ISIS vs. al Qaeda

The concept that Muslim militants around the world could even have a global leader is relatively novel and arguably unsound. During the 1980s and 1990s, countless independent regional groups were united by little other than a very broad outline of an ideology and, for some, the money and resources provided by Osama bin Laden.

While al Qaeda had influence on these groups — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot — bin Laden did not explicitly take on the mantle of leadership, and though there were endless “al Qaeda links” (the perceived importance of which has fluctuated in the eyes of most observers over the years), most jihadi groups were nominally or meaningfully autonomous most of the time, with a few notable exceptions.

At least on paper, al Qaeda itself was then — and continues to be — subordinate to Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, through a loyalty oath from bin Laden to Mullah Omar, which was reaffirmed last year by al Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and again this summer, in a print publication attributed to al Qaeda.