Examining the Rivalry Between al-Qaeda and Islamic StateDecember 2, 2015 in al-Qaeda, IS, ISIS, Islamic State
The 20 November 2015 attack on a luxury hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako killed nineteen people and highlighted Mali’s ongoing security concerns. In the wake of the attack, three terrorist groups known to operate regionally claimed responsibility. Amongst them is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Many experts have indicated that the attack was partly aimed at asserting the global terror network’s relevance as it continues to face an unprecedented challenge from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group for leadership of the global jihadi movement. It came exactly a week after IS carried out several attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people in what is the bloodies attack on France in decades. That attack, which is also the deadliest to take place on the European continent in the last ten years, also marked the first time that suicide bombers were used to carry in Europe, it has also prompted the questioning of security across the European Union and the ongoing migration crisis. What is evident however is that in recent years, al-Qaeda has to a certain degree been eclipsed by the IS group and its self-styled caliphate. As IS continues to expand in Syria and Iraq, and garners further allegiance from terrorist groups operating in other regions of the world, such as Nigerian-based Boko Haram, al-Qaeda is attempting to remind the world that the movement founded by Osama bin Laden continues to pose a serious threat.
IS began as al-Qaeda in Iraq, a local affiliate that battled American troops and carried out deadly attacks which targeted the country’s Shi’ite majority. However from the beginning there were tensions between the local group, led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and al-Qaeda’s central leadership. In a 2005 letter, which was obtained and publicized by US intelligence officials, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, objected to al-Zarqawi’s brutality towards Shi’ite civilians, stating that it would turn Muslims against the group. While Al-Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006, he is seen by man as being the founder of IS, which continues to use brutal tactics.
In 2013, IS leader Abu Bakh al-Baghdadi renamed the group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and proclaimed his authority in Iraq and in neighbouring Syria. Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, rejected the move and swore allegiance to al-Zawahri, who ordered al-Baghdadi to confine his operations to Iraq. Al-Baghdadi however refused and by 2014, al-Nusra Front and IS were battling each other across northern Syria. This split was felt across the world, with al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Northern Africa remaining loyal to al-Zawahri while others choosing to pledge their allegiance to IS.
While both al-Qaeda and IS want to end Western influence in the Middle east, and want to unite Muslims under a transnational caliphate that is governed by a strict version of Islamic law, both groups are bitterly divided over tactics. Bin Laden believed that attacking the “far enemy” of the US would weaken its support for the “near enemy” of Arab autocracies and rally Muslims to overthrow them. Under al-Zawahri, local al-Qaeda affiliates have sought to exploit post-Arab Spring chaos by allying with other insurgents and tribes and by cultivating local support in places such as Syria and Yemen, where they provide social services. For bin Laden, who was killed in a US raid in Pakistan in 2011, as well as his successor al-Zawahri, the establishment of a caliphate was a vaguely defined end goal.
IS however began seizing and holding territory in Syria and Iraq and later forming affiliates across the Middle East, and into Africa. In the summer of 2014, IS declared a caliphate, and deemed the Syrian city of Raqqa as its capital. Al-Baghdadi has since claimed to be the leader of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, however an overwhelming majority have rejected his ideas and brutal tactics.