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Can the Islamic State and al Qaeda Find Common Ground?

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
9 MINS READMar 9, 2017 | 09:36 GMT
An image from an al Qaeda-inspired magazine shows Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in hell. Three years after the Islamic State defected from al Qaeda in an acrimonious and highly public split, many are still concerned that the two could someday reunite.

An image from an Al Qaeda-inspired magazine shows Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi engulfed in the flames of hell. The ideological differences between the two jihadist groups run deep.


Three years after the Islamic State defected from al Qaeda in an acrimonious and highly public split, many are still concerned that the two could someday reunite. Warnings about such a scenario from figures like Georgetown University's Bruce Hoffman have been given new life over the past few months as the Islamic State has continued to take heavy losses on the battlefields in Iraq and Syria.

The idea of the global jihadist movement's two major poles joining forces is certainly a troubling one. The combined capabilities of the Islamic State and al Qaeda could pose a significant threat to the rest of the world, making them a much more dangerous enemy together than divided. But even with the Islamic State's recent setbacks, an alliance between it and al Qaeda would be far more difficult to accomplish than one might expect.

A History of Animosity

Several forces continue to drive a wedge between the two groups. Perhaps the most superficial is a clash in personalities, especially among the upper ranks. A great deal of animosity seems to exist between the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. (Al-Baghdadi also despises Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Syrian rebel group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra.) Their enmity has been made clear in the groups' propaganda: Islamic State literature routinely makes direct, personal attacks against al-Zawahiri and al-Golani. For instance, the Islamic State's English-language magazines, Dabiq and Rumiyah, have depicted al-Zawahiri as a manipulative and dishonest man, repeatedly labeling him a "deviant" and accusing him of abandoning "the pure heritage" Osama bin Laden left behind. The Islamic State has also dubbed al Qaeda "apostate sahwat," likening it to Iraq's so-called Awakening Councils. Considering the group likewise labeled the Taliban (whose leader al Qaeda has pledged allegiance to) apostates in its March 7 edition of Rumiyah, its hostility toward its al Qaeda rivals doesn't seem to have softened much amid its stinging battlefield defeats.

The bitterness flows both ways. Al-Zawahiri has referred to Islamic State fighters as liars and Kharijites (or radical rebels) who have mischaracterized al Qaeda's guiding doctrine. He has also refuted al-Baghdadi's assumed title of caliph, the leader of all Muslims, and has described the Islamic State's holdings as "a caliphate of explosions, damage and destruction." Other al Qaeda leaders — including al-Golani and the heads of al Shabaab, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — have been quick to join al-Zawahiri in his criticism of the Islamic State, too. In fact, al Qaeda sympathizers in Syria launched a new English-language magazine on Feb. 27 called Al-Haqiqa that not only railed against the Islamic State but also featured an image of al-Baghdadi engulfed in the flames of hell.

Irreconcilable Differences

Of course, the groups' ongoing conflict runs much deeper than a drawn-out spat among leaders. The Islamic State takes issue with several tenets of al Qaeda's philosophy, as codified in the group's General Guidelines for Jihad. In the September 2013 document, al-Zawahiri advises jihadists to avoid targeting Shiites, an instruction that has particularly angered the Islamic State. Instead, al-Zawahiri says, jihad should be directed toward the United States and the "Crusader Alliance"; "deviant sects" of Islam such as Shiism, Ismailism, Qadianism and Sufism should be attacked only in self-defense. Moreover, al-Zawahiri prohibits his followers from attacking the homes, places of worship, religious festivals or social gatherings of members of other Islamic sects. By comparison, the Islamic State believes these "deviant sects" are heretical and must be destroyed. The disparity in the two groups' beliefs largely stems from their interpretations of Islam's takfir doctrine, which addresses the ability to label Muslims as apostates — thereby offering justification to target them in attacks. The Islamic State believes it can declare entire sects as apostates, but al Qaeda believes the takfir doctrine should be used with greater restraint.

A point on which the groups diverge even more widely is the question of non-Muslims living in Muslim lands. According to al Qaeda, jihadists should avoid targeting Christian, Sikh and Hindu communities living in Muslim-majority countries unless they transgress against Muslims (which would be grounds for a proportional response). But massacres of these communities and attacks on their homes, places of worship, and gatherings have been a hallmark of the Islamic State since its inception. This philosophical difference has prompted AQAP to sharply rebuke the Islamic State for bombing mosques in Yemen, as well as for many of its activities in Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State has accused al Qaeda of twisting the nature of jihad, transforming it from a fight to a pursuit of popular support and democracy — a deadly sin in the eyes of most jihadists.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State has taken exception to al Qaeda's calls for the world's jihadists to support popular uprisings against oppressive regimes. When al Qaeda crafted its guidelines, it was hoping to use Arab Spring demonstrations to boost its international image, and jihadists rallied to take part in violent protests in Egypt and Tunisia. The Islamic State, however, has accused al Qaeda of twisting the nature of jihad, transforming it from a fight to a pursuit of popular support and democracy — a deadly sin in the eyes of most jihadists.

These differences in doctrine are not new. Though the Islamic State did not formally break from al Qaeda until February 2014, tension between the two factions over the use of gratuitous violence and attacks on Shiites and Christians had existed for nearly a decade, since Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad joined al Qaeda in 2004. Indeed, these enduring differences of opinion ultimately persuaded bin Laden not to accept al-Zarqawi into the al Qaeda fold in Afghanistan.

Cut From Different Cloth

Such profound and lasting disagreements exist at least in part because the Islamic State's leadership cannot trace its roots to al Qaeda's core. Though jihadist leaders in Iraq, including al-Zarqawi, saw the advantages in recruiting and fundraising to be gained by adopting al Qaeda's brand, they never fully embraced its vision. In fact, they often ignored al Qaeda's guidance. Prior to joining al Qaeda, al-Zarqawi's group had constructed its own identity and philosophy based on the teachings of Jordanian jihadist Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (who incidentally has been quite vocal in his condemnation of the Islamic State and its leader). The group's worldview was further shaped by the arrival of many former members of Iraq's Baathist military.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Islamic State struggled to reconcile its original Tawhid doctrine with the al Qaeda ideology it had taken up. In the end, it never truly succeeded: The Islamic State remained far more sectarian than the al Qaeda core, and preferred regional objectives to transnational ambitions. Though the Islamic State did target American citizens in Iraq and Jordan, it never tried to conduct attacks against the U.S. homeland.

Al Qaeda, on the other hand, continues to wage a more protracted battle similar to the Maoist concept of the "long war." The group's leaders have always considered themselves a vanguard focused on attacking the United States and its allies to weaken them and awaken the masses, inciting them to revolt against their rulers. The Islamic State, however, is far more ambitious. It emphasizes the local struggle and aims to follow the example of the Prophet Mohammed by immediately creating a caliphate to serve as the basis for global conquest. Though both groups believe they are engaging in a cosmic battle to replace a corrupt society with a utopian one, the Islamic State's ideology is more apocalyptic in nature. The group believes its actions in Iraq and Syria will draw the world's armies to it, only to be destroyed, making way for a caliphate that will extend to the ends of the Earth.

Divisions Run Deep

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State would have a better chance of laying their feud to rest if personal disputes were the only thing tearing them apart. But ideological inconsistencies are not as easy to overlook, particularly when the groups have gone to such lengths to highlight them. Explaining a union with former adversaries deemed apostates or Kharijites would certainly be an awkward and tricky task for leaders on both sides. After all, members of each group are willing to die for a cause that they have determined is the "correct" interpretation of Islam, and they won't give it up easily. Moreover, although some claim jihadist leaders use religion as a means of manipulating their followers, these figures' actions are usually in keeping with their extremist views, suggesting a sincere belief in them. To make matters more complicated, the Islamic State has no clear way of subordinating itself to al Qaeda even if it wanted to, since it has already proclaimed al-Baghdadi the leader of all Muslims. And because the concept of honor is important among jihadists, the insults of their enemies will not be soon forgotten.

This is not to say that al Qaeda and the Islamic State will not find ways to work together at the local level, especially in areas where they have not attacked each other. In fact, this kind of cooperation has already emerged in some parts of Syria, where fighters with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Islamic State are operating far from the groups' core territories. But cooperation is vastly different than reunification.

Along a similar vein, individual members or units of each group might defect to other side, especially if one organization weakens beyond repair. There is a lengthy history of defections in Syria and Iraq, where fighters have been known to join rival groups in large numbers. But again, defections are not the same thing as merging two entirely separate ideologies.

In order for a formal reconciliation to become even remotely possible, al Qaeda and the Islamic State would have to begin the process of mending ties by noticeably changing how they portray each other. Until that happens, the chances of them putting their differences aside are slim indeed.

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