By Sophie des Beauvais
The Islamic State (IS) has recently found itself the center of international media attention, primarily because of its unexpected expansion and recent brutality toward Western journalists. IS, an organization combining elements of jihadist and Salafist teachings, is often mislabeled as a branch of Al Qaeda. However, the two organizations could not be more different from one another—both in ideology and in their quest for supremacy.
Indeed, in its early stages, IS was an offshoot of Al Qaeda. Abû Mus’ab az-Zarqâwî, a Jordanian jihadist, created the movement after the American invasion of Iraq, and in 2004 it became the official branch of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). But AQI began to diverge from its parent organization, and two years later joined the Iraqi Mujahideen Shura Council, a group of disparate jihadi factions, which granted leadership positions to Iraqis jihadists before foreign-born jihadists. Then, on October 15, 2006, the Council was disbanded after integrating another 30 Iraqi tribes and renamed the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
The founding of ISI marked the official end to the Al Qaeda-affiliation and beginning of a new era, in which the two organizations’ interests would deviate both militarily and politically. IS, which it renamed itself in June 2014, seeks to establish a universal Islamic caliphate. To accomplish this goal, it targets its closest enemies: Shias from Syria to Iran. The movement is also notably homogenous in ideology and messaging. IS believes that once it conquers territory, it must implement sharia law and begin its own rule of governance.
On the other hand, Al Qaeda’s mission is more global in scope. Since 1998, when Osama Bin Laden issued the infamous statement titled “World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders,” its main target remains the West, and the U.S. in particular. The highly heterogeneous organization has multiple independent branches, including Jabhat Al-Nusra in Syria, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) in Algeria, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The reason for the stark ideological differences between the two groups may lie in the existing generation gap. Al Qaeda’s fighters came of age and trained in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, and IS’s fighters rose to prominence after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the mid-2000s. Given their difference in historical reference points, the two groups are currently employing disparate strategies in the Middle East.
An example of these aforementioned differences can be seen in Syria, the site of multiple wars. After the Arab Spring, IS sent a small delegation to Syria, called Jabhat al-Nusra (meaning “Victory Front”). This group soon became extremely powerful and nearly an independent branch of IS. To maintain control of its Syrian branch, Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî, leader of IS since 2010, announced in April 2013 the merging of the two groups and the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Abû Muhamad al-Jûlânî, leader of the Nusra Front, rejected this decision, though he acknowledged his financial ties with IS. In June 2013, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded to Bin Laden as leader of Al Qaeda, recognized the Nusra Front as part of Al Qaeda. He also stated that the Islamic State in Iraq needed to leave Syria. al-Baghdâdî protested and his spokeperson, al-‘Adnani, affirmed that IS would not accept geographical limitations on the basis of the Sykes-Picot agreement.
IS seeks to re-establish the Abassid Caliphate (AD 750-1258)
This led Al Qaeda’ general command to publicly disown and declare a complete separation from this organization in February 2014. “ISIS is not a branch of the Qaidat al-Jihad [Al Qaeda’s official name] group. We have no organizational relationship with it, and the group is not responsible for its actions,” read the official statement.
Thus, the relations between IS and Al Qaeda are now extremely tense. In the strategic region of Deir Ezzor, the heart of the Nusra Front, IS seized control of many oil wells. And in June 2014, it took over the remaining Syrian cities previously seized by the Nusra rebels. IS has also lured several Nusra Front fighters to their cause after al-Nusra pledged allegiance to al-Zawahiri, weakening Al Qaeda’s presence in Syria.
On June 29, 2014, the same day IS adopted its new name, it issued its most provocative statement to date, stating the re-establishment of the caliphate. “The impact of this announcement will be global, as Al Qaeda affiliates and independent jihadist groups must now definitively choose to support and join the Islamic State or to oppose it,” explained Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
The Islamic State, in its fight for supremacy, hopes to put Al Qaeda in the unenviable position of accepting a caliphate led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. However, IS’s attempt to unite the Ummah (Muslim community) by demanding Muslims identify as those who believe in haqq (truth) from those who believe in batil (falsehood), creates a dilemma among jihadists worldwide: join the caliphate or risk their lives opposing it.
Sophie des Beauvais is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.