Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Should the West fear a joint threat?

Two months ago, all media and journals in Europe reported an alarming announcement: the two major jihadist groups Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levent, better known as Islamic State (IS), would have joined their forces to fight the western civilization on the cry of “we will kill together ”.

The news was launched by Aymen Al Din, earlier member of Al-Qaeda and today part of the British secret service.  On 3 April 2015, he related to the Arabic daily Al Hayat that Ayman al-Zawahiri, head of Al-Qaeda, would have decided to dissolve the organization established by its predecessor Bin Laden by the end of the year.

Al Din declared to have talked with some militants of Ahrar al Sham (one of numerous jihadist factions in Syria) which have met several members of Al-Nursa (Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate) according to whom al-Zawahiri will allow its supporters to break ties with Al-Qaeda and join other jihadist movements including the IS. Broadcasts and newspapers indicate the Vatican State, symbol of Christianity, as the main target of the merging coalition. This new menace raises the alert level for terrorism, already high after the happenings of Charlie Ebdo in Paris, of Bardo Museum in Tunis and the tragedy of Garissa in Kenya where the Somali jihadist group Al-Shabab killed 148 Christian students.

Therefore, should Europe fear a joint threat? Is it possible to imagine Al-Qaeda and the IS in a coalition despite last years tensions?

Actually, the two movements have collaborated for a long time. Bear in mind that the IS has arisen as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, later named Islamic State of Iraq. Bin Laden supported the new group also in Syria where the Islamic State intervened in 2012 against the President Bassar al-Asad and conquered the capital Raqqa changing the name in Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Daesh in Arabic.  This friendship is certainly based on several  elements they have in common.

The Islamic State and Al-Qaeda are indeed both Sunni jihadist groups. They pursue same aims: first of all the elimination of Western influence in the Muslim world; the union of Ummah (Arab world meaning “nation” or “people group”, used to refer to the community of Islamic people) under a caliph, spiritual head and ruler of the Islamicstate; and finally the removal of all regimes and groups that do not share a radical interpretation of Islam and not recognize Shari’a (Islamic law) supremacy.

Both organizations have arisen from wars. Al-Qaeda was born from the Mujahidin mobilization against the Soviets during Russian invasion in Afghanistan (1989); there Osama Bin Laden founded the group as a support to the Kabul regime. The IS was instead established by al-Zarkawi after U.S. intervention in the Sunni regions of Iraq Anbar, Ninive e Kirkut (2003) to fight against the Americans and the Shiite government the U.S. were sustaining. Just like Al-Qaeda, the IS uses violence as a mean of propaganda and acquired a universal dimension. Their purposes overcome national boarders as well as their force, which often relies on the recruitment of foreign fighters, mostly coming from Islamic countries.

However, the relationship between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State changed since the switch in the IS leadership in 2010. The new leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi soon became a  reason for tensions. For instance, he denied al-Zawahiri’s request to leave Iraq to Al-Nursa, focalizing the IS action in Syria, and the IS attitude against moderate Sunni Muslim was not shared by the leader of Al- Qaeda. But the last straw was al-Baghdadi’s proclamation of the caliphate on 29 June 2014.

The latter represents an important element of disagreement. While Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph after the conquests in Syria and Iraq, Bin Laden, though striving the establishment of a caliphate, considered it as a final step of a consolidation path (tamkin) aimed to earlier obtain the unity of the Islamic world. The war against the enemy – the West and in particular the United States – was Al-Qaeda priority. Jihadists’ assumption of the power comes later. Moreover, Talibans recognize political and religious powers as separated since they already have a spiritual guide, Mullah Omar.

Since 2010, differences between the two jihadist groups became deeper and today, or at least up to al-Din announcement, Al-Qaeda and the IS appear faraway and even in competition.

For instance, the two groups have a different relation with the territory. As its denomination highlights, the Islamic State rules on a clear region composed by areas of Syria, Iraq and more recently of Libya. In this “state”, the population is exposed to fiscal control and to the authority of the caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who exercises a political, administrative and military role. On the other side, Al-Qaeda never had a specific territory. Afghanistan was the base of the Taliban regime during the dictatorship at Kabul, but Bin Laden never had a political role.

Another difference between the IS and Al-Qaeda relies on military organization and tactics. Whereas the Islamic State depends on a regular army hierarchically administrated, the Taliban group is portioned in numerous and autonomous cells. Al-Baghdadi aims to a direct conquer of land in order to enlarge the caliphate, no guerrilla warfare are implemented. Al-Qaeda instead uses to fight its enemy through irregular terrorist attacks as the one of 9/11.

Finally, the IS propaganda goes up with time. They use social networks and high quality videos finalized to fighters’ recruitment, built with music and a narrative logic. Protagonists of these scenes are enemies, fighters and European jihadists.  Al-Baghdadinever appears. Al-Qaeda’s image instead takes back to Bin Laden, usually recorded in a cave with a Kalashnikov in his hands.

Al-Qaeda and the IS’s different visions and approaches are also reflected by the web magazines they produce. Inspire, published by the Al-Qaeda branch in the Arabic Peninsula seems to ignore the existence of the new caliph and concentrate its attention in the dar al-harb (war territories) and mainly in the United States where lone mujahidin are expected to learn how to built a bomb and how to use it in order to scatter the western public opinion. Dabiq, magazine of IS, is instead a direct call for all Muslim to reach the caliphate and fight for its defence and enlargement; it provides the political, religious and economic basis to legitimize the Islamic State.

Undoubtedly, during the last years, the world attention on Al-Qaeda decreased whereas the IS raised to the international scenario.

The war on terrorism after 9/11 undermined Al-Qaeda’s operative, logistics and training capacities and the group lost the capability to launch sophisticated attacks. Al-Zawahiri does not have the same charisma of his predecessor and the centralization of the group broke up. Al-Qaeda’s influence remains mostly ideological and symbolic.

On the other hand, the Islamic State continues to spread not only in Syria and Iraq as the recent conquest of the city of Ramadi demonstrates, but also in Libya where the jihadists represent a third character in addition to the two governments of al- Tobruk and Tripoli, as well as in Nigeria, Egypt, Yemen, and Sudan.

The IS’s success and its propaganda have already attracted many factions, which were formely under the guide of Al-Qaeda and who declared loyalty to the caliph. Hence al-Zawahiri’s decision to dissolve the organization could be ascribed to a “surrender” vis-à-vis al-Baghdadi power.

Nevertheless a series of facts seem to reject this thesis. The Afghan Taliban published a new biography of Mullah Omar (out of the scene since 2001 and probably hidden in Pakistan). It was launched in the occasion of the 19th anniversary of his leadership and ensures the spiritual guide is alive, it plugs his engagement in jihadist activities and his charisma. According to Ahmad Sayedi, a Taliban expert, the objective of this publication is to contrast IS influence.

Ashton Carter, the United States Secretary of Defence, has recently stated that in Yemen, Al-Qaeda is still very powerful and it is engaged in the fight against the Houthis (zaydi group), which control the capital Sana’a. Nasir Al Wuhayshi, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula –AQAP- in more than an occasion declared Al-Qaeda has no intention to join the Islamic State. At the end of April, a call for jihad merged from Tunisia. In a message, Abu Obeida Youssef al-Amabi head of the “Council of dignitaries” stated that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – AQMI  “will continue to fight and the government will fall under the flag of jihad.”

Moreover, information like AQAP claimed Paris attack in January and the most recent raid against an Al-Qaeda network in Italy show Al-Qaeda is active and still represent a threat to Europe.

In regards to the hypothesis of a coalition between al-Zawahiri and al-Baghdadi, the rumour has not found yet confirmation and can be probably attributed to an Al-Qaeda propagandistic attempt to regain the floor just like Omar’s biography.

Nonetheless, this does no mean a less serious threat for the West. As highlighted by Paolo Magri, Executive Vice-President and Director of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), “competitiveness triggered among the jihadist galaxy generates dynamics of rivalry and coexistence, which could have very dangerous consequences”.


Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)


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