Deciphering Competition Between al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State
July 27, 2016
Abstract: Fractures between jihadist groups like al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State have ushered in periods of both destructive competition and escalating competition. Destructive competition, when terror groups attack each other, arises predominately from internal splits when terrorist factions occupy the same terrain. It can be amplified by younger extremists seeking a more violent direction than older members, the presence of foreign fighter contingents with divergent interests, and the existence of terrorist ‘Pretorian Guards’ lacking a stake in a post-conflict settlement. On the other hand, escalating competition, when terror groups attempt to outpace each other through expansive competition, occurs when competing terror organizations separate geographically and the perpetration of successful attacks leads to gains in notoriety and subsequent increases in resources. In the near term, international counterterrorism coalitions facing escalating competition from an assortment of al-Qa`ida and Islamic State affiliates might look to broker an end to the Syrian conflict and target shared sources of strength between competing groups as methods for returning competition to a destructive context.
The first month of 2014 brought what initially appeared to be a positive development. Al-Qa`ida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and its local Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra—rebuffed the previous summer by a belligerent subordinate then called the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS)—hatched efforts along with other Syrian Islamist groups to attack the defiant and ascendant Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Throughout the spring of 2014, terrorists lamented and counterterrorists rejoiced as open fighting between once-aligned jihadis brought destructive competition to the landscape, a blessing for Western countries who had no viable or palatable method to counter the rising jihadist tide in Syria.
Tides shifted again by the summer of 2014, however, when ISIS proved victorious over al-Qa`ida, making a run across the Iraqi desert and capturing town after town. In June 2014, ISIS took Mosul, declared a caliphate, and rebranded itself as the Islamic State. Within months, significant parts of the once-vaunted al-Qa`ida global terror network fractured and transformed into a more virulent form. Affiliates across the globe splintered from al-Qa`ida or arose anew, inspired by the Islamic State. Disgruntled al-Qa`ida factions in Algeria, Pakistan, and Yemen formed new Islamic State wilayat as previously al-Qa`ida-pledged affiliates Boko Haram and Ansar Beit al Maqdisi switched alliances. The appeal of Islamic State branding has mobilized allegiance or support from more than three dozen affiliates and emerging terrorist organizations stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. Today, the jihadist landscape is both larger and more diverse than at any time in world history. Initially, al-Qa`ida and Islamic State groups destructively competed. Since the declaration of a caliphate, however, competition between al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State has shifted from destructive to escalating with both groups’ franchises aggressively pursuing attacks in an attempt to one up each other. Counterterrorists now suffer the detriments rather than the benefits of al-Qa`ida and Islamic State competition, straining to keep up with the scale and pace of terrorist attacks globally.