The barbaric shooting in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando that resulted in the death of 49 people and the injury of 53 others is the latest in a string of terrorist attacks in the West. It is too early to determine whether the perpetrator, Omar Mateen, was directed or only inspired by ISIS. But the attack, which comes on the heels of the strikes in Paris and Brussels and in the wake of the group’s repeated calls for lone wolf attacks, reflects ISIS’ growing interest in expanding the battlefield to the West. A central question arising is whether these attacks also signal a transition for the self-styled caliphate to the global jihadi ideology of al Qaeda. If yes, the implication is clear: If ISIS has indeed become more like al Qaeda, then the two groups might someday cooperate and, consequently, the threat to the United States will grow. The preeminent terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman recently proposed, notwithstanding the current hostility between ISIS and al Qaeda, that unification between the two groups is eventually possible.
To be sure, Hoffman is cautious; he focuses on the groups’ relations in five years’ time rather than in the near future. He also allows for cooperation short of unification, which would take the form of an alliance or tactical cooperation. In fact, the danger of the two groups’ joining forces in 2021 is perhaps the least of the West’s worries. Until recently, scholars and pundits focused on the danger that al Qaeda would be absorbed into the more successful ISIS. But that group’s string of defeats in Palmyra, Ramadi, Sinjar, and elsewhere flips the equation. Such losses could alter the dynamics within the jihadi movement with considerable ramifications for the wars in Syria and Iraq and for the fight against terrorism in the West.
On the face of it, Hoffman’s claim is not unreasonable. After all, al Qaeda and ISIS share striking similarities: both emerge from the Salafist strand of Islam, seek to restore the caliphate, and employ indiscriminate violence against Westerners. In a previous incarnation, ISIS was even a branch of al Qaeda. Nevertheless, the likelihood of the two uniting forces remains low.
The significant differences between the two groups extend beyond the wide disparity in each one’s power. ISIS functions as a state, controlling a vast territory with millions of residents, whereas al Qaeda operates primarily as an organization with considerably fewer resources. To the extent that al Qaeda’s branches have territorial possessions, they are significantly smaller and of less strategic importance than are ISIS-controlled territories. And although ISIS has prioritized the reintroduction of the caliphate, al Qaeda views this as a step to be postponed until conditions can guarantee its survival.
In addition, after the backlash that followed the 2008 collapse of its Iraqi branch—the very branch that resurged to become ISIS—al Qaeda has sought to…