Al-Qaeda’s Looming Operational Comeback: Why al-Qaeda is Still More Dangerous Than the Islamic State

The Islamic State is currently the hot topic in regards to global terrorism, surpassing the infamous al-Qaida, and for good reason. Al-Qaeda has been slowly diminishing in power, and the death of key leaders, including such notable personalities such as Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, as a result of United States drone strikes and special operations raids, have been a huge factor towards this. Also adding to the overshadowing of al-Qaeda is the fact that the Islamic State’s brand of violence is sensational and captures violence in a way that al-Qaeda hasn’t. While al-Qaeda has conducted its fair share of gruesome and public executions (mostly through recorded beheadings), the Islamic State has done that and much more. The violence of the Islamic State crosses boundaries, literally and figuratively. However, this status is temporary. Al-Qaeda is set to make a comeback once the Islamic State fails, and indeed the Islamic State’s failure is inevitable, leaving its legacy and existence short lived. Territory that was previously gained is now being lost at a steady pace, and the groups funding is becoming more and more difficult to find. The Islamic State’s recent and sudden rise to fame came very quickly, setting upon the global stage seemingly out of nowhere. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, has been operational for almost 30 years, and its fame and notoriety was brought about through literally decades of determination and commitment. The very nature of the group as a whole has enables al-Qaeda to remain formidable, and because of this, al-Qaeda will again become the most dangerous international terrorist organization in the coming years.

First, it is necessary to acknowledge the histories of the two organizations and their relationship with each other. Al-Qaeda has its origins in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Osama bin Laden was one of many Salafist Jihadists who traveled to Afghanistan in order to fight with the Mujahedeen, a loosely organized affiliation of Jihadists all wishing to fight the Soviet invaders and the Soviet-supported Afghanistan government. Learning from his experiences from fighting with the Mujahedeen, bin Laden sought to permanently change the way Jihad was fought.

By targeting the Western nations that continue to prop up the corrupt or un-Islamic governments throughout the Middle East, the “Far Enemy” (as bin Laden referred to them) would eventually lose interest in meddling with Middle Eastern affairs and withdraw their support from the governments there. The “apostate” governments that plagued Muslims throughout the world would inevitably fall, paving the way for another great Islamic Empire and a new political order, akin to the global political environment of the 7th century. His answer on how to make this happen was the creation of a small, elite force of Jihadist fighters who would conduct the necessary attacks that would help topple these governments. In 1988, bin Laden gathered his followers from the Mujahedeen and created al-Qaeda, which literally translates to “the base,” referring to their Salafist ideological desire to return the Muslim world to a political order based on what they view as Islam’s fundamental roots. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that bin Laden refocused al-Qaeda to start conducting attacks solely against Western targets.

The Islamic State has its origins as a Jordanian militant jihadist organization by the name of Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, or JTJ. The group was founded in 1999 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who later focused the group’s attention to Iraq after the U.S invasion in 2003. Zarqawi, already an associate of bin Laden from their time together in Afghanistan, eventually pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and officially changed the group’s name to al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI. This new partnership allowed al-Qaeda to more effectively organize and conduct attacks as part of the growing insurgency in Iraq.

It wasn’t long, however, before friction between the two groups began to arise, despite Zarqawi’s pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. Severe ideological differences and conflicts began to plague the relationship soon after the alliance was formed. Bin Laden wished for Zarqawi to focus solely on attacking government and Western targets in Iraq, particularly the United States. However, Zarqawi insisted on creating a massive sectarian conflict in Iraq by targeting “apostate” Shia Muslims as well. While not completely counter to his own ideology, bin Laden thought that this tactic was counterproductive to the more immediate goals of the organization and would eventually lead to a drop in popular support.

In January 2006, Zarqawi initiated the merger between AQI and another large insurgent faction, the Mujahedeen Shura Council, which was itself a collection of various Sunni militias. The merger greatly increased AQI’s capabilities and manpower, but also made the group an even larger target. The following June, Zarqawi was killed by a U.S airstrike. The previous leader of the Mujahedeen Shura Council, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and an Egyptian born al-Qaida veteran, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, both took over as the new leaders of AQI and renamed the organization the Islamic State of Iraq, or ISI. When they were both killed in the same U.S ground operation in April 2010, a prominent yet reserved jihadist named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over, taking on the daunting (and increasingly dangerous) role of keeping the group functional and focused despite huge setbacks. Soon after the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, ISI expanded operations into Syria as well, changing the name of the organization once more into the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, with al-Baghdadi declaring himself the Caliph, the sole authority of Islam on earth. It was in this expansion that Al-Baghdadi’s leadership conflicts within al-Qaeda reached a climax. Al-Zawahiri, the successor to bin Laden, cut all ties with ISIS after al-Baghdadi refused to disband the organization and fall in line behind the al-Nusra Front, the primary al-Qaeda organization operating in Syria. In response, al-Baghdadi declared al-Nusra as yet one more enemy to be fought.

Aside from ideological disparities, operational differences also played a role in the rift between the two organizations. Al-Qaeda remains focused on targeting the Far Enemy and striving for collective unity amongst jihadist groups, hoping that this will lead to the eventual collapse of corrupt apostate regimes. The Islamic State, on the other hand, views itself as a leader among other jihadist organizations and seeks to obtain actual territorial ground and exert influence organically while directly targeting apostate regimes on the battlefield.

This involves not only a more conventional kind of warfare, but also extremely sensational violence to set itself apart from other jihadist groups. Shia Muslims, Yazidi’s, Christians, and other ethnic and religious minorities were all victims (and still are) of this new approach, suffering a brutal genocide that plagued any territory under ISIS control. Multitudes of Iraqi government workers were executed. Thousands of captured Iraqi soldiers were blindfolded, marched to a field, and massacred all at once. Suspected homosexuals were forced to leap off of multiple story buildings. Women were shot in the street without hesitation for suspected prostitution, or even for merely wearing red, and were tortured for breastfeeding in public. Minority women, when they weren’t killed with their families, were sold into sex slavery. Children were crucified for taking pictures or having phones. A captured Jordanian pilot was locked in a cage and set on fire. All of these atrocious incidents and more are confirmation of the truly outstanding sensational violence that distinguishes ISIS from other like-minded groups. Even al-Qaida, a group which infamously conducted the single most sensational act of terrorist violence the world has ever witnessed on September 11th, 2001, were put off by these practices and admonished them for being too extreme.

Aside from the Middle East, the Islamic State has been able to successfully conduct attacks throughout Europe. The multiple deadly attacks in France and Belgium illustrate the Islamic State’s goal of also targeting the Far Enemy. However, there is a key distinction to be made here. Al-Qaeda’s reasoning for targeting the West is ultimately more political than the motivations for the Islamic State. While al-Qaeda attacks the U.S and Europe in order to convince the West to stop attacking Islam and meddling in Middle Eastern affairs, the Islamic State’s motivations are more religious in nature and are actually meant to provoke the West into persecuting and attacking Muslims, which they believe will create the conditions necessary to bring about the prophesized apocalypse. Regardless, both motivations and strategies rely on only a small number of operational cells and radicalized lone wolves.

Attempting to wage a conventional war means that the Islamic State must be able to capture and hold territory, as well as maintain a continuous source of funding. Although the Islamic State has the ability to directly tax residents in its territory and have its own oil trade thanks to its seizure of strategic oil fields, these sources of funding hinge on the Islamic State’s ability to hold territory for a prolonged period of time. So when land or cities are lost, so is funding. And with the exception of early successes, the Islamic State is quickly losing its grip on important territory. Pressure from the U.S-led coalition airstrikes and special operations actions, as well as the gaining momentum and successes of the Iraqi Army and Kurdish forces, are slowly dwindling the Islamic State’s control. As territory continues to be lost and resources run dry, the Islamic State will have to revert back to unconventional warfare. Members will go underground, blend back into society, and continue to plot deadly terrorist attacks. Recent trends show that this is already beginning to happen.

Since al-Qaeda is already operating in the underground realm in many of the same regions as the Islamic State, it is able to take advantage of an already established and effective operational flow, which itself is boosted by the decreased competition due to the Islamic State’s decline. To fund its operations, al-Qaeda relies primarily on international donors, ransoms, charity scams, and other miscellaneous financial crimes. While this may not add up to much, al-Qaeda’s decentralized nature actually limits the fallback from this, as many al-Qaeda cells depend on personal relationships and other forms of self-funding. As Islamic State fighters continue to face both operational and financial defeats, many of them will eventually gravitate towards al-Qaeda and take advantage of its willingness to work with other groups, involving themselves in these underground networks. Over time, they will eventually commit and defect back towards al-Qaeda.

Not only that, but al-Qaeda is doing more to win the “hearts and minds” of the Muslim population. This is best exemplified by the drastically different approaches the two organizations have taken in operations across the Middle East. When the Islamic State was destroying ancient Syrian temples and smashing timeless pieces of art, the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front opened up a “Relief Department,” helping to provide food, healthcare, and even children’s playgrounds to the Syrian people affected by the civil war. When al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, acquired an additional $100 million through a bank robbery in Yemen, they used the money to improve the infrastructure and eliminate taxes for the Yemeni citizens living under their control.

Al-Qaeda could have very easily invested that money to fund a large sensational attack, as the Islamic State has done, but instead used it to improve the lives of Muslims. Al-Qaeda recognizes the value of winning the hearts and minds of people who may be wary of giving support to an overt terrorist organization. The Islamic State, on the other hand, is largely in the practice of mass executing those who do not immediately pledge support and allegiance to their self-proclaimed Caliph.

Despite recent operational hindrances, al-Qaeda strives on and remains determined to conduct attacks around the globe, and is seeing some successes. Operations in the Arabian Peninsula are ongoing and successful. AQAP has successfully been exploiting the current conflict in Yemen with little to no resistance, while also continuing to build public support as a legitimate source of governance in an otherwise unstable country.

Operations in Syria are steadfast, despite constant engagement with multiple formidable opponents including the Islamic State, the Syrian Government, various Syrian rebel groups, Iranian-backed militias, and Russian and American airstrikes. The al-Nusra Front has displayed excellent organization as well as operational and logistical prowess at a level that the Islamic State fails to match, and exhibited the ability to attract support and cooperation from groups who do not necessarily agree with its ideology.

In Africa, new surges in recruitment and a violent wave of attacks in Libya and Tunisia show an increase in capabilities and gaining momentum in the region. Al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliated organizations, such as al-Shabaab, are conducting a steady stream of attacks on government officials throughout other parts of Africa, particularly in Somalia and Kenya. Competition with Islamic State affiliated organizations, such as Boko Haram, is existent but dwindling as the Islamic State loses its ability to send support to such factions. Al-Qaeda has even begun to exhibit limited cooperation and pooling of resources with Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, further increasing their own capabilities.

Al-Qaeda’s structure and strategy has always been decentralized, especially since 9/11. This poses operational challenges, but the group has been able to overcome them despite leadership failures. It also serves as a strength, and helps the group maintain longevity. Unlike the Islamic State, al-Qaeda has never attempted to claim an exclusive authority on global Jihad, but rather seeks to act as a unifier of jihadist groups towards a common goal. Some of these groups, like AQAP or AQI, currently use or have used the “al-Qaeda” brand name. Others, such as al-Shabaab, do not, and were even instructed by bin Laden not to adopt the name, as an attempt to avert Western attention.

Another example of this is when al-Zawahiri sanctioned Jabhat al-Nusra’s official split from al-Qaeda as part of a deliberate global strategy. Operationally, this split did nothing. The relationship still exists and al-Qaeda still functionally acts as a supporter to Jabhat al-Nusra, which has recently rebranded itself and changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. This was done purposefully as an attempt to thwart international attention since it is no longer “officially” linked to al-Qaeda.

However, because of the rebranding, other small groups that are fighting the Syrian government may now be more willing to create pacts and align themselves with the group. This complements the already existing attitude among these Syrian groups that the al-Qaeda affiliated organization is much more inclusive, cooperative, and easier to work with than the Islamic State. This speaks towards the heart of and truly exemplifies al-Qaeda’s broad global strategy: unify jihadists everywhere in order to effectively dismantle the apostate regimes. The Islamic State’s more forceful and conquering strategy is starkly different.

As ISIS falters and loses credibility as the mantle of global Jihad, al-Qaeda will jump at the opportunity to reap any benefits to be had. Financiers, foreign fighters, and radicalized recruits will begin to turn their attention towards al-Qaeda once more. Al-Zawahiri certainly isn’t as charismatic or adept a leader as bin Laden, but the decentralized nature of the organization limits any direct fallout from this. Al-Qaeda has essentially transformed itself into a series of loosely organized movements fighting under the al-Qaeda name. And because of the broad disposition of al-Qaeda’s ideology, nearly every independent movement is able to align itself with al-Qaeda very easily.

The United States and its allies have mostly focused efforts on the Islamic State, and while they maybe haven’t completely ignored al-Qaeda as a threat, it certainly seems that way. While this is understandable, it’s also a mistake. Al-Qaeda has benefited from the distracted attention generated by the obnoxious activities of the Islamic State. The Islamic State certainly remains a critical threat to stability in the Middle East and U.S interests abroad, but it is al-Qaeda that remains the greater danger against the United States homeland. Their determination to strike at the Far Enemy, their willingness to pool resources and cooperate with other terrorist groups, and their projected growing capability to do so, puts al-Qaeda in a prime position to strike.

The Islamic State is indeed an extremely violent organization and remains a serious threat to global security, and deadly attacks in France, Belgium, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere are testament to its determination to wage Jihad despite setbacks on its home front in Iraq and Syria. However, the future of the Islamic State looks bleak. The Islamic State is extremely intolerant of other jihadist groups if their ideology differs in any measure, and seeks to be the sole authority of Jihad, and therefore sees themselves as the only legitimate Jihadist group. Not only is this very polarizing (you are either part of the Islamic State or you are their enemy), but it eliminates the possibility of forging important alliances. This is crucial if they wish to grow and make significant expansions outside of the Middle East (and even so within the Middle East). If the momentum from the U.S-led coalition and the Iraqi Army holds, the Islamic State will continue to lose territory, popular support, resources, and manpower. Without any allies to turn to, the more moderate-leaning Islamic State fighters and leaders will take what resources they have left and eventually find their way back towards al-Qaeda and its affiliates (specifically Jabhat Fatah al-Sham), creating an even stronger and more robust al-Qaeda organization.

Al-Qaeda has been operational for almost 30 years, despite fighting two separate and prolonged wars against two different superpowers and their allies across the globe, as well as major leadership deaths and failures. As an organization, al-Qaeda isn’t going anywhere, and only seeks to benefit from the dismantling of the Islamic State. Its continued determination to strike at the Far Enemy makes this expectation even more concerning.