By Mohamad Bazzi
15 June 2016
The Islamic State has displaced al-Qaeda as the dominant force in international jihadism, but the two are still competing for funding, recruits and prestige — and together pose the gravest threat to the world
In May 2011, U.S. Special Forces carried out a raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. It was a triumph for the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, but it did not mean the end of al-Qaeda.
Today, five years after bin Laden’s death, the Islamic State (IS) has, in many ways, overshadowed al-Qaeda as the world’s most serious terrorist threat. Western security officials now view IS as the greater danger to their domestic security, especially because of its mastery of social media and its ability to recruit thousands of disenchanted young Muslims into its ranks. Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey warned at a security forum last summer that the IS “is not your parents’ al-Qaeda”.
On June 12, a gunman stormed a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 50 people and wounding 53 others. During the massacre and ensuing three-hour standoff with authorities, the shooter, Omar Mateen, called police and declared his allegiance to the IS. The group claimed responsibility for the attack the next day, proclaiming Mateen “one of the soldiers of the caliphate in America”.
But U.S. officials have cautioned that even if Mateen was inspired by the IS to undertake the worst mass shooting in modern American history, there is still no evidence he had a direct link to the group — that he had been trained or instructed by its terror planners. Rather, Mateen might have heeded the call of IS leaders to carry out “lone wolf” attacks in the West, especially during the holy month of Ramzan.
Competing Terror Economies
Since 2013, IS and al-Qaeda have been competing for funding, recruits and prestige — and they often argue over tactics. ISIS leaders prefer the wholesale slaughter of civilians, as epitomised by recent attacks in Paris, Baghdad, Beirut and elsewhere.
By late 2014, the IS seized large chunks of territory in Syria and Iraq. The group then proclaimed a caliphate in the territory under its control, and named its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as caliph and “leader of Muslims everywhere”.
The IS established a regional base that has allowed it to govern territory, train thousands of fighters and generate income from illicit trade in oil and other resources — all on a scale larger than anything al-Qaeda has achieved. The IS has also established a larger recruitment effort and more sophisticated social media presence than al-Qaeda’s.
With its self-declared caliphate, the IS has gained control of more resources and generated more income than the al-Qaeda. The IS generates money by selling oil and wheat, imposing taxes on residents of the territory it controls, and through extortion.
In 2014, it raked in about $2 billion, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. That included $500 million in oil sales in the black market, and up to $1 billion in cash stolen from banks while the group made its initial march across Syria and Iraq. By contrast, the al-Qaeda has historically relied on donations from wealthy individuals, especially in the Gulf States.
Overall, IS has displaced al-Qaeda as the dominant force in international jihadism. But even in its weakened state, the al-Qaeda still poses a danger to the West, West Asia and the wider Muslim world. In recent years, it has become more active in Yemen and has established a strong affiliate in Syria, the Jabhat al-Nusra, which is a dominant force among the jihadists fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
It’s essential not to underestimate al-Qaeda’s ability to evolve and adapt to a new landscape — as it has done before. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to drive out the ruling Taliban movement that sheltered bin Laden and his supporters, the al-Qaeda was temporarily thrown off balance. It quickly regrouped, dispersing its surviving members, distributing its ideological tracts and terrorist techniques to a wider audience on the Internet, and encouraging new recruits to act autonomously under its banner.
Even while in hiding, bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, freely addressed their supporters through dozens of videos, audiotapes and Internet statements. They helped inspire hundreds of young men to carry out suicide or conventional bombings in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Spain, Turkey and Britain.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri were believed to be hiding in mountainous areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, under the protection of ethnic Pashtun tribes. They knew the area well, having fought there in the 1980s during the Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But bin Laden was found and killed in a Pakistani city about an hour’s drive north of Islamabad, the capital. After his death, Pakistan’s leaders did not address questions over how bin Laden managed to elude them for so long, and how the al-Qaeda was able to rebuild its infrastructure in the tribal region of northwest Pakistan.
Before the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden had relied on recruits trained at Afghan camps, and many had personally pledged allegiance to him. But while in hiding, he became more of a symbol and a source of ideology than a planner of specific attacks. One of bin Laden’s former bodyguards in Afghanistan once described the group’s operations to an Arabic newspaper this way: “Every element of al-Qaeda is self-activated. Whoever finds a chance to attack simply goes ahead. The decision is theirs alone.”
‘Near’ and ‘Far’ Enemies
IS and al-Qaeda differ in other important ways: the latter wants to overthrow what it views as the corrupt and “apostate” regimes of West Asia — the “near enemy”. But in order to do so, al-Qaeda’s leaders focussed on the “far enemy:” the U.S. and the West.
That focus was partly motivated by U.S. actions abroad. For decades, Washington has supported repressive regimes in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which spawned al-Qaeda’s top leaders. Both bin Laden, a Saudi, and his successor, Zawahiri, an Egyptian, at first turned against the dictators at home. Then — realising that the U.S. was helping to prop up these regimes — they targeted the “far enemy”. We will never know whether these men would have attacked America if it hadn’t supported the governments they were trying to destroy. But it did not help.
In targeting the U.S., the al-Qaeda believes it will eventually force Washington to withdraw its support for the autocratic Arab regimes and abandon West Asia entirely. But the IS does not subscribe to al-Qaeda’s vision and instead it mainly focuses on the “near enemy” — meaning the so-called apostate regimes in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Arab world. So far, IS has been more successful in its strategy, which relies on capturing and holding territory.
It was Zawahiri who convinced bin Laden to shift his attention to the “far enemy”, helping inspire the 9/11 attacks. Zawahiri fled Egypt in the early 1980s, after serving three years in prison for belonging to an outlawed militant group. He spent time in Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he first met bin Laden in 1987. At the time, bin Laden, a multimillionaire Saudi dissident, helped train and finance a cadre of “Afghan Arabs”, Islamist volunteers from across West Asia who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Those fighters later formed the foundation of bin Laden’s network.
In the late 1980s, Zawahiri established an office in Peshawar, a Pakistani city near the Afghan border that served as training ground and supply conduit for the Afghan resistance. It was in Peshawar that Zawahiri began to cement his relationship with bin Laden — and to reshape the Saudi’s thinking about militant Islam. Zawahiri helped turn bin Laden from a financial backer of the Afghan resistance into a strong believer in the ideology of jihad, fighting against the perceived enemies of Islam.
As the al-Qaeda’s influence waned, the IS has tried to fill the vacuum by expanding into new territory. In November 2014, Baghdadi announced that the IS was creating new “provinces” of its self-declared caliphate in five new countries: Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria and Egypt. While IS sympathisers had pledged allegiance to Baghdadi in other states, the IS leader singled out only those countries where the movement has a strong base of support and could mount sustained attacks.
But Baghdadi also called on his supporters to carry out “lone wolf” attacks wherever possible. “Oh soldiers of the Islamic State, erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere,” he declared. “Light the earth with fire against all dictators.” And for more than a year, IS militants have been heeding the self-proclaimed caliph’s call.
Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday.