ATbar Global Jihad Divided: Al-Qaeda vs ‘the Islamic State’ – ICT16

Global Jihad Divided: Al-Qaeda vs ‘the Islamic State’ – ICT16

13/09/2016 | by ICT16  

The session was part of the ICT's 16th World Summit on Counter-Terrorism: "Unpuzzling Terrorism".  As the Islamic State loses territory and power, it will focus on international terror in order to bolster support. Contrarily, Al-Qaeda will work to build up infrastructure and resources. Al-Qaeda is playing the “long game” in the jihad arena and will increase its efforts in the Middle East (away from international terror) in line with the organization's interest in filling the security vacuum in the region. The struggle between ISIS and Al Qaeda will continue for the foreseen future. One of the biggest after effects will be the influx of foreign fighters returning to their country of origin.

Mr. Paul Cruickshank, Editor-in-Chief, CTC Sentinel & CNN Terrorism Analyst, United States

Mr. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, Rubin Fellow, Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs, IDC Herzliya, Israel

Mr. Yassin Musharbash, Deputy Editor, Investigative Department, Die Zeit, Germany

Mr. Clint Watts, Robert A. Fox Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute & Senior Fellow, Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, George Washington University, United States of America

Mr. Aaron Y. Zelin, Richard Borow Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, United States of America

Moderator: Mr. Yaakov Katz, Editor-in-Chief, The Jerusalem Post, Israel


Mr. Paul Cruickshank focused on the differences in the strategies of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. He stressed that as the Islamic State declines, it will focus more on international terror and Al-Qaeda will work to build up infrastructure and resources. Cruickshank stressed that Al-Qaeda is playing the “long game” in the jihad arena whereas ISIS tried to gain prominence and power in a relatively short time. He noted that Al Qaeda will increase its focus on the Middle East and away from international terror, given the security vacuum in the Middle East and Al Qaeda's interest in taking advantage of this.

Mr. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi focused on ISIS' international expansion strategy compared to that of Al-Qaeda. In sum, he claims that ISIS, on an international level, is moving from the conventional model of statehood towards presenting itself as a striking force that can hit anywhere. So far it has failed to surpass Al-Qaeda as the most prominent and dangerous jihadist organization.

Yassin Musharbash noted how the differences between Al-Qaeda and ISIS exist at a high level among the leadership, but there aren’t many differences seen among the low level operatives. He claimed that many of the soldiers on both sides want a unified jihadist movement.

Clint Watts focused on the delayed response of the West to the multiple jihadist groups and the lack of differentiation between groups. He said that in 1998 the US did not differentiate between different mujahedeen groups. He also said that the US is terrible at anticipating what the future looks like, unless it looks like something we have seen in the past. Then he spoke about how the rise in foreign fighters could lead to future conflicts.

Mr. Aaron Y. Zelin talked about the three biggest external factors that led to the increase in jihadist movements: foreign fighter mobilizations, government policies in related to jihadi ideologies, and prison policies. He claimed that these factors could dictate where in the world the foreign fighters will head to next.

The discussion was structured as a rapid fire question and answer session with one panelist giving an answer to each question. Watts conjectured that the future of jihadism might be smaller groups with independent financing. Cruickshank stated that AQ is not attacking international targets, but ISIS is doing so in order to bring people in to their cause, and they will only increase their terror attacks as they lose ground in Iraq and Syria. Al-Tamimi argued that AQ has a locally focused strategy and is lying low within the Syrian insurgency until it finds an opportunity. About the prospect of ISIS attacking Israel, Zelin claimed that attacking Israel is a long-interest for AQ and ISIS due to the military strength of Israel and its US support. However, he argued that Hezbollah is more of a concern for Israel. Musharbash described how ISIS' strategy to create a world caliphate has become much more fantastic than realistic. He explained that Jihadists have a different timeline; they look much further ahead than most modern states. Cruickshank remarked that it is critical to push ISIS out of their territorial holdings to deflate their propaganda power. Watts said that the US needs to figure out what they want as an endgame to the crisis in the Middle East. Surmising what will happen after the US election, Musharbash said that Trump is likely to increase US involvement, which is what ISIS wants. He also stated that EU states and Turkey could take more responsibility in resolving conflicts in the Middle East as the US loses interest in solving the Middle East’s problems. al-Tamimi stated that ISIS may be reverting to old models of surviving in the shadows and building up their financial resources.