Over the course of the past couple weeks I have talked to several people who have asked my opinion on the possibility of a reconciliation between al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The question is being brought about by a number of factors.
First is the fact that the Islamic State is losing ground in Iraq and in parts of Syria and has suffered significant losses in men, materiel and in its financial apparatus. This is taken to mean the group has been humbled a bit, and now that it is under heavy pressure, its leaders might be tempted to join forces with al Qaeda. Second, al Qaeda has lost some sub-groups to the Islamic State, and it is commonly perceived to be losing ground to the Islamic State in the propaganda war. Furthermore, in parts of Syria, such as in Qalamoun, some local Islamic State commanders have periodically cooperated with the local al Qaeda franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra, to fight regime forces and Hezbollah. Finally, some unconfirmed rumors are floating around the Internet jihadisphere saying al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is going to dissolve al Qaeda and give the regional franchise groups their independence.
Many fear that if the groups joined forces, their combined capabilities and resources would pose a major threat to the rest of the world. This fear is certainly not unfounded. A united jihadist movement would pose a more substantial threat than does the currently divided movement. However, because of a number of factors, it does not appear that either the Islamic State or al Qaeda could accept such a merger.
Several important factors keep the Islamic State and al Qaeda divided. Perhaps the most superficial of these factors is the clash between the personalities of the groups. A great deal of personal animosity appears to exist between the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani. This personal enmity has manifested itself in Islamic State propaganda that makes direct, personal attacks against al-Zawahiri and al-Golani. For example, the group’s English-language magazine, Dabiq, has depicted al-Zawahiri as a manipulative and dishonest man. In the seventh edition, the Islamic State essentially labeled al-Zawahiri a deviant by charging that he had "abandoned the pure heritage" that Osama bin Laden left and had turned al Qaeda to a mistaken ideology. For his part, al-Zawahiri has called Islamic State militants "Kharijites," or radical, rebellious extremists. Al-Golani and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have also been quite critical of al-Baghdadi.
But the conflict goes beyond personal attacks. The Islamic State takes issue with several tenets of al Qaeda’s approach to jihadism as codified in al-Zawahiri’s September 2013 General Guidelines for Jihad. The Islamic State is particularly incensed with al-Zawahiri’s guidance to avoid targeting Shiites. Al-Zawahiri directed al Qaeda franchise groups and individual militants to focus primarily on fighting the United States and the "Crusader Alliance" and only to attack "deviant sects" such as Shiites, Ismailis, Qadianis and Sufis defensively. He also ordered his followers not to attack the homes, places of worship, religious festivals or social gatherings of other Muslim sects. The Islamic State, on the other hand, believes these so-called deviant groups are heretics and, therefore, should be eliminated.
The disparity in whether to attack Shiite and other Muslim sects originates in differing approaches to the takfir doctrine, which deals with labeling Muslims apostates and therefore justified targets for attack. The Islamic State believes it can declare entire sects apostates, for example the Shiites, whereas al Qaeda believes that takfir should be declared in a much more limited manner.
Al Qaeda’s General Guidelines for Jihad also states that jihadists should avoid targeting Christian, Sikh and Hindu communities living in Muslim lands, unless they transgress, which would be grounds for a proportional response. On the other hand, massacres of such communities and attacks against their homes, places of worship and festivals have been a hallmark of the Islamic State since its inception. This difference in targeting philosophy led al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to sharply criticize Islamic State sympathizers for the March 20 suicide bombings of two mosques in Sanaa that killed 142 Houthis and wounded hundreds of others.
The Islamic State also takes exception to the al Qaeda guidelines that call for jihadists to support and participate in popular uprisings against oppressive regimes. Al Qaeda made the guidelines to take advantage of Arab Spring-type demonstrations, and jihadists participated in violent demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia. But the Islamic State charges that by taking this approach, al Qaeda is changing jihadism from fighting to holding peaceful demonstrations and pursuing popular support, or even supporting democracy — a deadly sin in the eyes of most jihadists.
But these differences in the approach to jihadism are not surprising, nor are they new. Though the Islamic State did not formally split from al Qaeda until February 2014, tension and friction between the two organizations over topics such as targeting Shiites and Christians had existed since Abu Musab al-Zarqawi merged his Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad group with al Qaeda in 2004. Indeed, Stratfor published a three-part series analyzing the tension between the groups.
Different Origins, Different Philosophies
These longstanding differences exist because, unlike al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the jihadist leadership in Iraq did not come from the al Qaeda core. While the jihadist leaders in Iraq, including al-Zarqawi, saw the benefit to adopting the al Qaeda brand name to help with recruitment and fundraising, they never fully embraced al Qaeda's philosophy and vision and frequently ignored the core's guidance. Before joining al Qaeda, al-Zarqawi's group had its own identity and philosophy, which were greatly influenced by Jordanian jihadist ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Many former members of Iraq's Baathist military also joined the group and influenced the Islamic State's philosophy.
When the Islamic State merged with al Qaeda, it attempted to place a veneer of al Qaeda over its initial Tawhid and Jihad foundation, but the different schools were never fully reconcilable ideologically: The Islamic State was always radically more sectarian than the al Qaeda core and immediately more regionally, rather than transnationally, focused. Though the Islamic State did target Americans in Iraq and in Jordan, it never attempted to conduct attacks against the U.S. homeland.
Al Qaeda has always seen itself as the vanguard organization focused on attacking the United States and its allies in the Crusader Alliance to weaken them and to awaken the masses, inciting them to revolt against their rulers. The organization sees itself fighting a long-term battle not unlike the Maoist concept of the long war. The Islamic State, on the other hand, is much more audacious. It is focused on the local struggle and believes it can follow the example of the Prophet Mohammed to create an ideal caliphate that is the basis for global conquest. Though both al Qaeda and the Islamic State are dualistic and millenarian in their theology — they believe they are engaging in a cosmic battle of good versus evil to replace a corrupt society with an ideal one — the Islamic State is quite a bit more apocalyptic. Its members believe their activities in Syria and Iraq will draw the armies of the Earth to oppose them. After initially suffering heavy losses, the Prophet Isa, which is Arabic for Jesus, will return to lead them in a final battle at Dabiq in Syria, where they will finally defeat the "crusader forces" led by the Antichrist. After the victory at Dabiq, they will be able to extend their Islamic State to conquer the Earth.
Overcoming differences might be easier if personal animosity were the only obstacle separating al Qaeda and the Islamic State, especially if one or more of the warring personalities were killed. Even if Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State were not fighting each other in Syria and al Qaeda and Islamic State franchises were not fighting elsewhere, the groups' conflicting ideologies would make broad reconciliation difficult. This is especially clear because the two groups have gone to such lengths to outline their differences. Explaining a merger with a group previously labeled as apostates or kharijites would be an awkward and difficult task for the leaders of both groups.
Ideology is just too important for al Qaeda and for the Islamic State. Indeed, members of both groups are willing to die for their beliefs. While some claim that jihadist leaders cynically use religion to manipulate others, their actions keep with their extremist beliefs, indicating their sincerity. Because both groups claim to have exclusive understanding of the correct interpretation of Islam regarding jihad, they are unlikely to merge. Additionally, after proclaiming itself to be the global leader of all Muslims, allowing itself to become subordinate to another group would be insupportable for the Islamic State.
While al Qaeda is down, it is clearly not out, and the group's Yemen franchise has made tremendous gains since the Saudi-led air campaign began degrading its most dangerous enemies there. Additionally, taking Idlib, alongside ally Ahrar al-Sham, highlighted Jabhat al-Nusra's strength in Syria.
At a local level, some al Qaeda and Islamic State groups may continue to cooperate, especially if they have not actively combated one another. At the present time, this cooperation is most apparent in battlefronts on the periphery of the Syrian civil war, such as in Yarmouk camp, where Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State units are far from the core areas of their respective leadership. But even then, cooperation — especially in very localized and specific cases — is much different than a merger.
Individual members of the groups, or even subunits, may defect to the other side, especially if one of the groups becomes weakened beyond repair. However, because of their irreconcilable differences, imagining a mass merger of the two organizations into one global jihadist front is difficult.
Before any such formal reconciliation could become even a remote possibility, a very noticeable change in how the Islamic State and al Qaeda publicly portray each other would have to take place to dampen the animosity between the two sides and to begin mending fences between the two camps. Until this unlikely development occurs, a merger between the two groups is impossible.