So called “experts” in Western media often claim the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda are one and the same. Such a claim fails to acknowledge the complex relationship between the two groups. The main differentiator between IS and Al-Qaeda is that IS is a highly organized bureaucratic organization that holds territory and provides social services for its constituents; whereas, Al-Qaeda “is a loose collection of small groups and factions that tend to be guided by charismatic individuals” (Gerges, Fawaz).
The Evolution of IS
Why do people link IS and Al-Qaeda? The truth is that the story of IS is a complex evolutionary tale drive by relationships between individuals with sometimes competing and other times aligning interests and agendas. The tale begins with a surly bearded fellow by the name of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi (born as Ahmed Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh). Mr. Zarqawi is known for establishing the group Al-Wahid Wal-Jihad after being released from a Jordanian prison in 1992. Zarqawi spent time in Afghanistan and Iran before returning to Iraq after the U.S. invaded in 2003.
In September 2004, after eight months of negotiations between Zarqawi and Bin Laden, Zarqawi pledged allegiance (bay’a) to Osama bin Laden and changed the name of the group, which became known to Westerner’s as Al Qaeda in Iraq or simply AQI with Zarqawi as its leader. Whether Zarqawi pledged a true allegiance to Bin Laden is debatable. Evidence presented in the September 2006 Senate Report on Prewar Intelligence suggests that in 2003 Zarqawi rebuked several efforts by Bin Laden to recruit him. The report also suggests that Zarqawi operated independently from Bin Laden but received financial assistance from him. Bin Laden thought having an Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq was a good strategy because an Al-Qaeda presence in Iraq would allow for attacks against western soldiers (the “far enemy”). Zarqawi however had an alternative agenda. Zarqawi’s ultimate goal was to ignite a sectarian civil war against the Shia’s in Iraq in order to re-empower Iraq’s Sunni’s. Zarqawi was interested in attacking both the “far enemy” and the “near enemy” (Muslims—primarily Shia). This created a rift between Zarqawi and Bin Laden and Bin Laden’s second in command – Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri had no interest in igniting a sectarian conflict pitting Sunni and Shia against each other. Zarqawi saw himself as the “defender” of the Sunni community. In January 2006, five groups merged with AQI, one of them being the Majlis Shura Al-Mujahideen or MSM. MSM was one of six groups making up the Iraqi insurgency against the U.S. and Iraqi forces. Five days after Zarqawi’s death on June 12, 2006, AQI appointed a new leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri. Al-Masri, an Egyptian native, had entered the Jihadi circles under the guidance of Ayman Al-Zawahiri in 1982. Al-Masri then became an explosives expert in Afghanistan under Bin-Laden in 1999. After briefly living in Yemen, Al-Masri entered Iraq in 2002 and rose up the ranks of AQI. A few months after the death of Zarqawi, MSM announced the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq or ISI, and MSM was absorbed into ISI. Al-Masri then pledged allegiance (bay’a) to the newly established leader of ISI — Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi (not to be confused with Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi). At that point, AQI restructured into an organized hierarchy as ISI. In the most detailed and relevant study conducted on the IS to date, Charles Lister states, “Masri’s pledge of allegiance to ISI combined with the lack of any formal ISI pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda catalyzed a gradual divorce between the two entities.” However, it wasn’t a clear cut divorce, as it took time for all of these factors to come to fruition.
By early 2010, ISI took advantage of US troops returning home. Offering high salaries, ISI was even able to recruit members of the Sahwa (Reawakening) Council — a Sunni tribal group and a former US ally that was trained to weaken AQI and ISI. At this point, ISI focused its attention on establishing a Caliphate. Leader Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi claimed to be part of the Quraysh tribe (the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad). On April 18 2010, Abu Ayyub Al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi were killed in a joint American-Iraqi military operation. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (the current leader of IS) ascended to the “throne” and also claimed to be a descendant of the Quraysh tribe. Claiming to be a descendant of the prophet is quite bold. It is kind of like saying you are a descendant of Jesus Christ. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s background is quite nebulous. However, evidence suggests that he helped found Jamaat Jaysh Ahl Al-Sunnah Wal-Jamaah (JJASJ) in Iraq serving on the Sharia committee in 2003; in 2006 he joined MSM and served on the Sharia committee. When MSM absorbed into ISI, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi became the general supervisor to the ISI Sharia committee. After assuming the role of leader of ISI in 2010, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi sent one of his operations chiefs Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani to establish the ISI front in Syria in 2011. Instead, Al-Jowlani created Jabhat Al-Nusra and immediately began distancing himself from ISI. Jabhat Al-Nusra claimed its allegiance to Al-Qaeda and Zawahiri. Al-Baghdadi claimed Jabhat Al-Nusra was an offshoot of ISI and then changed the group’s name from ISI to ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham). In an effort to gain prominence in Syria, ISIS eventually established the Islamic State in 2014 by utilizing its recruitment networks in Syria that were formed in 2003. In February 2014, Ayman al-Zawahiri made a public statement that “ISIS is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group, we have no organizational relationship with it, and the group is not responsible for its actions.” As we look at the evolution of IS, it’s clear that there has been a lot of distrust and ulterior motives amongst and between the leaders of the various organizations that led to the establishment of the IS. This culture of mistrust exists today within the IS and is a weakness that could be exploited by its enemies to “degrade” the IS.
It should be noted that our understanding of IS will continue to evolve as we continue to understand the intricacies of this complex organization. Again, in the words of Charles Lister, the IS should be viewed as “a qualitative evolution of the al-Qaeda model.”
About the Author:
Richard Hancock is a recent graduate from CU Denver’s International Studies Program with a focus on the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region and Arabic. He has helped found CU’s Arabic program where he has served as the Teaching Assistant for 1 ½ years. Previously Richard lived and studied at Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan, a city that is struggling to handle Syrian refugee flows because it is less than twenty miles from Syria. After briefly living in Egypt, Richard was employed by the Department of Defense as a Contract Administrative Assistant in the MENA region. Currently he is working on freelance journalism and job opportunities primarily with in the MENA region. Richard is excited to start a career in Political Risk Consulting.