Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts ISIS and al Qaeda Race to the Bottom

ISIS and al Qaeda Race to the Bottom

As they watched their vaunted Islamic State (also known as ISIS) lose ground to Kurdish advances over the past month, ISIS fanboys had fewer reasons to cheer or to make their way to Syria and Iraq. But then things started to change. First, in early November, a Russian airliner fell from the sky over Sinai courtesy of an ISIS bomb. Only a few days later, a twin suicide bombing rocked Hezbollah in Lebanon. Then, ISIS’ Paris attacks, an unprecedented multitarget operation, captured the media cycle for days. These events reinvigorated ISIS’ global media machine and sent a clear message to jihadists around the world: “Hurry up!”

In the days since, ISIS terrorists, caught up in a French and Belgian sweep, again detonated suicide belts in Paris. Meanwhile, terrorists loyal not to ISIS but to al Qaeda leader Aymen al-Zawahiri and opaquely connected to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) slaughtered several people at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali. And this past Sunday came the announcement of Boko Haram detonating suicide bombs in Cameroon. Boko Haram was once allegedly connected to AQIM but has since pledged loyalty to ISIS. In short, two rivals, al Qaeda and ISIS, have launched a dangerous new era of terrorist competition, which will only lead to further waves of deadly violence.


Immediately after al Qaeda and ISIS broke up in 2013, the competition between them seemed like a positive development. Their split had been nearly ten years in the making, but things reached a tipping point in August that year when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that the Islamic State of Iraq was officially becoming the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in an attempt to absorb al Qaeda’s freshest and most promising franchise in Syria. Baghdadi publicly rebuffed Zawahiri’s guidance, and foreign fighters previously committed to al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra flooded into ISIS’ ranks.

The rift escalated from bickering to war in early 2014 when Zawahiri officially revoked ISIS’ membership in al Qaeda. The loyal remnants of Jabhat al-Nusra teamed with other Islamist militias and launched attacks on ISIS in Syria. Young jihadists might have lamented online the fitna(discord) between the two groups fighting for men, weapons, and Syria’s eastern oil fields, but for those Western and Arab governments watching from the outside, few things could have been better. Even today, more than two years after the al Qaeda–ISIS split, fighters from those groups’ separate jihadist factions in Somalia continue to kill one another. If the great military author Sun-tzu were alive today, he’d most surely say, “If your enemy is killing another of your enemies, get out of the way!”

But ISIS’ continued rise since then has slowly overshadowed the positive aspects of…

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