international community needs to look at the bigger picture as IS and al-Qaeda campaign for global dominance. The outcome of that contest will shape the size and scope of IS activities in Iraq and Syria in the short term, and will define security strategies in the region for decades to come.
Schuyler Moore is a senior at Harvard University, and most recently worked as an Academic Intern for the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C.