ATbar Competition vs. Cooperation in Global Jihad

Competition vs. Cooperation in Global Jihad

01/12/2014 | by ICT Staff  

Prof. Assaf Moghadam

This workshop is about the state of global jihadi movements, and the relationships between different jihadi groups. Competition between jihadi groups helps the West, while cooperation between them hurts it. Jihadi groups split over issues such as ideology, enemy, goal, strategy, tactics, structure, and power. There are two types of jihadi cooperation: high-end cooperation and low-end cooperation. High-end cooperation is just short of a merger, necessitating ideological agreement. Low-end cooperation is based only on a common enemy or opportunity.


Mr. Peter Bergen

Al-Qaeda is concerned about civilian casualties, which could account for the splitting of ISIS. However, many of its local affiliates ignore senior al-Qaeda orders to cease or decrease civilian killings. This suggests that al-Qaeda's global capabilities are over, and that it has become just another Pakistani jihadi group.


Dr. Tricia Bacon

With ISIS eclipsing al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda is using allies to promote its image of strength. For example, its new affiliate group announcements portray existing branches as new alliances. In recent years, al-Qaeda has become increasingly "Pakistanized," and wants to broaden its appeal beyond its Arab-centric agenda. Thus, as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, it leaves a group of active militants looking for a cause, many of whom will refocus on India. Pakistan cannot restrain al-Qaeda, increasing the likelihood of tensions between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India. Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS has not yet made many inroads in South Asia. Al-Qaeda is in decline, but can still wreak havoc. Targeting individual leaders is an effective strategy.


Dr.  Alexander Evans

There are four types of people present at any meeting: informed people with views, informed people without views, uninformed people with views, and uninformed people without views. Interpersonal dynamics like this are also present in terror groups. Four main themes: First, ISIL is a splinter of al-Qaeda with the same ideology – there is no difference in substance. ISIS, unlike al-Qaeda, is impatient and may overreach, so asking if it is the new al-Qaeda is asking the wrong question. Second, group organization is important, but there has been a rise in individual homegrown radicalization. This is a macro-trend being replicated across the world, outside of tradition jihadi areas and networks. Third, ideas and methods are infectious. Types of attacks, such as suicide bombings and multi-strikes, are spread over social media, with ISIL being particularly adept at this. Fourth, al-Qaeda's structure is becoming increasingly flat, with a lack of control over affiliate groups. It isn't being interactive and reaching informal social networks. These informal networks are more effective at recruiting and spreading jihad than formal groups.


Dr. Daveed Garnstein-Ross

Jihadism has returned and is thriving today. Three main points: First, cooperation is harmful if jihad is declining. If it's increasing, the environment can sustain multiple groups. Second, competition is harmful to jihad. Third, our knowledge is limited. There are open-network and closed-network groups. Open-network groups, such as ISIS, grow quickly and nonlinearly with social media and without central leadership. Closed-network groups, such as al-Qaeda, are smaller and have more trouble recruiting. Disadvantages of being open-network include lack of message control and security. Thus ISIS is on the decline, having peaked in August, and the long-term focus should be on al-Qaeda, which is more able to sustain itself. ISIS has a terrible strategy, with wars on too many fronts, and will soon begin to experience major battlefield losses. ISIS depends on a huge influx of recruits, while al-Qaeda can sustain itself on smaller numbers. In comparison to ISIS, al-Qaeda can rebrand itself as an almost moderate, more reasonable form of jihad – Turkey, Qatar, and even Jordan see al-Qaeda now as the "good" jihadists. ISIS could become stronger if it carries out a major terrorist attack, develops a stronger international network, or sustains major battlefield gains. The best way to limit or end the fighting in Syria is to try to create an autonomous zone for moderate rebels, leaving Assad in a different region.


Mr. Aaron Zelin

Al-Qaeda itself has gone through many names since its founding in 2000. Zarkawi and Bin Laden never saw eye-to-eye, and had a marriage of convenience known as al-Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers. After changes on the ground in Iraq, the name changed again, and then it fractured to become the Islamic State of Iraq, to convey control over the territory. Jabhat al-Nusra learned from its Iraq experience to govern and not to be brutal to local populations, and taught local rebels this lesson. Al-Qaeda and ISI then patched things up behind the scenes, but their differences remained. Al-Baghdadi wanted to demonstrate that they were behind Nusra, and started competing, but not overtly.  The first real split came when ISI added Syria to its name and agenda. The split is largely generational, with those who fought in Afghanistan remaining with al-Qaeda and those who grew up during the Iraq wore closer to ISIS. There are differences in methods and tactics as well. Al-Qaeda is more for the elite and involves more rigorous thinking, and ISIS is for the masses, and involves spouting off doctrine. ISIS has the advantage currently due to the hype from Western media and operations against it, but this could recede due to battlefield losses and their governing style. The big question now is what al-Qaeda will do to improve credibility. Part of the reason for ISIS' success is drone strikes in Pakistan.



This workshop explores the variety of relationships between jihadi groups, and the effects of these relationships on the West. The speakers challenged the notion of the rise of ISIS and the fall of al-Qaeda, and explored the nuances of each group's strategy. While ISIS has caught the world's attention now, it is in fact on the decline, while al-Qaeda is more stable and self-sustaining. They provided insight into potential future actions of each group, and explained events that are currently happening in Syria and Iraq.  They concluded that in general, competition between jihadi groups helps the West, while cooperation hurts it.