Leading the Salafi-Jihadi Movement

The ongoing competition between al Qaeda and ISIS to lead the global Salafi-jihadi movement is primarily an ideological battle. Al Qaeda and ISIS leaders wage a war of words against each other‚ accusing the other of misleading followers and advocating a heretical interpretation of Islam.

Al Qaeda and ISIS each seek to be the Salafi-jihadi vanguard. Al Qaeda held this position uncontested since the group’s founding in 1989 until ISIS erupted onto the global stage in June 2014.106 Al Qaeda’s dominance over the movement stemmed from Osama bin Laden’s vision to use his organization to unify the global jihad and al Qaeda’s ability to conduct and publicize mass-casualty attacks against the US and Europe. It gained name recognition through these attacks and prestige through its ability to provide local groups with outsized resources. Al Qaeda operatives advised‚ assisted‚ and helped resource the efforts of local Islamist groups in the 1990s and into the early 2000s. Al Qaeda attack cells complemented the local groups by focusing on the external enemy: the West. Bin Laden’s later public recognition of regional al Qaeda groups—the affiliates—expanded the al Qaeda brand name‚ and these groups‚ among them ISIS’s predecessor‚ replicated the efforts of the original group in Afghanistan-Pakistan.107 ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi contested this position when he declared the Caliphate and demonstrated success on the ground.108

The Salafi-jihadi ideology serves as strategic doctrine for al Qaeda and ISIS alike. Having such a strategic doctrine creates resilience to leadership changes in the groups and a continuity of efforts over time. A motif that reappears in Salafi-jihadi thought is the line of mujahideen that stretches from the Prophet Mohammed’s time to the Last Day: Individuals may be felled‚ but another mujahid will rise in place to continue the fight.109 The Salafi-jihadi belief that the original spread of Islam is an allegory for how to proceed today generates the phased strategy signature to the movement. Conditions mandate the forward movement through these strategic phases. Al Qaeda believes that the conditions are such that the movement is in the Medina phase‚ as defined previously.110 ISIS believes the conditions are more advanced than al Qaeda. It declared the Caliphate as the last phase (Mecca II) before the coming Day of Judgment.111

Both al Qaeda and ISIS are manifestations of a Salafi-jihadi insurgency. Terrorism is one weapon in their arsenals‚ but neither group defines its objectives as simply killing Americans or other Westerners. Instead‚ al Qaeda and ISIS combine terrorism with guerrilla tactics‚ low-end conventional military capabilities‚ and population-centric campaigns to contest the state or other armed opposition group and to expand their support bases. They sustain nested campaigns in pursuit of the Salafi-jihadi movement’s objectives. Al Qaeda works with local groups112 to unify their efforts whereas ISIS works to subsume these groups into its organization. They both seek to galvanize and lead an insurgency that overthrows the international state system and establishes an Islamic caliphate first across Muslim lands‚ but eventually the world.

Minor ideological differences‚ refined by the interpretation of previous experiences‚ lead to the visible differences in how al Qaeda and ISIS implement their strategies.113 A pivotal point of reference is the Anbar Awakening in Iraq in 2006.114 Al Qaeda took the defeat of its Iraqi affiliate in Anbar as a sign that the group must cultivate popular support. The group that would become ISIS decided instead that the group had not been dogmatic enough in its actions.

This divergence in interpretation is apparent in action. First‚ al Qaeda and ISIS disagree over whether participation in current democratic systems to effect change is a sin. Al Qaeda has cultivated Salafi political parties in order to promote da’wa (proselytizing) and to identify a pool of would-be recruits from the broader movement for its elite organization.115 ISIS rejects any political participation as being supportive of a heretical government. Second‚ they differ over whether violent jihad is required over da’wa. Al Qaeda thus relies primarily on religious figures and organizations to spread its message within a population whereas ISIS uses military conquest. Finally‚ they answer the question of who is a Muslim and therefore‚ whose blood is licit‚ differently. Al Qaeda holds that Shi’a could in most cases be excused for theological errors and that Sunni Muslims must be taught true Islam‚ like children‚ before being judged for their actions.116 Al Qaeda leadership instructs local leaders to enforce shari’a gradually‚ as happened under the Prophet Mohammed. ISIS‚ on the other hand‚ holds that anyone who does not believe in and follow its strict interpretation of Islam is infidel and can—and in some cases must—be killed.

The question of which group’s strategy—and therefore its ideology—is correct remains unanswered today. The argument may seem petty‚ but both ISIS and al Qaeda seek to consolidate leadership over the global movement. Al Qaeda reacted to ISIS declaring the Caliphate with a long diatribe against ISIS for not consulting with others to generate consensus in advance‚117 attacking ISIS’s credentials because the idea of consensus within the umma is a powerful one in Islam.118 ISIS‚ in turn‚ dedicated energy to responding in full to the accusation.119 Such examples abound. The groups are advocating to the members of the Salafi-jihadi movement that their theo-ideology is the true religion Allah revealed to the Prophet Mohammed.

For Sunni‚ success on the ground is indicative of Allah’s favor shown to those on the true path. Al Qaeda’s focus on popular support laid the foundation for a strong base going into the Arab Spring. The group recovered from the initial setback of popular‚secular uprisings in the Arab world by co-opting many of those movements and expanding its popular base. Al Qaeda’s losses have since proven to be temporary‚ and its affiliates in Syria‚ Yemen‚ Somalia‚ and Mali have all grown stronger. For ISIS‚ the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 set the stage for a resurgence.120 It exploited the increasingly sectarian environment under Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki‚ and its declaration of a Caliphate was far ahead of al Qaeda. The Salafi-jihadi movement will interpret the defeat or weakening of either al Qaeda or ISIS as a divine mandate in support of the other and consolidate under it as the vanguard force.

Two global organizations vying for leadership has not weakened the Salafi-jihadi movement. The shifting of resources and allegiances among groups and organizations has had no inherent effect. Salafi-jihadi groups aligned with al Qaeda before 2014 because it was a bid for access to al Qaeda’s resources or its brand-name recognition. Such affiliation with al Qaeda did not necessarily mean that the groups were part of the al Qaeda organization itself‚ although they often became part of al Qaeda’s broader network. Al Qaeda’s success served as an attractor within the global movement. ISIS’s rise introduced a second pole to which groups gravitated. The rapid realignment of groups with ISIS did not weaken al Qaeda organizationally. None of the al Qaeda affiliates defected‚ nor did any close al Qaeda associates flip to ISIS.121 Rather‚ groups’ new adherence to ISIS was largely a bid for access to ISIS’s coffers and to tap into the media surge surrounding the organization. Over time‚ ISIS has cultivated branches within the Salafi-jihadi base‚ which established ISIS’s presence in the Muslim world and developed a parallel network to the one al Qaeda had built.122 The result has been a net positive for the Salafi-jihadi movement.

The different approaches of al Qaeda and ISIS have fortified and added resilience to the Salafi-jihadi movement. Both al Qaeda and ISIS sustain and are expanding their networks within the Muslim world. They have attracted new recruits‚ and the fight for Syria outshines both Iraq in the 2000s and Afghanistan in the 1980s. Syria is the new melting pot for the mujahideen. Foreign fighters flowed to Syria‚ a fight in Muslim lands that began with virtually no foreign troops on the ground‚ at historic rates‚ far surpassing the numbers that responded to the presence of US troops in conflicts. There is also unprecedented recruitment from the West. Al Qaeda continues releases of propaganda material intended to inspire what it calls “open source jihad”123 and to draw recruits to fight in Syria. The continued flow of fighters to join al Qaeda in Syria shows that al Qaeda retains an extensive recruiting network in the West. ISIS weaponized social media platforms as both a recruitment tool and a means of directing a dispersed network of would-be “soldiers of the Caliphate.”124 It continues to adapt in the cyber world to build a virtual caliphate. ISIS has also claimed or is credited with an unprecedented number of attacks from individuals who chose to fight in place rather than travel for jihad.125 ISIS’s attack campaigns targeted seams in the population— sectarian seams in Iraq and Syria and power politics in Libya—such that it helped to polarize the population. Such polarization aided the Salafi-jihadi movement by drawing lines around the enemy. Al Qaeda‚ near forgotten as Western and regional military resources shifted to counter ISIS‚ met less resistance to its local operations and continued to expand. Focusing on the strength of individual groups and not on the movement has repeatedly misguided US policy formation. The rise and fall of ISIS in local communities— facilitated in part by US counterterrorism policies— may well strengthen al Qaeda. ISIS subsumes weak or broken local governance structures by force and rapidly introduces its state components. The local population therefore rarely recognizes the ISIS government and authorities as legitimate. The popular rejection of ISIS brands the movement as fundamentally foreign to the locality. Al Qaeda’s persistent localization into the community—its willingness to coordinate local representative shura councils and co-optation of existing governance structures—binds it more closely to the community. In some cases‚ such as in Derna‚ Libya‚ al Qaeda&nash;linked groups helped oust ISIS and were welcomed as the more “moderate” force.126 Al Qaeda’s acceptance by local populations as an alternative to ISIS and as a local partner is a significant win for the Salafi-jihadi movement as it moves from isolation into societies.

Al Qaeda is likely to emerge as the vanguard force for the Salafi-jihadi movement again. Estimates of al Qaeda’s weakness rest on its displayed military strength.127 ISIS fields a terrorist army‚ and its barbaric domination of populations displays brute strength. Measuring by force‚ ISIS is stronger‚ even after sustained military operations against the group. Measuring by popular support‚ al Qaeda wins. This popular support is what al Qaeda’s leaders‚ particularly Ayman al Zawahiri‚ have courted and sought to capture. And they have done so in such a way that it will be difficult to break the bonds. Al Qaeda in Yemen‚ Mali‚ and elsewhere married into the populations‚ capturing familial loyalties that complicate the question of extricating al Qaeda from society. It has taken a softer approach to coercing populations‚ modulating its message and actions based on the local context. Al Qaeda’s intertwining with the Sunni population and societal building blocks from local governance structures to the family makes it more enduring than ISIS’s top-down approach.

Citation 106

For more on the al Qaeda and ISIS competition‚ see Katherine Zimmerman‚ “Competing Jihad: The Islamic State and al Qaeda‚” American Enterprise Institute‚ Critical Threats Project‚ September 1‚ 2014.

Citation 107

For more on how the al Qaeda network operates‚ see Zimmerman‚ “The al Qaeda Network.”

Citation 108

Charles Caris‚ “The Islamic State Announces Caliphate‚” Institute for the Study of War‚ June 30‚ 2014.

Citation 109

Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah‚ currently held in Guantanamo Bay‚ told one of his interrogators that he is a single mujahid in a long line of mujahideen. See the public event: American Enterprise Institute‚ “Inside the Islamist Terrorist’s Mind: A Conversation with Former CIA Interrogator James Mitchell‚” December 6‚ 2016.

An al Qaeda statement released after the death of Osama bin Laden also carried forward this idea. Al Qaeda General Command wrote that bin Laden died “along an established path followed by the best of those who came before him and those who will come after him.” Steven Nelson‚ “Al Qaeda Vows Revenge for Osama bin Laden’s Death‚” Daily Caller‚ May 6‚ 2011.

Citation 110

Mary Habeck‚ in her forthcoming book on al Qaeda’s strategy‚ further breaks out the phased strategy into six phases: Mecca‚ Hijra‚ Medina‚ Badr‚ Haybiyya‚ and Fath Mecca. Al Qaeda’s most advanced phase is in Syria‚ where it is in the Badr phase (overt shari’a courts‚ building an army‚ and administering territory).

Citation 111

According to Habeck’s breakdown‚ ISIS would be in the Fath Mecca phase. Its leadership is openly discussing the coming of the apocalypse. See Graeme Wood‚ “What ISIS Really Wants‚” Atlantic‚ March 2015.

Citation 112

Al Qaeda’s most fertile ground for coordination is within the Salafi-jihadi movement‚ but it works with political Islamist and even secular groups in order to achieve its ends.

Citation 113

For background‚ see Mary Habeck‚ Knowing the Enemy and “Assessing the ISIS–al-Qaeda Split‚” Insite Blog on Terrorism and Extremism‚ June 18‚ 2014.

Citation 114

Conclusions drawn from discussions since 2014 with Frederick Kagan‚ Kimberly Kagan‚ and Jessica Lewis McFate.

Citation 115

Al Qaeda senior leaders encouraged the establishment of Salafi political parties in order to shape the political environment and serve as a vetting service for new recruits. The al Rashad Union in Yemen is linked to AQAP. Abdulwahhab Muhammed Abdulrahman al Humayqani‚ its secretary-general‚ is a US-designated member of AQAP. US Department of the Treasury‚ “Treasury Designates Al-Qa’ida Supporters in Qatar and Yemen‚” press release‚ December 18‚ 2013.

Citation 116

The analogy to children repeatedly surfaces in al Qaeda leadership statements. The movement also identifies the slow revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet Mohammed as a reason to move slowly toward implementing shari’a. Al Qaeda does hold that it is permissible to kill certain groups within the Sunni. These groups broadly include members of the government‚ military‚ or security services. The local leadership delineates carefully between “civilian” Sunni and enemy Sunni. An example is al Qaeda in Yemen‚ where Yemeni soldiers were conscripts until the recent civil war; therefore‚ it was not permissible to execute captured soldiers before giving them a chance to repent. Al Qaeda removed the requirement of offering soldiers a chance to repent in fall 2016‚ when military membership was on a volunteer basis.

Citation 117

SITE Intelligence Group‚ “AQIM Argues IS’ ‘Caliphate’ Lacks Shariah Requirements for Establishment‚” December 30‚ 2014. See also SITE Intelligence Group‚ “AQIM Rejects IS’ Declared Caliphate‚ Calls Jihadi Leaders to Rectify Issues‚” July 14‚ 2014. Both are available by subscription at http://www.siteintelgroup.com/.

Citation 118

Consensus‚ ijma’‚ is an important concept within Islam and Islamic jurisprudence‚ known as fiqh. The emphasis on consensus comes from a hadith in which the Prophet Mohammed was reported to have said: “My community (umma) will never agree on an error.” The Oxford Dictionary of Islam‚ s.v. “Ijma.”

Citation 119

See for example‚ the late ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al Adnani clearly stating that the Caliphate is here and will remain in a speech on March 12‚ 2015 or ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s speech on May 14‚ 2015. SITE Intelligence Group‚ “IS Spokesman Threatens Enemy to Convert or Be Subjugated‚ Accepts Boko Haram’s Pledge of Allegiance‚” March 12‚ 2015; and SITE Intelligence Group‚ “IS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Addresses Muslims in New Speech‚” May 14‚ 2015. Both are available by subscription at http:// www.siteintelgroup.com/.

Citation 120

Jessica Lewis McFate‚ “Al-Qaeda in Iraq Resurgent‚” Institute for the Study of War‚ September 10‚ 2013.

Citation 121

A possible exception is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)‚ which split in mid-2015 with a significant faction declaring support for ISIS. The IMU-ISIS faction joined ISIS Wilayat Khorasan in Afghanistan and lost to the Taliban in Zabul province. The IMU-ISIS faction contests Taliban control in Jowzjan province. Under a year after the IMU’s announcement of its support for ISIS‚ a new faction redeclared its allegiance to al Qaeda. For more‚ see Caitlin Forrest and Richard DeKold‚ “Warning Update: The Expansion of ISIS in Northwestern Afghanistan‚” Institute for the Study of War‚ February 22‚ 2017; and Bill Roggio and Caleb Weiss‚ “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan Faction Emerges After Group’s Collapse‚” Long War Journal‚ June 14‚ 2016.

For more on group proximity to al Qaeda‚ see Zimmerman‚ “The al Qaeda Network.”

Citation 122

ISIS’s ability to prosecute a global campaign is evidence of its network. See Jennifer Cafarella and Melissa Pavlik‚ “ISIS’s Global Campaign Remains Intact‚” Institute for the Study of War‚ June 14‚ 2017.

Citation 123

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s English-language Inspire magazine‚ launched in July 2010‚ includes a section dedicated to “open source jihad.” AQAP includes how-to manuals from making basic bombs to using everyday objects‚ like large trucks‚ as weapons in this section. See Katherine Zimmerman‚ “Expanding the Campaign of Violence: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s EnglishLanguage Magazine‚” American Enterprise Institute‚ Critical Threats Project‚ July 13‚ 201‚.

Citation 124

ISIS describes individuals who conduct an attack in the name of the Islamic State as “soldiers of the Caliphate‚” distinguishing these attacks from those claimed by ISIS branches.

Citation 125

It is difficult to assess the true number of ISIS-inspired attacks. Many individuals claim their attacks in the name of ISIS today‚ and local security services sometimes credit the attack to ISIS without clear evidence. Individuals may affiliate with ISIS as a way to tap into the global ISIS network‚ which immediately celebrates their attack and recognizes their action. Individuals who were not directed or enabled by al Qaeda used to claim attacks in al Qaeda’s name in order to draw media attention. The distinction‚ however‚ between an individual being radicalized by al Qaeda or by ISIS is one that is useful in understanding the overall influence of each organization‚ but does not matter when looking at the strength of the global Salafi-jihadi movement.

Citation 126

This phenomenon is seen in the places such as Derna‚ Libya‚ where al Qaeda’s presence is more acceptable to the population as compared with that of ISIS because of ISIS’s more extreme actions.

Citation 127

See‚ for example‚ Aaron Y. Zelin‚ “The War Between ISIS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement‚” Washington Institute for Near East Policy‚ June 2014.