On its lightning-fast advance through Iraq, the radical jihadi group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city; Tikrit, Saddam Hussain’s birth city; and many other towns along the way. Now, with help from former Baathists and Sunni tribal forces, the group is making its way toward Baghdad. ISIS’ astonishing success could be a harbinger of a tectonic shift within the jihadi movement. Namely, ISIS could supplant al Qaeda as the movement’s leader.
This showdown has been several years in the making. The friction between the two groups goes back years. But the relationship did not reach a breaking point until April 2013, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, expanded his group into Syria and attempted to subordinate the local al Qaeda branch, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), to his own authority. JN rejected Baghdadi’s leadership, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s chief, tried to calm the dispute by announcing that JN would remain responsible for jihad in the Syrian arena and ISIS would keep to Iraq. ISIS refused to accept Zawahiri’s decision and continued its expansion into Syria. Along the way, it trampled other Syrian rebel groups, including radical Islamists. Soon, ISIS’ overreach provoked a backlash, and opposing rebel groups mounted a counteroffensive. For its part, JN eventually sided with the anti-ISIS forces. By February 2014, the rift between ISIS and the Syrian opposition had led Zawahiri to disown the group.
The differences between ISIS, on the one side, and al Qaeda and JN, on the other, are not merely about power and control of the jihadi movement. As important as these aspects are, the groups have serious differences when it comes to strategy, tactics, and Islamic authority. They differ on issues such as the implementation of harsh Islamist laws, the killing of Shia civilians, and the right of one group to impose its authority over all others. The groups don’t disagree about the legitimacy of all of these things, but al Qaeda is more patient and ISIS is generally more radical and uncompromising. For that reason, its traipse through Iraq represents a serious organizational, strategic, and ideological blow to al Qaeda.
ISIS’ display of power will likely strengthen its hand over al Qaeda in Syria and beyond. First, the military successes brought the group substantial spoils: ISIS looted bank deposits worth close to $500 million, captured large quantities of military equipment, and liberated hundreds of fighters from prisons in territory now under its control. All of that will prove very useful in Iraq and in Syria. As money and manpower breed success, success will breed more success. ISIS’ popularity will likely rise among radicals, and that will translate into more funding and volunteers for the group. ISIS could rapidly mobilize those forces along the vanishing border between Iraq and Syria, which it now increasingly controls, and launch even more ambitious campaigns while it fends off attacks in Syria.
Second, beyond raising ISIS’ profile, the terrorist group’s march through Iraq also diminishes al Qaeda’s. Al Qaeda’s greatest achievement was the 9/11 attacks, but that was 13 years ago. Many of today’s jihadis were young children at that time. Moreover, the attack on the United States was only supposed to be a means to an end: the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. Al Qaeda franchises did manage to gain (and then lose) some territory in Yemen, Somalia, and northern Mali. But these territories are smaller in size and significance than what al Qaeda wanted -- and what ISIS controls today. Although al Qaeda may have started the march toward the reestablishment of the Caliphate, it is ISIS that seems to be realizing it.
Third, success breeds legitimacy. For the past year, al Qaeda’s main tactic against ISIS has been to try to delegitimize the movement. And, until now, al Qaeda’s strategy had been moderately successful. Popular jihadi scholars, such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini, released messages of support for al Qaeda and strongly denounced ISIS -- which turned some would-be adherents away from the upstart. ISIS was able to muddle through the delegitimization campaign by hanging on to the support of some young and popular jihadi scholars. And, even before the surprise in Iraq, the trend in the jihadi movement had been toward the decentralization of religious authority; social media offers a platform for nearly any charismatic jihadi to gain a following. At the same time, moreover, young jihadis have increasingly come to view the old guard -- often identified with al Qaeda -- as disconnected from reality. They give more respect to warriors than to religious scholars. All that plays to ISIS’ favor, especially now that it has real victories under its belt. It can use those as evidence that it has been right all along and that its ways are truthful. Zawahiri’s criticisms, delivered from his hiding place in Pakistan, are weak in comparison.