The Islamic State and Al Qaeda: the Return of Jihad to the Middle East

Ewan SteinThis guest post is by Dr Ewan Stein, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. A longer version of this post will appear as an article in the journal Afkar/Ideas, published by the Institut Europeu de la Mediterrània, Barcelona.

By the time of the 2010-2011 Arab uprisings Al Qaeda was a peripheral actor in regional politics. It now finds itself in competition with a new, perhaps more powerful, jihadist actor in the Islamic State (IS). But IS and Al Qaeda pursue complimentary, rather than divergent, strategies and the IS phenomenon represents a logical evolution for global jihad.

Following 9/11 and the destruction of its Afghan stronghold Al Qaeda had become a decentralised network of affiliates. The uprisings initially pushed global jihad as a strategy to improve the plight of Muslims in the Middle East even further to the margins, and the death of Osama bin Laden in June 2011 registered as a footnote to the much larger political convulsions of the time.

With bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri holed up along the Afghan-Pakistan border, far from the Arab world, Al Qaeda ‘Central’ appeared to be shifting its main focus from the Middle East to the Indian Subcontinent. Its franchises worked largely on their own initiative and, particularly the powerful Yemen-based AQAP, frequently outshone the core organisation. In anointing a new Indian branch of Al Qaeda in September 2014, Zawahiri confirmed the group’s continued focus on Asia.

Al Qaeda’s significance in the Middle East would likely have been even smaller had it not been for the ‘Christmas present’, to use former CIA officer Michael Scheuer’s term, of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. The invasion dismantled one of the region’s ‘fiercest’ states, creating an opportunity in a country whose porous borders, Western presence, and delicate sectarian balance was ideally suited for jihadist activism. In its wake the jihad returned to the Arab heartland of the Middle East.

Ongoing state weakness in Iraq allowed the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda to reconstitute itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Da’ish is its Arabic acronym), soon to become simply IS. In spreading into the Syrian arena it shared the military field with a range of other jihadist outfits, the most significant of which was, and is, Jabhat al-Nusra, now the ‘official’ Al Qaeda affiliate. But IS has emerged as possibly the most powerful non-state actor in the region. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has declared himself Caliph.

The symbolism of the Caliphate as the manifestation of the Middle Eastern jihad is crucial as a way of attracting funds and fighters. And it certainly helps that it is making its claim from the heartland of the Arab world, and not peripheral Afghanistan or Pakistan. Although the Subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) may be home to the largest population of Muslims in the world, the Gulf is where the money is; and those that potentially hold the purse strings may be more likely to support a Middle East-based project.

IS displays notoriously scant regard for the welfare of its subject populations, employing barbaric methods like beheadings, stonings and mass executions. It is the fact that IS proudly and successfully advertises its atrocities that qualitatively distinguishes it from Al Qaeda. Indeed, a look at Al Qaeda’s local affiliates reveals behaviour and practice that is no less extreme. AQAP, for example, recently executed 14 Yemeni soldiers, beheading four of them.

IS has thus far failed to win over the support of prominent jihadist intellectuals around the world. Most have rejected IS for having the temerity to anoint their own Caliph when a legitimate Commander of the Faithful (Taliban leader Mullah Umar) already exists. They also criticise IS for its unbridled violence, which they argue diminishes support for the cause. In a video message released on 3 September, Zawahiri warned against excessive or harsh treatment of Muslim populations.

IS’ behaviour is intended to sow fear among those that may oppose it. This may make sense for an organisation seeking to conquer territory and establish a sovereign state, but not for one conducting a global PR campaign aimed at attracting funds and appealing to a broader Muslim public.

But different times call for different measures. IS currently prioritises the spread of fear in order to subdue and dominate vulnerable, war-torn, communities. Although it is unlikely that IS will attract a mainstream Sunni following with this tactic, its strategy and PR message may in the future change.

More broadly, IS represents a logical adaptation for Al Qaeda. When Al Qaeda consolidated its influence under Taliban patronage, the Arab Middle East was impenetrable to jihadists. This is no longer the case, and so a shift in strategy is unsurprising. With the US and its allies being drawn into military confrontation with IS the likelihood of convergence between Al-Qaeda and IS positions will increase.