ISIS, al-Qaeda and Why It Doesn’t Matter to Would-Be Jihadists

Demonstrators in Mosul, Iraq, carry a pro-Islamic State flag on June 16, 2014.

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Demonstrators in Mosul, Iraq, carry a pro-Islamic State flag on June 16, 2014.

Despite divergent personal and political aims, the real differences between al-Qaeda and ISIS are often irrelevant to aspiring jihadis like the Paris attackers. By Bobby Ghosh

A new narrative is emerging about the Jan 7 attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo—that it was spurred, at least in part, by a competition between two terrorist groups. The theory is that Al Qaeda instigated the attack, through its franchise in Yemen, in order to reclaim its position as terrorist top dog from the arrivistes known variously as ISIL, ISIS and the Islamic State.

But the real lesson from Paris is that the distinctions between Al Qaeda and ISIL are immaterial to self-styled jihadis.

At least one of the Kouachi brothers, gunmen in the Paris massacre, traveled to Yemen to train with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, and US officials believe the attack was ordered by the group’s high command. But Amedy Coulibaly, who carried out several other attacks in conjunction with the Kouachis, including taking hostages at a kosher supermarket, had pledged loyalty to ISIL.

If there’s a difference between Al Qaeda and ISIL, it was lost on these men. The brothers Kouachi attacked Charlie Hebdo because of its cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. Coulibaly said he was motivated by France’s role in the war against ISIL. But their allegiances and affiliations didn’t prevent them from working together, from killing together.

The two groups share a nihilistic worldview, a loathing for modernity, and for the West. They subscribe to the same perverted interpretations of Islam. Other common traits include a penchant for suicide attacks, and sophisticated exploitation of the internet and social media. Like ISIL, several Al Qaeda franchises are interested in taking and holding territory; AQAP has been much less successful at it.

The main differences between Al Qaeda and ISIL are largely political—and personal. Over the past decade, Al Qaeda has twice embraced ISIL (and its previous manifestations) as brothers-in-arms. Each time, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri has advised the Iraqi-Syrian group to restrain itself, only to be told to mind his own business. But as recently as last summer, Zawahiri was calling for reconciliation between the two groups. This time, he seems to have simply been ignored.

One bone of contention is the claim by ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, to the title of “caliph” of Islam. While Zawahiri was willing to acknowledge the so-called Islamic State as an “emirate”—an independent political entity—he has refused to recognize Baghdadi’s “caliphate.” In turn, Baghdadi doesn’t regard Zawahiri as the inheritor of Osama bin Laden’s mantle.

But further down the Al Qaeda chain of command, there’s a great deal of confusion over how ISIL should be regarded. Leaders of various Al Qaeda franchises have both congratulated ISIL for its successes in Syria and Iraq, and condemned its religious posturing.

In practical terms, the two groups are vying for common resources—and ISIL is clearly winning. Baghdadi’s recent successes on the battlefield makes his group the more attractive of the two, and young jihadi wannabes who were previously drawn to the Al Qaeda training camps in Yemen and Somalia are now much more likely to join ISIL in Syria and Iraq. Donations to the jihadi cause are much more likely to make their way into Baghdadi’s war chest than to Zawahiri.

But that doesn’t automatically mean Al Qaeda and ISIL are enemies—their differences don’t seem deep enough for government and counterterrorism agencies to exploit. While their top leaders disagree on points of order, the groups are able to coexist and occasionally cooperate. In Syria, for instance, Al Qaeda (and its affiliate, the Khorasan Group) is able to fight alongside ISIL.

Sadly, that spirit of cooperation extended to Paris last week.

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