Abstract: With the collapse of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate, the global jihadi movement is in a state of flux. But rather than being about to enter a period of mergers or takeovers, the global jihadi movement for the foreseeable future is likely to be led by two distinct and rival groups. While the relative fortunes of the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida have oscillated in recent years, developments in the jihadi environment in Syria have hardened longstanding differences between them in doctrine and approach. Neither group is on the brink of fracturing nor likely to accept the legitimacy of the other in the coming years. And this will sustain the divide.
In recent years, the global jihadi movement has been in a state of flux. When the Islamic State declared a caliphate in 2014, took over large parts of Syria and Iraq, and thereby energized Islamist extremists worldwide, some predicted it would forever eclipse al-Qa`ida. But by provoking conflict with much of the rest of the world, the Islamic State rallied a powerful coalition against it. As a result, by mid-2016, the Islamic State’s territorial decline had become vast and visible, and counterterrorism analysts began to wonder if al-Qa`ida could gain back its position as the standard bearer of the global jihadi movement. Prior to that, the military gains of the Islamic State and the caliphate that it had established had cast doubt over the viability of al-Qa`ida’s more patient strategy.
In May 2016, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s then spokesman, conceded that his group could be expelled out of its major strongholds in Sirte, Raqqa, and Mosul,1 while Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qa`ida’s leader, mocked the deteriorating fortunes of the Islamic State.2 The Islamic State’s steady decline now seemed to hold the promise of vindicating al-Zawahiri’s strategy and seemed it could lead to disillusioned fighters and other jihadis joining al-Qa`ida’s ranks.
In this context, multiple theories emerged about the possible trajectories of the jihadi organizations in the coming years. These could be grouped into three potential scenarios. The first was that al-Qa`ida would boost its ranks with defeated Islamic State members either by reclaiming the mantle of global jihad3 or pushing its own ideology closer to that of the Islamic State.a The second was that the Islamic State would fracture into smaller groups. The third was a merger between the two rivals by settling differences amongst leaders and finding ideological and doctrinal common ground.4
By the fall of 2018, none of these scenarios—an al-Qa`ida takeover of the Islamic State, a fracturing of the Islamic State into smaller groups, or a merger between the global jihadi powerhouses—has materialized. Both groups continue to operate as rival and distinct entities and engage in a war of words. For example, in a speech released on September 11, 2018, al-Zawahiri railed against a “deviant” group containing “innovative extremists who declare takfir on us and deem our blood permissible, and against whom we may be forced to fight.”5 Rather than ideological differences between the groups softening, the passage of time is hardening differences in approach and doctrine, creating the conditions for sustained competition and acrimony between the groups and a long-term schism between two different schools of jihad.
The History of a Rivalry
The modern jihadi movement has, from its inception half a century ago, seen large divides between different groups and approaches. The bifurcation of global jihad into two streams has complex causes that stretch back decades. But, as it has been oft observed, some of the roots date back to differences in approach and doctrine apparent in Afghanistan before 9/11 between al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership and the relatively more extreme Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who maintained a significant degree of autonomy and would later lead al-Qa`ida in Iraq, the group that eventually turned into the Islamic State.b These differences became much more apparent during the Iraq insurgency. While professing loyalty, al-Zarqawi ignored the objections of al-Qa`ida top brass to pursue a campaign of sectarian bloodletting in Iraq. His successors, the leaders of the rebranded Islamic State of Iraq, maintained the group’s affiliation with al-Qa`ida, but only paid lip service to notion of juniority to al-Qa`ida’s high command.
The jihadi expansion in the region came in the wake of the popular uprisings of 2011, the killing of Usama bin Ladin, and the transition of al-Qa`ida into the leadership of al-Zawahiri. It also came at a time of strained relations between the Islamic State of Iraq and the top brass of al-Qa`ida. For years, the Islamic State of Iraq had taken a more extreme approach to jihad than al-Qa`ida, despite the latter group’s strong privately communicated protestations.6 The Iraqi affiliate’s attacks on Shi`a civilians and mosques and other aspects of its approach caused al-Qa`ida ‘Central’ discomfort. But al-Qa`ida leaders could console themselves that the Iraqi branch continued to revolve in al-Qa`ida’s orbit, communicate with its leaders, and refer to them as its emirs.7 This made the new Islamic State in Iraq venture in Syria nominally an al-Qa`ida enterprise. Jihadis in Syria considered themselves part of al-Qa`ida “through the circle of the Islamic State of Iraq.”8
In other words, despite tension with a more proactive branch in Iraq, al-Qa`ida’s overall leadership of the global jihad was not publicly in question. Jihadis loyal to bin Ladin’s legacy sought to organize across the region in the context of popular uprisings against dictatorships, under different monikers but all ultimately under the banner of al-Qa`ida. As peaceful protests turned into violent conflicts in the region, al-Qa`ida’s presence increased to unprecedented levels, and the organization became larger and more widespread than at any time before, especially in restive countries like Libya, Yemen, and Syria.
During that time, al-Qa`ida had to compete primarily for influence with movements and ideas with which it shared little, rather than like-minded violent groups. Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood sought to gain power through the ballot box, while jihadi militants like the Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq revolved around the same orbit and did not attempt to outshine al-Qa`ida globally. To ride the popular wave, al-Qa`ida and local jihadis had a de facto division of labor, whereby al-Qa`ida provided an essential source of legitimacy, vision, and continuity, while local groups did the work on the ground to infiltrate and dominate. Seen through this prism, jihadis in Iraq initiated the establishment of a jihadi group in Syria that would later polarize the jihadi community worldwide like never before.
The proximate cause of the current schism within jihadism can be traced back to the summer of 2011 in Syria, when half a dozen members of the Islamic State of Iraq (a group then at least nominally part of the al-Qa`ida fold) were dispatched to the neighboring country to establish a jihadi franchise. As will be outlined below, in the years that followed, the group that was formed, Jabhat al-Nusra, would play a pivotal role in widening the wedge between al-Qa`ida and its Iraqi branch. And when its leadership eventually chose to follow the leadership of al-Zawahiri rather than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group would arguably become al-Qa`ida most successful branch.9
Al Qa`ida’s Crown Jewel (2011-2012)
Jabhat al-Nusra began from extremely humble circumstances. It was established by five to seven vanguard fighters who had traveled from Iraq four months after the first protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad erupted.10 According to its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the idea of a franchise in Syria was discussed within the Islamic State of Iraq, and the decision to establish it was made by the Iraqi leadership, which allocated half of its resources to Jabhat al-Nusra.11 Although the idea had been proposed and approved in Iraq several weeks earlier, the jihadis traveled to Syria in July 2011, the same month as a growing number of Syrian army defectors established a separate armed group they named the Free Syrian Army, which would become the nucleus of the armed rebellion against the regime with an initially stated aim of protecting peaceful protests from regime raids.c
Despite the organizational links, Jabhat al-Nusra maintained a jihadi character independent from both al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State of Iraq. It reported directly to the Islamic State of Iraq, rather than al-Qa`ida, but was heavily influenced by the ideas of the Syrian jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri,12 rather than by the aggressive tactics of its Iraqi patron. Jabhat al-Nusra later explained how it was able to chart a path of its own away from its Iraqi parent organization’s tactics, despite the Islamic State of Iraq’s notoriously rigid views toward other factions, especially those espousing nationalist ideals.13
When al-Julani proposed the idea of expanding into Syria to his superiors, he included in the proposal an explanation of why the group needed to operate differently. Firstly, the insurgency in Iraq was a response to a foreign invasion, while the Syrian rebellion was a popular “revolution.” Secondly, Iraqi tribes were better socially organized and coherent than tribes in Syria. Thirdly, the Muslim Brotherhood had a weaker presence in Syria than in Iraq. Fourthly, Alawites were a small minority in Syria, unlike the Shi`a in Iraq. For these reasons, al-Julani proposed to have more autonomy in running the Syria branch. Echoing the teachings of Abu Musab al-Suri,14 al-Julani summed up his approach: “It is necessary to benefit from the Iraq experience, and the mistakes that were made, and that we should continue from the 100 at which the jihad there reached, rather than start from the zero at which Sheikh Zarqawi started.”15
During the early months of its existence, the group largely focused on underground tactics, attacking what its leader at the time described as the regime’s three pillars—namely the security forces, the army, and government officials. The strategy enabled the group to strike throughout the country, creating the impression that it was larger than it actually was. The initial stage of its operation, according to its leader, involved small numbers to maximize mobility and minimize errors, and the group did not seek the recruitment of large numbers.16
As the situation in Syria morphed into a full-fledged insurgency in the early months of 2012, the group quickly turned into one of the most effective forces opposed to the regime. Its tactics enabled it to revive old jihadi cells and recruit new members. In the same year, the group took control of hydrocarbon and agricultural sectors in much of eastern Syria, and emerged as one of the most powerful and rich jihadi groups in the whole region—the crown jewel of the broader al-Qa`ida network.17 Its rising military and financial fortunes started to worry its patrons in Iraq, who sensed that their Syrian franchise was going rogue.d
A Family Dispute Leads to Divorce (2012-2014)
In 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra expanded, controlled territory along with other anti-government forces, and became a key force within the Syrian rebellion and a major destination for foreign fighters pouring into the country. Although there are few verifiable details about what caused a friction between it and the Islamic State of Iraq, much can be reconstructed from the claims and counter-claims made by the two groups, and from a close observation of the events as they unfolded at the time.
According to details published by Al-Naba, the Islamic State’s weekly magazine, the dispute began after secret letters from operativese in Syria suggested Jabhat al-Nusra was drifting away from the Islamic State of Iraq and its ideology.18 Those reports were initially dismissed by the Islamic State of Iraq leadership due to confidence in al-Julani and Abu Mariyyah al-Qahtani, an Iraqi who was then Jabhat al-Nusra’s number two and its top mufti. The group in Iraq later dispatched al-Baghdadi’s deputy, Abu Ali al-Anbari, to personally investigate the situation. According to Al-Naba, al-Anbari spent a month touring Jabhat al-Nusra’s bases and meeting its members. According to the same account, he ultimately concluded that al-Julani was deviating from the group’s ways, and sent al-Baghdadi an appraisal of al-Julani:
“He is a cunning person; double-faced; adores himself; does not care about the religion of his soldiers; is willing to sacrifice their blood in order to make a name for himself in media; glows when he hears his name mentioned on satellite channels.”f
Al-Anbari’s letter prompted al-Baghdadi to visit Syria in January 2013 to probe and salvage the situation.g Having recognized that the group in Syria was slipping away, al-Baghdadi along with his loyalists started to contact commanders and members individually to lay the ground for a unilateral declaration of a merger. By the time al-Baghdadi announced a merger (which was in effect a takeover) creating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in April 2013, many of Jabhat al-Nusra’s key commanders and members, especially among foreign fighters, had pledged loyalty to him.19
The remaining elements of Jabhat al-Nusra not subsumed into al-Baghdadi’s organization pledged allegiance instead to al-Zawahiri, citing his credentials as the emir of what had been the two al-Qa`ida branches in Iraq and Syria. For Jabhat al-Nusra, the reaffirmation of allegiance to al-Zawahiri was a way to safeguard its jihadi legitimacy and avoid further disintegration and defection, despite earlier attempts to conceal the links with al-Qa`ida Central in order to ensconce itself into the anti-government rebellion. In his interview with Al Jazeera Arabic later that year, al-Julani explained that one reason why his group had not announced its links to al-Qa`ida before was because of negative popular perceptions of al-Qa`ida.20 The idea, he said, was for his group to present its struggle and accomplishments to ordinary people before revealing the links, to avoid prejudices. In the same interview, al-Julani otherwise described the dispute with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as part of “a difference among members of the same family.”
This episode is important, as al-Julani’s group would, in 2016, cite similar reasons related to the local reality in Syria in distancing itself from al-Qa`ida Central. Back in 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra rejected al-Baghdadi’s takeover attempt on practical grounds, since it believed it would undermine its operation in Syria and turn the rebels, their supporters, and their backers against it. Even though public association with al-Qa`ida was not an ideal scenario, it was then preferred over association with the Islamic State of Iraq, since the latter wanted to bring Jabhat al-Nusra and its day-to-day operation fully under its command and order it to pursue the aggressive tactics for which it was known.
The dispute deepened the friction between al-Qa`ida and its Iraqi offshoot. Al-Zawahiri tried to resolve the conflict between al-Julani and al-Baghdadi, but his instruction for the situation to return as it was before April 2013 was snubbed by al-Baghdadi. Tension escalated over time as each insisted on his own strategy to run matters in Syria.
Hostility between the two was exacerbated by the broadening rebel infighting that dominated the Syrian rebellion throughout 2013 and the early months of 2014. Al-Zawahiri and the Syrian branch preferred to work closely with like-minded groups in Syria. In a recording released years later, al-Zawahiri revealed that he had instructed Jabhat al-Nusra to unite with other Syrian jihadis operating under the Islamic Front, a coalition of jihadi and Islamist forces established in the fall of 2013.21 Although Jabhat al-Nusra did not merge with the Islamic Front, the two organizations worked closely until the latter fractured several months later. By contrast, the newly formed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria waged a drawn-out war against the rebels and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Attempts to restrain the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria failed. As the rebels fought the regime on the frontlines, the group focused on establishing checkpoints, enforcing sharia, and began campaigns to expel Sunni rebels fighting Assad from areas they had previously taken from the regime, such as Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, Aleppo, and Hasaka. Its tactics alienated the rebels and their supporters inside and outside Syria. It was during this period that derogatory labels against al-Baghdadi’s organization first appeared, including Daesh (an Arabic acronym meant pejoratively because it signifies harshness) and Khawarij (after an extremist group that emerged during Islam’s early days, described and condemned extensively in Islamic texts). Those terms reflected widespread concern in the Arab and Muslim world over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s aggressive tactics against the rebels. In February 2014, al-Qa`ida had enough. In a statement, its General Command disavowed al-Baghdadi’s group and severed any ties between the two groups.22
The Islamic State Ascendant (2014)
Wide condemnation did not stop al-Baghdadi, and his group went on to control large swathes in Syria and Iraq, contributing to the disintegration of several powerful anti-government forces in Syria. In June 2014, the group declared the establishment of a caliphate after it took the city of Mosul.
The stunning military gains made by what was now called the Islamic State pushed al-Qa`ida loyalists in Syria into further disarray. The surging fortunes of al-Baghdadi’s group had come as a surprise to many. When al-Zawahiri had disavowed the Islamic State in February 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group was embattled across Syria. It had been expelled from all of Deir ez-Zor by Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies, except for a small town between Deir ez-Zor and the Iraqi border. Similarly, al-Baghdadi’s group had been expelled from all areas in Idlib and most of Aleppo. And in May 2014, rebel groups had launched an offensive to oust the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from its last fortress in Raqqa. Yet, in June 2014, al-Baghdadi’s group reversed most of its losses and went on the offensive in eastern and northern Syria, as well as in Iraq.
In the months that followed, the situation continued to worsen for al-Qa`ida. The Islamic State continued to expand its territory, and by the fall of 2014, the U.S.-led coalition’s strikes against it provided the organization with a jihadi cause that the Syrian conflict had initially failed to provide, since the group had tended to fight against Sunni rebels more than it did against the regime.23 With its military gains and proclaimed caliphate, the Islamic State started to morph into a competitor to al-Qa`ida for the leadership of global jihad, eventually directing, coordinating, and inspiring a series of terrorist attacks in Europe and other parts of the world. The transformation entrenched preexisting and long-running differences in tactics and vision between the two groups. These differences were not new; they merely came to the fore and were inflamed and aggravated by these developments.
The greatest questions that deepened the rift between the organizations centered on matters concerning legitimacy and authority. The decreasing deference shown to al-Qa`ida’s top command by its nominally junior affiliate in the previous decade had eventually led to a rupture. But now the newly declared caliphate represented an existential threat to al-Qa`ida. If Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were to become widely accepted within the global jihadi movement as a legitimate caliph, then all authority would be seen to rest with him. In theory, this would in turn require all other jihadi groups to dissolve and swear their allegiance to him.
As al-Zawahiri would later put it, “for whose benefit is al-Baghdadi demanding—and he claims to be a Caliph—the cancellation of the emirates and the great mujahid groups? … We do not acknowledge this Caliphate and we do not see it as a Caliphate on the prophetic method, instead it is an emirate of taking over without consultation.”24
In a series of messages, senior al-Qa`ida figures argued that al-Baghdadi had failed to obtain the consensus necessary to declare a caliphate or to create a territorial entity large enough for him to credibly be anointed the defender of Muslims. “The dispute caused by [al-Baghdadi] is a double crime,” al-Zawahiri stated, “because he caused fragmentation with an innovated caliphate, without Shura [consultation] or empowerment on the ground.”25
Al-Baghdadi’s self-anointment as Caliph had another important consequence. It meant his fighters saw him as the absolute authority on how jihad should be prosecuted. Given his group’s track record of sectarian bloodletting and his own penchant for sadism, this set the stage for—and from the Islamic State’s point of view, legitimized—the extreme brutality perpetrated by the Islamic State that followed, creating greater divergence with a relatively more restrained al-Qa`ida.
As symptomatic of long-running differences, the divergence is now arguably permanent, contrary to the tendency to view it as one that began with the announcement of the caliphate and could thus be overcome after its demise. The Islamic State developed into a transnational organization that established affiliates in the form of wilayat throughout the region. Its rise for a period of time eclipsed al-Qa`ida and threatened to unseat it, especially because some of the affiliates that joined the caliphate had previously been part of al-Qa`ida’s orbit.26 Al-Qa`ida’s leadership was now contested by a visibly more successful organization that dared to establish a physical caliphate, one that al-Qa`ida and other Islamists and jihadis had long theorized about.
Changing Fortunes (2015-2018)
Despite the rise of the Islamic State, al-Qa`ida largely doubled down on its approach even as it attempted to contain further losses to its rival. Shortly after the Islamic State’s announcing of the caliphate, Jabhat al-Nusra seemed anxious about the Islamic State’s military momentum. In audio remarks leaked in July 2014, al-Julani unveiled a plan to form an emirate in northern Syria consisting of four branches, with a “mobile army,” to implement sharia in different parts of Syria.27 This move was a departure from Jabhat al-Nusra’s strategy of not imposing its ideology. In retrospect, the leak was possibly designed as a trial balloon to gauge interest in the idea within and outside of the organization, and the plan never materialized. In the leaked audio, al-Julani emphasized affinity with the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, al-Qa`ida, and acclaimed jihadi ideologues such as Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini, who rejected the Islamic State’s caliphate declaration as counterproductive to jihad.
In the early months of 2015, the situation began to improve for al-Qa`ida and its allies, after a string of military gains expelled the Syrian regime from large parts of northwestern Syria.28 The rebels, led by Jabhat al-Nusra and its close jihadi ally Ahrar al-Sham, reached the heartlands of the Alawite regime in western Syria,29 while the Islamic State faced setbacks in places like Kobane in northeastern Syria.30
Al-Qa`ida in Syria began to look successful from the perspective of jihadis. And by the following year, it was clear its position relative to the Islamic State was also improving. This was increasingly apparent in the spring of 2016, when the Islamic State’s ability to hold ground had visibly weakened. The turn of fortunes was reflected in an optimistic tone by al-Zawahiri in May 2016,31 in which he sounded assured of his decision to reject “the caliphate of Ibrahim al-Badri,” a mocking reference to al-Baghdadi’s real name without the jihadi honorifics.h
During the course of 2016, the momentum shifted back to al-Qa`ida. Its rival was widely accused of bringing nothing but destruction to Sunni towns and cities in Iraq and Syria, while al-Qa`ida’s cautious strategy caused it to become a force leading coalitions across Syria. There were even whispers of preparations by al-Qa`ida’s loyalists to rebuild networks in areas previously held by the Islamic State.32 Al-Qa`ida was poised to gain from its wayward offshoot’s decline, naturally leading many to wonder whether al-Qa`ida was now the more dangerous group.33
However, al-Qa`ida’s good fortunes did not last for long. By the end of 2016, the Assad regime had recaptured Aleppo despite a series of attempts by al-Julani’s group and its allies to prevent its fall, and internal disputes had seeped into al-Qa`ida’s circles in the country. The recapture of Aleppo would prove to be the beginning of a long list of steady gains by the Assad regime, and a steady decline of the rebels and Jabhat al-Nusra, who became crammed into Idlib province and adjacent areas.
As al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State weakened, both exhibited signs of internal tribulations. In July 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, an effort to merge with rebel groups and put distance between itself and al-Qa`ida. The nature of the rebranding is still a matter of debate among analysts tracking the group in Syria, but the consensus of the various parties directly involved can be summed up as follows: the group had agreed with al-Qa`ida’s representatives inside Syria to announce the severance of links to an external entity while maintaining a secret oath of allegiance to al-Zawahiri, akin to al-Qa`ida in Iraq’s move in 2006 to dissolve itself and form the Mujahideen Shura Council. But the ruse later faced an unexpected setback when al-Zawahiri learned about it, rejected it, and demanded its reversal.34
By early 2017, circumstances in Syria, primarily Turkey’s military intervention in the north and the shrinking territory held by the rebels, increased pressure for Jabhat al-Nusra to appear independent from al-Qa`ida. This led Jabhat al-Nusra to reach out to powerbrokers in Turkey and other regional countries to build ties with them and reassure them of its future plans.i In other words, the decision by Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership to reject al-Zawahiri’s demands to reverse the rebranding and announce public links to his group was most likely informed by the same existential logic that led the group to reject al-Baghdadi’s merger/takeover in 2013. Arguably, if it had not been for the demands initiated by al-Zawahiri, relations between the two would unlikely have suffered.
The internal disputes led to a realignment within al-Qa`ida’s orbit in Syria. After Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebranding, a group of defectors began to form a separate jihadi group with loyalty to al-Zawahiri. Such a plan gained momentum after al-Zawahiri, in a November 2017 statement,35 accused Jabhat al-Nusra of betraying its oath of allegiance, insisted that the oath still applied, and the group would thus have to obey his demands of reversal of the rebranding.36 In February 2018, a number of defectors formed a new group called Tanzim Hurras ad-Din (the Guardians of Religion Organization). The group’s leadership consists in large part of Jordanian jihadis with old close ties to the founder of the Islamic State, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and known to take inspiration from Jordanian jihadi ideologues al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada.37
This means that rather than being understood as a product of a standoff between al-Qa`ida loyalists and deserters, Tanzim Hurras ad-Dinj should be seen as an entity formed and dominated by a clique of Jordanian jihadis, who long had their differences with al-Julani even before the idea of a rebranding emerged.
Indeed, rather than being deserters, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), as Jabhat al-Nusra is now known, still has foreign jihadi veteransk and communicates with al-Qa`ida’s top leadership.l Hostilities between HTS and the Jordanian jihadis in Tanzim Hurras ad-Din did not amount to much beyond a war of words and a brief arrest of Hurras ad-Din’s leaders.38 Reports to the country arguably inflate the degree of acrimony.39
Despite their differences, both HTS and Hurras ad-Din could still be considered as part of al-Qa`ida’s school or orbit. The verbal escalation in the fall of 2017 came to an abrupt end in early 2018, with conversations the author undertook with jihadi or opposition sources inside Syria suggesting the groups have agreed to coexist. Although the alleged deal between Hurras ad-Din and al-Qa`ida representatives on the one side and HTS on the other remains unclear, it is safe to assume that they serve different functions that equally serve al-Qa`ida’s established objectives: one appeals to hardened jihadis with an uncompromising doctrine focused on jihad beyond Syria and one appeals to those focused on the Syrian war. In other words, whatever differences exist between HTS and other groups, they are about how to manage the conflict in Syria, and should be seen as al-Julani once described his group’s dispute with the Islamic State, as “a dispute among family members.” The two groups could mend fences, depending on how the situation unravels in the last rebel stronghold in northwestern Syria, where Jabhat al-Nusra now holds sway, and where al-Qa`ida and Hurras ad-Din continue to operate freely in Nusra-dominated areas.
The Islamic State has also faced internal friction. Internal ideological differences within the group existed since the start of its operations in Syria in 2013-2014, which came to a head in the wake of the group’s territorial losses. A more extreme current within the Islamic State, known as the Hazimis,40 named after a Saudi cleric,41 often clashed with the group’s ideologues and leaders42 over questions related to takfir, or the practice of labeling a Muslim an apostate.43 Although Hazimis constituted a small minority within the Islamic State and their ideas never became dominant, they briefly took over the group’s highest body, under al-Baghdadi, known as the Delegated Committee, until al-Baghdadi in 2017 reversed their control of that body. Since then, the Islamic State has made clear its rejection of the Hazimis’ ultra hardline interpretation of takfir, dampening the possibility the entire Islamic State group will fragment.
Even as its fortunes have plummeted, the Islamic State has been able to contain internal friction, ensuring no dire fractures thus far. Deeper cracks emerged within the al-Qa`ida movement because of the tension between al-Zawahiri and al-Julani, but there has been a reduction in tension in recent months and al-Qa`ida’s onetime affiliate still revolves around al-Qa`ida Central’s orbit. In short, neither group is on the brink of fracturing.
The Outlook after the Caliphate
There is little reason to believe that the Islamic State will gravitate toward al-Qa`ida after the demise of its caliphate. Instead, having laid claim to being the only legitimate standard bearer of global jihad, it will likely strive to continue to hold onto that mantle. Competitiveness, rather than collaboration or convergence, will probably define the organization’s strategy for the coming years. Similarly, al-Qa`ida is unlikely to gravitate toward a group that it disavowed when it was on the rise now that it has, to some degree, been defeated and discredited.
Another reason the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida will likely remain distinct rival power centers is that these organizations, or their affiliates, previously stuck fast to their ideologies and strategies even during some of their most challenging times. The Islamic State, for example, continued to insist on fighting other jihadis and Islamists even though the militants were being pushed back from most of Syria in the early months of 2014. If it compromised and agreed to share influence in rebel-held areas, the group would have avoided the pushback from various militant factions, but instead insisted on its rigid ideology and aggressive tactics. Similarly, on the al-Qa`ida side of the ledger in 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra confronted its former leaders in Iraq because it believed publicly subordinating itself to Islamic State leaders in Iraq who originally set up their Syria venture would constitute operational suicide, and refused to compromise even while many of its fighters joined the al-Baghdadi faction.
Such decisions during periods of extreme hardships highlight the profound convictions each of these groups has about its approach. This is unlikely to change in the coming years. Apart from rivalry and infighting, each of these groups also views its rival’s approach as flawed, ineffective, or limiting. Al-Qa`ida and its allies (including al-Julani’s group in Syria) believes the Islamic State’s aggressive methods alienate communities. The Islamic State considers al-Qa`ida and al-Julani’s approach of winning hearts dilutes the purity of the jihadi cause and failed each time it was tried, whether in Iraq when it was applied in the early years of the anti-U.S. insurgency before fellow insurgents turned against it, or in Syria when al-Qa`ida failed to dominate the anti-government rebellion, except in the northwest. Divergence over issues such as sectarian violence is another impediment for any rapprochement. The Islamic State views Shi`a as heretical and has openly declared war on them in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria.
Al-Qa`ida’s focus is most likely to be limited to recruiting disillusioned Islamic State members, rather than trying to reach a rapprochement with the Islamic State. This approach has been evident since al-Zawahiri’s statements in 2016, as the Islamic State began to weaken. An al-Qa`ida affiliate like Hurras ad-Din in Syria might be better positioned than others to attract Islamic State fighters, due to its affinity to the original founder of the Islamic State (al-Zarqawi) and his onetime mentor, al-Maqdisi. And the Islamic State seems to be concerned about this. Curiously, in a lead article in one of Al-Naba’s issues, the Islamic State labeled Hurras ad-Din as the “guardians of polytheism” and warned their own followers from “aligning with them in any form, until they repent from their apostasy.”44 The warning reflects a fear that such jihadis could attract members who might be operating in northwestern Syria, where Hurras ad-Din is based.m However, even if defections happen, they will likely be negligible in numbern and limited to members outside the group’s core, for two reasons. First, Hurras ad-Din’s reach is geographically limited to northwestern Syria. Second, judging from many years of disputes and conflicts, in Iraq and elsewhere, the defection of hardened Islamic State members to other groups is extremely rare. Simply put, sizable defections from the Islamic State to al-Qa`ida similar to the reverse ones that took place in 2014 are very unlikely.
Finally, any ideological friction within the Islamic State is unlikely to lead to a notable fracture within the organization, although it is possible that an offshoot comprised of small numbers of Islamic State hardliners could emerge in the coming years, under two scenarios. The first scenario is if members contesting al-Baghdadi’s leadership take control of one of the group’s remote franchises. Such a scenario is less likely in Syria and Iraq, where the group has a tight control of the organization, often by longstanding loyalists. The second scenario is if al-Baghdadi dies. His death would open the possibility of small-scale fractures, which the group has so far prevented despite the military upheavals it has faced in recent years.
Even so, “hardliners” within the Islamic State will unlikely manage to form a meaningful separate entity. The group has quickly moved to purify its ranks from such hardliners and has so far successfully done so. The crackdown, the limited numbers of such individuals, and the experience the Islamic State’s senior leaders have in weeding out such internal trouble makers over the years leaves little reason to believe that hardliners like the Hazimis could cause the group to fracture.
For the foreseeable future, no convergence between al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State will likely take place, and no large-scale defections from one group to the other should be expected. The Islamic State has so far not projected any sense of defeatism that may force it to revise the overall strategy for which it came to be known since it rebranded as the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006. Nor will it in the foreseeable future likely abandon its aggressive tactics and hyper-sectarianism. In the years during and since the Iraqi insurgency, these became cemented into the approach and ideology of the group.
Since its declaration of a caliphate in 2014, the Islamic State has sought to dominate international jihad, unlike when it had acted under, and sought legitimacy from, al-Qa`ida in the years before that. This will no doubt continue. Aside from the fighting that has taken place between the two, each group continues to believe that its strategy is more effective, and each seeks to dominate the other to establish itself as the leader of global jihad. CTC
Hassan Hassan is a senior research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, focusing on militant Islam, insurgencies, Syria, and Iraq. He is the co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, a New York Times bestseller chosen as one of The Times of London’s Best Books of 2015 and The Wall Street Journal’s top 10 books on terrorism. He is also a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, D.C. Follow @hxhassan
[a] This could take various forms. As outlined later in this article, there is evidence some Islamic State fighters in Syria have gravitated toward Tanzim Hurras ad Din, a Syrian group with close organizational ties to al-Qa`ida but admiration for Islamic State founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. “Hikayat Idlib wal jihadiyeen fi souria (the story of Idlib and jihadis in Syria),” BBC Arabic, July 5, 2018. Some analysts argue that al-Qa`ida’s potential future leader in waiting Hamza bin Ladin’s embrace of more hardline rhetoric toward Shi`a in recent speeches have been a calculated ploy to win over disaffected Islamic State fighters. Ali Soufan, “Hamza bin Ladin: From Steadfast Son to Al-Qa`ida’s Leader in Waiting,” CTC Sentinel 10:8 (2017).
[b] The Egyptian al-Qa`ida operative Saif al-`Adl recounted the uneasy path to cooperation between al-Zarqawi and al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, with the latter agreeing to assist al-Zarqawi establish a training camp without demanding al-Zarqawi swear allegiance to Usama bin Ladin. See Saif al-`Adl, “A Jihadist Biography of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi” (posted on jihadi web forums in 2009). For further discussion on the dynamics involved, see Brian Fishman, “Revising the History of al-Qa`ida’s Original Meeting with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,” CTC Sentinel 9:10 (2016).
[c] According to an insider’s account, the idea of Jabhat al-Nusra was presented to the leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq shortly after the protests erupted in Syria. The idea was suggested by Abu Muhammad al-Julani, who sent it to al-Baghdadi for approval. Upon approval, five jihadis then traveled to Syria and began their operation from Damascus. A formal announcement of the group was made later in December. The details of the story were described by Jabhat al-Nusra’s top legal official, Abdulrahim Atoun, known by his nom de guerre Abu Abdullah al-Sham, in a chapter of an unpublished book titled “In the Shade of the Tree of Jihad.” The chapter circulated on social media in November 2016.
[d] Both Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State have competing narratives about the early tension between the two groups, but both agree that the source of tension was over the ideological direction of Jabhat al-Nusra and that the Iraqi patron began to insist on modifying tactics and relations with other Syrian groups. The Islamic State newsletter, Al-Naba, for example, claimed that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi began to investigate whether the Syrian branch was misleading its Iraqi leadership in late 2012. See “The Worshipping Cleric and the Mujahid Preacher,” Al-Naba, edition 43, August 16, 2016, p. 8. Jabhat al-Nusra, too, referenced the visits by Abu Ali al-Anbari and al-Baghdadi to Syria to ensure the group was still loyal to them. Both groups acknowledge that Jabhat al-Nusra’s leaders renewed their oath of allegiance to al-Baghdadi in the spring of 2013 in an attempt to reassure their Iraqi leaders. See Abdulrahim Atoun, known by his nom de guerre Abu Abdullah al-Sham, in a chapter of an unpublished book titled “In the Shade of the Tree of Jihad.”
[e] According to Jabhat al-Nusra’s account, the report in question was a 25-page account sent by the future Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s infamous former spokesman, in January 2013, after al-Julani had allegedly dismissed him from his role as the group’s emir in the northern region. See Abdulrahim Atoun, known by his nom de guerre Abu Abdullah al-Sham, in a chapter of an unpublished book titled “In the Shade of the Tree of Jihad.”
[f] Similar statements about al-Julani would later be echoed by al-Qa`ida loyalists when dispute between his group and al-Qa`ida’s central leadership erupted in 2016.
[g] Both groups have provided detail about an al-Baghdadi visit to probe the situation, but the exact date of travel was provided by Jabhat al-Nusra. Abdulrahim Atoun, known by his nom de guerre Abu Abdullah al-Sham, in a chapter of an unpublished book titled “In the Shade of the Tree of Jihad, pp. 183-194. One chapter of the book, detailing the dispute with the Islamic State, circulated on social media. A copy of the book has been obtained by the author.
[h] Al-Zawahiri had previously refrained from outright ridicule even while he disavowed the group. In September 2015, he had advised jihadis in the region against attacking each other in public and even suggested he would fight alongside the Islamic State against the U.S.-backed coalition if he were in Iraq and Syria. He concluded: “We once conquered the world with our media. Today, their media has divided us.” Tim Lister, “Al Qaeda leader to ISIS: You’re wrong, but we can work together,” CNN, September 15, 2015.
[i] Jabhat al-Nusra only specifically named Turkey as one of the countries the group reached out to. “Tahrir al-sham tarud ala al-dhawahiri wa tufajjir mufaja’at” (Tahrir al-Sham responds to al-Zawahiri and announces surprises,” Arabi21, December 01, 2017. The details of the group’s outreach to Turkey and other countries were relayed by its top religious authority, Abdulrahim Atoun, in a post, circulated on Justpast.it in September 2017, titled “mutual imprecation is not the cure for moral deprivation.”
[j] A Syrian opposition leader based inside Syria estimates that the group Tanzim Hurras ad-Din has around 2,700 members. Author interview, Syrian opposition leader, July 2018.
[k] The differences between Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qa`ida are arguably over the practical and strategic direction needed for jihadis’ survival in Syria. The relations between the two, if not currently friendly, have not broken down into outright acrimony and have not reached the point of no return. Similar dynamics exist in other insurgent groups, such as the Turkish PKK, whose fighters on the ground often differ with, and even disobey instructions by, its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan. The rebranding was done according to al-Qa`ida’s own protocols, until al-Zawahiri reemerged after an extended period of silence and countermanded his deputies’ green light to Jabhat al-Nusra to drop al-Qa`ida’s name.
[l] Despite media reports of a disengagement from al-Qa`ida in July 2016, jihadis within Jabhat al-Nusra told the author that al-Qa`ida ‘Central’ maintained communication with the Syrian group, reports that were later vindicated by released letters by representatives of the different sides of the dispute. The letters confirmed the two groups maintained communication after Jabhat al-Nusra retained a secret bay`a to al-Zawahiri. After relations deteriorated following al-Zawahiri’s speech in November 2017, the same jihadi sources reported continued communication between the groups. This was not surprising given the fact that al-Qa`ida loyalists and Hurras ad-Din operate in close proximity inside Syria. According to Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a prominent Jordanian expert, differences over rebranding did not amount to a “rupture” between al-Julani’s group and al-Qa`ida, but the divergence later deepened over al-Julani’s group’s relationship with Turkey. See Hassan Abu Haniyeh, “Hurras ad-din wa takayyufat al-Qa`ida fi souria,” (Hurras ad-Din and al-Qa`ida’s Adaptations in Syria), Arabi21, March 11, 2018. The result, according to Haniyeh, was the creation of another faction, Hurras ad-Din, to represent “global jihad” in Syria.
[m] Reports from inside Syria suggest that Hurras ad-Din has already been successful in recruiting some former Islamic State fighters, which could explain the warning in Al-Naba. See, for example, Murad Batal Shishani, “The story of Idlib and jihadis in Syria,” BBC Arabic, July 5, 2018.
[n] The Islamic State’s aforementioned Al-Naba article also lays out why the Islamic State considers Hurras ad-Din to remain an apostate group despite its defection from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. It first claims that it has “proofs” that Hurras ad-Din has pledged allegiance to the Taliban, probably it asserts through al-Qa`ida’s oath of allegiance to the latter. Also the article asserts that Hurras ad-Din’s rejection of Jabhat al-Nusra and its local and foreign relations is not sufficient because the Jordanian-dominated force did not publicly announce its disavowal of such practices and did not repent from its former link to such a group, as would be required by the Islamic State who insist individuals “renew” their Islam and start afresh. The article concludes that only through a process of repentance and disassociation will the group be true to “Millat Ibrahim” (the way of Abraham), a clear jab at the Jordanians’ link to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a Palestinian-Jordanian ideologue known for promoting the concept of millat Ibrahim, one of the most critical pillars of modern jihadism. The effort is consistent with the Islamic State’s policy of claiming it is the pure form of modern jihadi thought, as it did when it depicted the group as the true heirs of bin Ladinism and claimed that al-Zawahiri and his group have deviated from the al-Qa`ida founder’s path. “Until You Believe in God Alone,” Al-Naba, edition 129, April 26, 2018, p. 3.
 Pamela Engel, “ISIS just delivered its ‘weakest message’ ever,” Business Insider, May 23, 2016.
 Raf Sanchez, “Al-Qaeda leader gives blessing for terror group to form own ‘Islamic State’ in Syria,” Telegraph, May 8, 2016.
 “Will ISIS’ demise in Syria boost al Qaeda?” Associated Press, October 18, 2017; Patrick Cockburn, “While defeat of Isis dominates global attention, al-Qaeda strengthens in Syria,” Independent, September 6, 2017.
 Bruce Hoffman, “The Coming ISIS-al Qaeda Merger,” Foreign Affairs, March 29, 2016.
 Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda leader: America is the main enemy in a ‘single war with different fronts,’” FDD’s Long War Journal, September 11, 2018.
 “Zawahiri’s letter to Zarqawi,” Harmony Program, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
 “The Worshipping Cleric and the Mujahid Preacher,” Al-Naba, edition 43, August 16, 2016, p. 8.
 Abdulrahim Atoun, known by his nom de guerre Abu Abdullah al-Sham, in a chapter of his unpublished book titled “In the Shade of the Tree of Jihad.” June 2016. A copy of the book has been obtained by the author.
 Charles Lister, “Al-Qaeda’s Turning Against its Syria Affiliate,” Middle East Institute, May 18, 2017.
 Rania Abouzeid, “The Jihad Next Door,” Politico, June 23, 2017.
 “The Worshipping Cleric and the Mujahid Preacher,” p. 8.
 Hassan Hassan, “Jihadis grow more dangerous as they conquer hearts in Syria,” National, March 6, 2013.
 Abdulrahim Atoun, known by his nom de guerre Abu Abdullah al-Sham, in a chapter of his unpublished book titled “In the Shade of the Tree of Jihad,” June 2016.
 Murad Batal al-Shishani, “Abu Musab al-Suri and the Third Generation of Jihadists,” Jamestown Foundation, August 15, 2005.
 Abdulrahim Atoun, known by his nom de guerre Abu Abdullah al-Sham, in a chapter of an unpublished book titled “In the Shade of the Tree of Jihad.”
 “Al-Qaeda leader in Syria speaks to Al Jazeera,” Al Jazeera, December 18, 2013.
 Malik al-Abdeh, “Rebels, Inc.,” Foreign Policy, November 21, 2013.
 “The Worshipping Cleric and the Mujahid Preacher,” p. 8.
 Mariam Karouny, “Insight: Syria’s Nusra Front eclipsed by Iraq-based al Qaeda,” Reuters, May 17, 2013.
 “Al-Qaeda leader in Syria speaks to Al Jazeera.”
 “New video message from al-Qā’idah’s Dr. Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī: ‘So Let Us Fight Them With Solid Foundations,’” Jihadology, November 28, 2017.
 Liz Sly, “Al-Qaeda disavows any ties with radical Islamist ISIS group in Syria, Iraq,” Washington Post, February 3, 2014.
 Yaroslav Trofimov, “Assad’s Choice: Fight Rebels but Give Way to ISIS,” Wall Street Journal, December 15, 2016.
 “Zawahiri Attacks Baghdadi, IS for Exporting Infighting from Iraq and Syria,” SITE Intelligence Group, September 9, 2015.
 See, for example, “AQAP Rebukes Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Rejects IS’ “Caliphate,” SITE Intelligence Group, November 21, 2014; “Zawahiri Calls Fighters to Unite, Attacks IS for Creating and Maintaining Division,” SITE Intelligence Group, August 29, 2016.
 Greg Miller, “Fighters abandoning al-Qaeda affiliates to join Islamic State, U.S. officials say,” Washington Post, August 9, 2014.
 Mousab Al Hamadee, “Al Qaida affiliate declares ‘emirate,’” McClatchy, July 12, 2014.
 Suleiman Al-Khalidi, “Idlib gains bring Syrian rebels closer to Assad’s coastal homeland,” Reuters, June 6, 2015.
 “Islamic rebels battle Syrian army near Assad heartland,” Reuters, April 30, 2015.
 “Constanze Letsch and Fazel Hawramy, “Kurdish forces take control of Syrian town of Kobane,” Guardian, January 26, 2015.
 Author interviews, jihadis operating in Syria, December 2016.
 Ryan Browne, “Report: Syria’s al-Nusra ‘more dangerous’ than ISIS,” CNN, January 26, 2016.
 Alaa Addin Ismail, “Tahrir al-Sham Arrests of Qaeda Leaders Cranks Up Zawahiri-Julani Dispute,” Asharq Al Awsat, November 30, 2017.
 “New video message from al-Qā’idah’s Dr. Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī: ‘So Let Us Fight Them With Solid Foundations.’”
 Alaa Addin Ismail, “Tahrir al-Sham Arrests of Qaeda Leaders Cranks Up Zawahiri-Julani Dispute,” Asharq Al Awsat, November 30, 2017.
 Hassan Abu Haniyeh, “Hurras ad-din wa takayyufat al-Qa`ida fi souria,” (Hurras ad-Din and al-Qa`ida’s Adaptations in Syria), Arabi21, March 11, 2018.
 Sultan Al Kanj, “Jihadist infighting and the birth of Horas ad-Deen,” Chatham House, April 2018.
 Hassan Hassan, “The Sectarianism of the Islamic State: Ideological Roots and Political Context,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 13, 2016.
 “Would Hazimis – the most violent, extremist group – replace ISIS,” Al Arabiya English, July 19, 2017.
 “ISIS executes one of its Sharia judges,” Middle East Monitor, March 10, 2015.
 Cole Bunzel, “Caliphate in Disarray: Theological Turmoil in the Islamic State,” Jihadica, October 3, 2017.
 “Until You Believe in God Alone,” Al-Naba, edition 129, April 26, 2018, p. 3.