Who Will Win the Fight Between the Islamic State and Al Qaeda?
IS fighters. Photo courtesy of VICE News
For much of the 90s and especially after the 1998 US embassy bombings, whenever the world talked about Islamic terrorism, the conversation inevitably turned toward al Qaeda.They loomed as the big daddy of jihadi violence, the brand rogue militants wanted their little insurgencies affiliated with if only to tap into the group's global network of funding and training. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 only burnished their influence. But in 2014, the world got to know the Islamic State, and Americans started to panic about the new threat.
Once an al Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State has been at odds with their old buds for a while now, and US counter-terrorism officials are split over which represents the greater threat, as the New York Times reported earlier this week.
Al Qaeda could never get behind the Islamic State's obsession with purging those Muslims they deemed apostates, often focusing more energy on this endeavor than on fighting Western powers. Nor were al Qaeda leadership all that hyped about what they saw as the Islamic State's alienating style of violence. Al Qaeda formally severed tieswith the Islamic State last year, and ever since, the two organizations have been in hot competition for ideological and physical control of numerous splintering militant groups across the Islamic world.
The jihadisphere, in short, is in turmoil.
To get a better idea of who will win out in the long-run, VICE reached out to Patrick M. Skinner, an ex-CIA officer and counterterrorism expert currently serving as director of special projects for the security intelligence firm the Soufan Group. We asked Skinner to tell us about the current contours of the conflict between the Islamic State and al Qaeda, to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the groups when squaring off against each other, and to give us his best predictions as to which organization will come out on top.
We know there's active conflict between al Qaeda [in the form of local affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra] and the Islamic State in Syria right now. How's that playing out? It's not the strength of the groups; it's their philosophy [that matters]. Al-Nusra tends to co-opt a lot of other groups. And ISIS fights everybody, so they lose [a lot of battles] because they fight everybody all the time and nobody wants to work with them. So that's their downfall in Syria. They do well in certain areas, but al-Nusra is more powerful because they have more partners.
The Islamic State is a political entity as well—it's concerned with infrastructure and holding territory. Does that make them more of an easy target, more vulnerable, than al-Nusra and other mobile, cell-based [al Qaeda-affiliated] organizations? Yeah, they have something to lose. And they have lost. They've lost a couple provinces in Syria. To be a state, you have to have physical control. You can't melt away. And they're fighting rebel groups that can do hit-and-run. And the Islamic State can't do hit-and-run.
In Syria, they can't leave Raqqa. They have supply lines. That's a big deal. That's probably going to be one of their downfalls in Syria because they really are grounded. They have two avenues into Turkey and when those get shut, which they will, they're in trouble.
That's a strategic weakness for the Islamic State, but which group has the tactical advantage? As I understand it, the Islamic State is more about traditional massed force attacks—shows of force—while al-Nusra [and al Qaeda at large] are more focused on insurgencies. How does that dynamic play out between the two of them? The one interesting thing about the Islamic State is that they do both when they have the ability. When people do terrorism, it's because they don't have the strength of a traditional army. So where they have that strength, they do pretty effective infantry attacks. Militarily speaking, the [Islamic State] attack on Mosul was pretty good. Where they don't have it, they still do terrorism. They'll do a lot of suicide bombings.
But they've kind of merged it, like [in] Ramadi, they had 27 huge truck bombs. They softened up the defenses—there is no defense against that many massive car bombs. And then they went in with small arms.
Al-Nusra kind of does the same thing. They're a serious fighting force. They tend to do one thing more than ISIS: They infiltrate other groups and then they do sleeper cells, which ISIS doesn't. So al-Nusra basically collapsed two moderate rebel forces last year, Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, because basically it put in a bunch of sleepers and then they attacked.
Tactically, they're not that far apart. It's just that in some places, ISIS doesn't have to be a terrorist group, like in Mosul or Ramadi or Raqqa, because they control all the levers of power. So they're not a terrorist group, they're a state army there.