Recent success sparks rivalry between ′Islamic State,′ al Qaeda | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 06.09.2014
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Middle East

Recent success sparks rivalry between 'Islamic State,' al Qaeda

In a video message, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has said that the group has made inroads in India. The statement suggests the terrorist group is eager to show some success in its rivalry with the "Islamic State."

Speaking in an online video message this week, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced that his group has gained a foothold in India, the next step to establishing a caliphate in the subcontinent. With this latest move, the terrorist organization has moved into a region "which was once part of the land of the Muslims, until it was occupied, fragmented and divided by the infidels."

The establishment of a caliphate would be a new step for al Qaeda, which until now has not pursued such an ambitious goal. Albrecht Metzger, an Islam expert and journalist, suspects the announcement was made mainly for one reason: the terrorist group feels the need to assert itself against the emergent "Islamic State" (IS), which is threatening to replace al-Qaeda as the dominant extremist Muslim group.

Compared to the recent "IS" military successes, in particular its territorial conquests in Iraq, al Qaeda's activities have taken a backseat. For several years now, al-Qaeda has mostly concentrated on regional branches in places like Yemen, the Maghreb or around Syria, groups which have operated independently from the central al-Qaeda organization based in Pakistan .

"The 'Islamic State,' however, has conquered territory and established a caliphate," said Metzger. "This naturally has led to a rivalry."

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared himself caliph

World's richest terrorist group

With its recent flurry of territorial expansion, the "IS" has impressed many potential jihadists. They're attracted by the idea of the caliphate, or Muslim state, which has evoked associations with the golden age of Islam. The "IS," which has raked in huge sums of money by looting, kidnapping and, especially, oil sales, is now considered as the world's richest terrorist organization, according to the German business daily "Handelsblatt." All this has caught the attention of potential sympathizers and supporters.

By contrast, al Qaeda has relatively little to show for itself. Members of these terrorist groups are often switching from one faction to another, but it seems that for the moment "IS" is for many militants the more attractive choice.

Added to that is the brutal methods employed by "IS." Beheadings, expulsions, abductions and rape: all of this is new, and appears to be quite appealing to many sympathizers. "IS" has made this brutality its trademark, pointed out Metzger.

Nusra-Front in Syrien ARCHIV 2013

Fighters with the Nusra Front have clashed with "Islamic State" militants

"In the mid 2000s, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, originally a member of al Qaeda who has since been killed, began producing videos showing beheadings and the like," he said. At the time, al Qaeda criticized such methods. "Since then, the 'Islamic State' has specifically made use of such tactics in Iraq and Syria in order to panic and intimidate people and scare its opponents."

Differing strategies

Unlike al Qaeda, "IS" has also taken up the fight against the Shiites, as well as Christians and Yazidis, all of whom it considers infidels. "This was also criticized by al Qaeda," said Metzger. Faced with these different approaches, the two terrorist organizations split off from each other last year. Up until then, "IS" had been known as al Qaeda in Iraq.

The two groups also have different ideas about long-term strategy. While al Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri intends to focus the jihadist struggle on Syria, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the "Islamic State," aims to fight for his cause far beyond the borders of the country. The two leaders have long fought over the question of which strategy would bring more success.

Since the middle of the year, "IS" and al Qaeda have gone their separate ways. Metzger said that in Syria, the two groups have even fought fierce battles. "'IS' has taken on - and is indeed still fighting - the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's representative in the region." This has further fueled the rivalry between the two groups.

Islamischer Staat Fahne

The "Islamic State" has had great success with its propaganda

Theology against terror

In this current conflict, al Qaeda appears to be the inferior group. "It seems as if al Qaeda has virtually abandoned the jihadist territory in the Middle East in order to concentrate on its base in the Afghan-Pakistani border region of South Asia," wrote "The Times of India" in its report on al-Zawahiri's speech.

The previous recruitment success of "IS" suggests the organization will also find many followers on the Indian subcontinent. The success of the terrorist group will, in the long run, probably only be checked by theological means, suggested the Arab newspaper "Al-Hayat." It would require moderation on the part of the Sunnis as well as Shiites, "the most important weapon to destroy the 'Islamic State.'"