Iraqi Special Forces soldiers holding an upside-down ISIS flag outside the ruins of Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul late last month.
With Iraqi forces now controlling most of Mosul and the siege of Raqqa underway, many are predicting the imminent demise of the Islamic State. ISIS propagandists argue that the caliphate can withstand the loss of territory, but without a "state" to fight for, many jihadis will look elsewhere for support and inspiration. A patient Ayman al-Zawahiri hopes they will return to Al-Qaeda, his organization since Osama bin Laden's death.
When ISIS first burst on the scene, it was widely described as the most brutal elements of Al-Qaeda that had been kicked out, only to form an even more dangerous terrorist organization. Their rivalry led some to hope that a power struggle might weaken both groups, making it easier to defeat both. But many Iraqi analysts have always believed that the fissure was only temporary. Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi researcher of terrorist groups and an advisor to the Iraqi government, predicted in October 2014 that "the Islamic State, regardless of how big or small it becomes, will come back to its mother: al-Qaeda."
As ISIS collapses, many jihadis will look elsewhere for support and inspiration.
In March 2016, American terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman wrote that "by 2021 al Qaeda and ISIS might reunite—or at least have entered into some form of alliance or tactical cooperation." By October he seemed to have reevaluated the timeline, warning in an interview that "as ISIS' fortunes continue to decline" pressure will mount for it to "mak[e] common cause with al Qaeda." A merger is not "a certitude," he said, "but the possibility is quite strong."
In April of this year, Ayad Allawi, the Vice President of Iraq, fed the merger debate by indicating that Iraqi intelligence had discovered "discussions and dialogue between messengers representing Baghdadi and representing Zawahiri." Allawi warned ominously, "The discussion has started now."
A Logical Choice
A merger of Al-Qaeda and ISIS would be eminently logical. From the anarchists of the late Nineteenth century to the founding fathers of the global jihad in the late Twentieth century, terrorists have long asserted that their goals will be achieved only when individual vanguards coalesce into a unified movement.
Ayman al-Zawahiri (left), Osama bin Laden (center) and Mohammed Atef at a February 1998 press conference in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
In The Terrorist's Struggle (1880), Nikolai Morozov wrote of a future where "a whole new row of independent terroristic societies arises in Russia together with the already existing terroristic groups and when these groups come to know each other during their struggle, they will all unite into one common organization."
Once these "unsystematic attempts . . . merge into one wide stream," Morozov asserted, "then no despotism or brutal force will be able to stand up against them." This is exactly what Osama bin Laden had in mind in February 1998 when he announced the creation of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.
A true merger of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, that is, a union of the people, tactics, specialties, and myths of each group into a terrorist "super-group," would portend a very dangerous evolution in the global jihad movement.
Al-Qaeda represents the first generation of global jihadis. Of its original leadership (Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden, Mohammed Atef, and Omar Abdel Rahman, a/k/a/ "the blind sheikh"), Ayman al-Zawahiri is the only remaining survivor. Like Rahman, his terror credentials predate Al-Qaeda; his group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Rahman's Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, collaborated to murder Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Al-Qaeda represents the first generation of global jihadis; ISIS represents the second generation.
ISIS represents the second generation of global jihadis, too young to have fought the Russians but still eager to wage violent offensive jihad. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who joined Al-Qaeda after his release from a Jordanian prison in 1999, is the link between the two generations.
After the collapse of the Taliban, Zarqawi escaped from Afghanistan and opened his own Al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq. He named it Tanzim Qai'dat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, or Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers, and it became known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
In October 2006, four months after Zarqawi was killed, AQI renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). 2013 brought another name change as it became the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). It was still an Al-Qaeda franchise until February 2014, when Al-Qaeda "disowned" it.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
The new leader, a man named Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri, was a former inmate of both Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib. In honor of the first caliph of Islam (Abu Bakr), he changed his name to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and announced that his group was the new caliphate.
A merger of Al-Qaeda and ISIS would represent a reunification of the first and second generations of the global jihad movement. But it would also require Zawahiri to share power with Baghdadi, which many people believe is impossible. The death of either Zawahiri or Baghdadi could bring new leadership willing to let go of old grudges. Osama bin Laden's son Hamza, whom some Arab news outlets and former FBI Agent Ali Soufan are already calling the new leader of Al-Qaeda, might be able to bridge the divide and unite an Islamic State of Al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda is a clandestine terrorist organization known for the quality of its attacks, whereas ISIS, part militia and part terrorist organization, is known for the quantity of its attacks.
Al-Qaeda is known for the quality of its attacks; ISIS is known for the quantity of its attacks.
Al-Qaeda has concentrated on spectacular, "theatrical" attacks, what The 9/11 Commission Report labels "catastrophic," "grand" and "super" terrorism (p. 343). It pioneered the multiple-event attack and timed secondary explosions designed to kill onlookers and first responders at the scenes of their primary explosions.
ISIS, on the other hand, holds territory and runs schools and hospitals. It operates primarily as a conventional militia and secondarily as a covert terrorist organization. Its attacks on foreign soil tend to be relatively unsophisticated, with its operators (frequently mislabeled "lone wolves") making use of knives, small arms and vehicles in attacks requiring minimal preparation and that often seem spontaneous.
Milo Comerford, writing in Newsweek, finds "seemingly insurmountable tactical rifts" between Al-Qaeda and ISIS that "would likely inhibit the ability of the groups to substantively work together." I wouldn't be so sure.
Al-Qaeda specializes in meticulous planning, studying and capitalizing on the weakness of its targets. Its technicians are creative thinkers, devising new ways to disguise bombs in underwear, ink cartridges, lap top computers, and even inside the human body.
Al-Qaeda specializes in meticulous planning; ISIS specializes in inspiration.
Attacks often require years of preparation and surveillance carried out by multiple cells. When it was protected by the Turabi government in the Sudan (1991-1996) and then the Taliban in Afghanistan (1996-2001), Al-Qaeda's training camps taught the craft of terrorism to thousands of recruits.
ISIS, on the other hand, specializes in inspiration. Straying from its roots in Zarqawi's days, ISIS has embraced technology and devoted great effort to recruiting Muslims all over the world, especially in the West. By mastering social media, it has become the global jihad's online brand. Indeed most jihad attacks carried out by "radicalized" Muslims in the West over the last three years have been conducted by people who claimed to be ISIS members or whom ISIS claimed as members.
The myth of Al-Qaeda begins with Abdullah Azzam's 1979 fatwa calling for defensive jihad in Afghanistan and his boast that he and his coterie of vanguard jihadists (the "Afghan Arabs" as they came to be called) defeated the Soviet Union on the battlefield. After Azzam's death, the boast became bin Laden's. He built on the myth, claiming that his group would take on and defeat the remaining super-power, and he followed through with a series of attacks against the US in the 1990s, peaking on 9/11.
The ISIS myth is centered on the assertion that it is the righteous Islamic caliphate, a claim bolstered by success on the battlefield, especially in Mosul where Iraqi soldiers fled the battlefield in 2014 and abandoned US materiel. On video for all the world to see, Baghdadi proclaimed the caliphate from the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul on June 29, 2014 (destroyed along with its famous minaret on June 22, 2017 by ISIS as it fled the city). For over three years it has "governed" territory, printed its own currency and witnessed its flag—sometimes home-made versions—raised throughout the world. Another important aspect of the myth is summed up by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, one of the foremost experts on ISIS, in the word baqiya—Arabic for "remaining." After Zarqawi's death, the US surge and the "Arab Awakening," ISI retreated into the desert only to reconstitute itself after US forces left Iraq. Its reputation for survivability is similar to Al-Qaeda's.
Those who downplay the possibility of an ISIS-Al-Qaeda merger highlight the differences between them, including alleged ideological disputes that they claim nullify other concerns, but these differences are exaggerated. Both are Sunni jihad organizations with global aspirations. They disagree only over minor details, such as which enemy ("near" or "far") to fight first, when to establish the caliphate and how to kill the Shia and other infidels. Even when tensions between the two were extremely high just after the split, they still occasionally cooperated when it was expedient. Differences dissolve when survival is at stake. Zawahiri, who began 2017 calling ISIS "liars," has been sounding conciliatory recently, as in his June 9 call for unity among jihadists.
The flags of ISIS (left) and Al-Qaeda.
Naysayers also overlook the fact that many of the characteristics associated with ISIS actually originated with Al-Qaeda. For instance, the ISIS campaign to recruit over the internet mirrors the strategy of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American strategist for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Awlaki, who was killed when ISIS was still known as AQI, has been credited with "radicalizing" Muslims the world over with his fiery sermons and anti-Western diatribes. He continues to do so posthumously on Youtube. ISIS has simply followed his lead. Likewise, Zarqawi made beheading videos a trademark of his group, and his followers have expanded on it, sometimes beheading dozens at a time. But this too began with Al-Qaeda. When Khalid Sheikh Mohammed videotaped himself beheading Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, he created a new genre of jihad terrorism.
Prognoses about the capabilities of a united Islamic State of Al-Qaeda tend toward the apocalyptic, our-worst-dreams, rhetoric. Their attacks "would likely be more devastating," cautions Newsweek. Abdul Basit warns in The National Interest of "a new jihadi Frankenstein, born from Al Qaeda and ISIS's marriage of convenience." A headline in The Fiscal Times reads that a merger "could cripple the civilized world." Even the careful Bruce Hoffman foresees "profound and far-reaching consequences for international security."
In reality, an official merger of ISIS and Al-Qaeda may not be necessary for our worst fears to come true. They have already been imitating each other for some time, each adopting the successful strategies of the other, with terrifying results.
Hoffman notes that Al-Qaeda has lately shown a "new-found embrace of governance of populations and territorial control," with Zawahiri working on Al-Qaeda's image "to portray itself as a more moderate, acceptable alternative to ISIS." ISIS, on the other hand, has been increasing and expanding its covert terrorist activity (commensurate with its loss of territory) and behaving in a very Al-Qaeda fashion for well over a year.
ISIS Imitates Al-Qaeda
The most dangerous implications of a merger are already evident—ISIS tactics are becoming more Al-Qaeda-like in quality while not diminishing in frequency. Beginning with the Paris attacks in November 2015, it became apparent that ISIS was copying Al-Qaeda's multiple-event, mass-casualty attacks while focusing more on "spectacle." It used gunmen and suicide bombers in a series of coordinated attacks that killed 130 people and wounded hundreds of others, much of it captured on surveillance video and the victims' smartphones.
ISIS tactics are becoming more Al-Qaeda-like in quality.
The March, 2016, attack in Brussels revealed ISIS engaging in Al-Qaeda-quality planning. After analyzing Belgian counterterrorism measures, ISIS planners decided to attack travelers lined up at the perimeter of the security cordon where they were waiting to be screened. The three ISIS suicide bombers who killed 32 people and wounded 340 were never required to pass any kind of security checkpoint.
ISIS has clearly embraced Al-Qaeda's suicide terror program, coloring it with its own unique cruelty. When British-born ISIS operative Salman Abedi attacked the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester on May 22, he targeted young girls with a particularly powerful bomb he reportedly learned how to make in Libya. In Iran, ISIS suicide bombers simultaneously attacked the Parliament building and the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – the inventor of suicide bombing.
The June 3 attacks in London show that ISIS is still interested in low-tech, vehicle and knife tactics, but even these have evolved into hybrids combining Al-Qaeda's complexity with the ISIS simplicity of waging jihad in rented trucks. The pink ceramic knife throat-slitting spectacle carried out on the streets was all ISIS. But the attackers also wore fake suicide bomb vests and had Molotov cocktails with them, suggesting that something even more unique, if opportunistic, was planned.
Former Iraqi intelligence officer Ibrahim al-Somaidaei is another ISIS specialist who foresees ISIS and Al-Qaeda coming together, mostly out of necessity. Somaidaei believes that "The Islamic State doesn't have the elements of survival like the al-Qaeda mother organization. It is most likely that it will be dissolved within al-Qaeda."
Aymenn Jawad Tamimi disagrees. Even if ISIS loses all its current territory, Tamimi writes, "its core leadership can operate" from remote desert areas in Syria and Iraq in "fallback" mode where it could "persist as an international franchise."
Al-Qaeda and ISIS may be more dangerous as mirror images of each other competing for recruits and world attention.
Only time will tell if the two most dangerous fronts of the global jihad will reunite into a common front. Unfortunately, it will not require an Islamic State of Al-Qaeda for thousands to continue dying in the Long War.
In fact, if the current trajectory continues with ISIS mimicking Al-Qaeda, a merger may become irrelevant. Al-Qaeda and ISIS may become even more dangerous as near mirror-images of each other competing for new fighters and for the world's attention.
A.J. Caschetta is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.