ISIS vs. Al Qaeda: What lies in the future of global jihadism?

The fall-out from the split between IS and al-Qaeda has led to a competition viewed by both sides as zero sum in nature, where progress by one of these groups signaled a loss for the other. One of the primary drivers of such a heated competition is that, in many ways, the ideology and objectives of the group are so similar. The Islamic State reverted to extreme levels of violence as one method of differentiating itself from its rivals, including al-Qaeda. Both groups are attempting to recruit from the same milieus and influence similar constituencies. The main differences are that IS sought to create a caliphate on a timeline considered premature by al-Qaeda, and IS pursued a far more sectarian agenda in attempting to achieve this objective. Whether and how these differences are ever resolved will have a major impact on the future of the movement writ large.

The split itself occurred at the leadership levels of these groups, so one of the most interesting questions is: to what extent do foot soldiers and mid-level commanders really care, in actuality, about the previous infighting and strategic disputes? For some of the fighters at these levels, there is an obvious parallel to conflicts between street gangs, where members like the Bloods and Crips “fly their colors” – or represent their gangs by wearing their distinctive colors – and continuously disparage their adversaries by posting “dis videos” online, mocking and threatening rivals.63 The bitterness and divisiveness of the feud has played out on social media, with leaders on each side hurling vituperation and casting opprobrium on the other as “bad Muslims.” The initial castigation came from al-Qaeda’s leader Zawahiri himself, who fulminated against IS for being deviant from the al-Qaeda methodology.

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