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Original Articles

The Al Qaeda–Islamic State Rivalry: Competition Yes, but No Competitive Escalation

Pages 20-37
Published online: 11 Jul 2017


On June 29, 2014, the Islamic State emerged and declared the establishment of its caliphate. The declaration was a direct challenge to other Sunni Jihadi groups including Al Qaeda and an attempt to become the leading Jihadi group around. The rivalry that evolved within Sunni Jihadism, and particularly between Al Qaeda and its renegade affiliate the Islamic State, entailed a hitherto unseen competitive environment within the Jihadi field. Interestingly, the increased competition did not lead to a dynamic of competitive escalation and mutual radicalization of behaviour. Theory tells us to expect competitive escalation, or outbidding, in such contexts, but despite the initial success of the Islamic State’s brutality and offensive conquest in Syria and Iraq, Al Qaeda did not “play along” and instead pursued a different path. The reason for this absence of competitive escalation, this paper argues, is to be found in a pre-conflict methodological re-orientation within Al Qaeda and in the pacifying role played by influential Al Qaeda-affiliated ideologues.


1. The group will consistently be referred to as the Islamic State despite not officially adopting the name before its June 29, 2014 Caliphate declaration. A chronology of the names of the group is as follows: Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (1999–2004), Al Qaeda in Iraq (2004–2006), Mujahideen Shura Council (Jan. 15–Oct. 12, 2006), Islamic State of Iraq or ISI (October 12, 2006–2013), Islamic State of Iraq and Sham or ISIS/ISIL (2013–June 29, 2014), and now the Islamic State or IS (June 29, 2014–).

2. In his speech “This Is the Promise of Allah” the late spokesperson of the Islamic State, Abū Muhammad al-‘Adnānī ash-Shāmī declared that all other Jihadi groups are null and should declare allegiance to the Islamic State.

3. Charles Tilly, “Terror, Terrorism, Terrorists,” Sociological Theory 22, no. 1 (2004): 5–13.

4. Examples include Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Introduction: Islamic Activism and Social Movement Theory,” in Islamic Activism and Social Movement Theory (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004), 1–33; Asef Bayat, “Islamism and Social Movement Theory,” Third World Quarterly 26, no. 6 (2005): 891–908; Thomas Olesen and Farhad Khosrokhavar, “Islamism as Social Movement: I Social Movement Theory and Radical Islamic Activism & II Jihadism in Europe and the Middle East,” Centre for Studies in Islamism and Radicalisation, Aarhus University, May (2009); Stephane Lacroix, Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); Eitan Y. Alimi, Lorenzo Bosi, and Chares Demetriou, The Dynamics of Radicalization: A Relational and Comparative Perspective (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015); Teije Hidde Donker, “Islamism & the Arab Spring. A Social Movements Approach” (PhD thesis, European University Institute, Political and Social Sciences, 2013).

5. Thomas Hegghammer, “Violent Islamism in Saudi Arabia, 1979–2006: The Power and Perils of Pan-Islamic Nationalism” (PhD thesis, Institut d′Etudes Politiques de Paris—Ecole Doctorale de Sciences Po, 2007); Stefan Malthaner, Mobilizing the Faithful: Militant Islamist Groups and Their Constituencies (Frankfurt, Germany: Campus Verlag, 2011); Philip W. Sutton and Stephens Vertigans, “Islamic ‘New Social Movements’? Radical Islam, Al- Qa’ida and Social Movement Theory,” Mobilization 11, no. 1 (2006): 101–15; David A. Snow and Scott C. Byrd, “Ideology, Framing Processes, and Islamic Terrorist Movements,” Mobilization 12, no. 1 (2007): 119–36.

6. Donatella Della Porta, Clandestine Political Violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), chap. 3.

7. Mario Diani, “The Concept of Social Movement,” The Sociological Review 40, no. 1 (February 3, 1992): 13.

8. Della Porta, Clandestine Political Violence (see note 6 above), 74.

9. For books on the concept of Jihad, see David Cook, Understanding Jihad (London, England: University of California Press, 2005); Jeevan Deol and Zaheer Kazmi, eds., Contextualising Jihadi Thought (London, England: C. Hurst, 2012).

10. Roel Meijer, ed., Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement (London: Hurst, 2009); Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 29, no. 3 (May 2006): 207–39.

11. In the context of this study, competition is defined as when groups that share an ideology (or almost similar ideology) start targeting each other through words and/or actions or if they adopt new strategies and/or tactics clearly caused by the success of another group.

12. Della Porta, Clandestine Political Violence (see note 6 above), 30.

13. Ibid., 71.

14. Several reports and books are treating the topic of the competitive relationship between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Good examples include Hassan Abu Hanieh and Mohammad Abu Rumman, The “Islamic State” Organization: The Sunni Crisis and the Struggle of Global Jihadism (Amman: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2015); Fawaz Gerges, ISIS: A History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016); Daniel Byman, Al Qaeda, The Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015); Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (New York: Regan Arts., 2015); Charles Lister, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (London: Hurst, 2015); Charles Lister, “Jihadi Rivalry: The Islamic State Challenges Al Qaeda” (Brookings Doha Center, 2016); Cole Bunzel, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State” (Brookings Doha Center, 2015).

15. Della Porta, Clandestine Political Violence (see note 6 above), 71.

16. Such a relational perspective is also used by Eitan Y. Alimi, “Relational Dynamics in Factional Adoption of Terrorist Tactics: A Comparative Perspective,” Theory and Society 40, no. 1 (2011): 95–118; Alimi, Bosi, and Demetriou, The Dynamics of Radicalization (see note 4 above).

17. S. Nemeth, “The Effect of Competition on Terrorist Group Operations,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 58, no. 2 (2014): 356.

18. Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan (London: Hurst, 2015), see especially 280–1.

19. Since then Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra has similarly left Al Qaeda when it became Jabhat Fath al-Sham in July 2016.

20. Joas Wagemakers, “Reclaiming Scholarly Authority: Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi’s Critique of Jihadi Practices,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 34, no. 7 (2011): 523–39, doi:10.1080/1057610X.2011.578549; Nibras Kazimi, “A Virulent Ideology in Mutation: Zarqawi Upstages Maqdisi,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 2 (2005): 59–73; Eli Alshech, “The Doctrinal Crisis within the Salafi-Jihadi Ranks and the Emergence of Neo-Takfirism,” Islamic Law and Society 21 (2014): 419–52.

21. Ideologically, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State do differ, but mainly on nuances in technical terms such as takfir. Ideologically, Al Qaeda agrees with the Islamic State in its desire to establish a caliphate and its targeting of Shiites, but in contrast to the Islamic State, Al Qaeda does not find it strategically wise to prioritise such issues at the moment.

22. This version has been corroborated by the other side of the conflict by senior Jabhat al-Nusra member Abdallah al-Shami, see: https://biladalsham.wordpress.com/2016/11/27/the-establishment-of-jabhat-al-nusra-and-the-events-of-al-sham-from-the-beginning-of-the-disagreement-to-the-announcement-of-dawlah/

23. Author’s interview with Danish foreign fighter, May 2017. The interviewee, who was in Syria at the time and fought with an Al Qaeda-affiliated group, tells how the Islamic State’s expansion was all they could talk about and that everyone was waiting for al-Zawahiri’s judgment. The interviewee acknowledges the judgment came too late and that many fighters shifted sides as a result.

24. According to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamini, Al-Hadrami actually pledged allegiance to ISIS in the spring of 2013, but changed his mind in July the same year and took sides with Al Qaeda, see Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Dawn of the Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Sham,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 16 (2014): 5–15.

25. Jabhat Al-Nusra, “Chain of Testimonies Part 2: Abu Firas Al-Suri,” Al-Baseera Media Productions, March 2014, https://pietervanostaeyen.com/2014/03/27/jabhat-an-nusra-reacts-on-isis-spokesman-al-adnani-part-ii-abu-firas-as-suri/

26. Ahrar al-Sham is a prominent Jihadi-Salafi group in Syria, mainly operating in and around Idlib and Aleppo. The group initially had ties to Al Qaeda and has been part of several military alliances with Jabhat al-Nusra. Recently, however, it has moved closer to Turkey as a result of its divided leadership.

27. Abdallah Suleiman Ali, “ISIS Losing Ground in Syria to Jabhat al-Nusra,” Al Monitor, February 12, 2014, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2014/02/isis-losing-ground-deir-al-zour-jabhat.html

28. Nelly Lahoud and Muhammad Al-`Ubaydi, “The War of Jihadists against Jihadists in Syria,” CTC Sentinel, March 2014, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-war-of-jihadists-against-jihadists-in-syria

29. Thomas Joscelyn, “Social Media Jihad: (Updated) No Interview with Ayman Al Zawahiri on Syrian Conflict,” Long War Journal, March 24, 2014, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/03/social_media_jihad_forthcoming.php

30. See for instance Abdullah Suleiman Ali, “Internal Divisions Lead to ‘Hemorrhaging’ of Jabhat al-Nusra Leaders,” Al Monitor, July 23, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/ pulse/security/2015/07/syria-jabhat-al-nusra-dismissal- leaders-secrets.html and Aron Lund, “Syria’s Al-Qaeda Wing Searches for a Strategy,” Carnegie Diwan Middle East Center, September 18, 2014, http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/56673?lang=en

31. Author’s interview with Abu Mahmoud al-Filastini, July 15–16, 2016, London.

32. The letter by Abu Mariya Al-Qahtani, “‘رسالة جديدة من الشيخ أبي ماريا القحطاني للشيخ الظواهري يكشف فيها حقائق جديده’ (New Message from Sheikh Abu Mariya Al-Qahtani to Sheikh Al-Zawahiri Revealing New Facts),” August 2014, can be found on: https://justpaste.it/marsad195 (accessed December 28, 2016).

33. Al-Qahtani’s criticism of Jihadi leaders titled ”رسالة إلى أهلنا في الشرقية” (Message to Our People in Al-Sharqiyya),” August 3, 2014, can be accessed on: https://justpaste.it/Al2sad7 (accessed December 28, 2016).

34. From author’s interview series with Al Maqalaat, a Jihadi analyst closely affiliated with Al Qaeda Interview Part One titled “The Consecutive Subject: Mutual Target Prioritization,” July 21, 2016: https://justpaste.it/consecutive_subject

35. The translated part of the letter used here is taken from the author’s interview with the Jihadi-Salafi analyst Ahmad Al Hamdan. You can find the interview here: http://www.jihadica.com/analysis-of-the-current-situation-in-the-global-jihad-total-war/. The author has a digital version of the letter.

36. Abu Khalil Al-Madani, “Advice to All the Fighting Groups in the Cause of Allah,” As-Sahab Media Productions, April 9, 2014.

37. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, “Testimony to Preserve the Blood of the Mujahideen in Shaam,” May 2, 2014.

38. Also on May 2, 2014, al-Zawahiri responds to the message of the five senior sheikhs, explaining how he with his “Testimony to Preserve the blood of the Mujahideen in Shaam” has responded to their questions (which in fact were criticism).

39. Abu ‘Abdullah Al-Shami, “A Message from Abu ‘Abdullah as-Shami, Member of Majlis Shura of Jabhat an-Nusra and a Member of the Shariah Committee,” March 5, 2014, https://pietervanostaeyen.com/2014/03/08/a-message-from-abu-abdullah-as-shami-member-of-majlis-shura-of-jabhat-an-nusra-and-a-member-of-the-shariah-committee/

40. Tariq Abdelhaleem and Hani Al-Sibai, “A Declaration of Disownment and Divergence From the Ideology and Actions of ISIS,” Al Maqreze Centre for Historical Studies (London, 2014).

41. Khawarij, literally “seceders,” was an early Islamic sect that became known under this name because of their rebellion against the fourth caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib after he agreed to arbitration with Muawiyah.

42. Abu Qatada Al-Filastini, “رسالة لأهل الجهاد بالشام (Message to the People of Jihad in Ash-Sham),” 2013.

43. Abu Qatada Al-Filastini, “A Letter to the People of Jihād and Those Who Love Jihād,” Al-Baseera Media Productions, April 28, 2014.

44. Another example of a prominent Jihadi scholar labelling the Islamic State as Khawarij is Abdullah al-Muhaysini, who on October 19, 2015 published “Why Did They Call Them Khawaarij?” in which he lists 25 characteristics of the khawaarij that are present in IS today.

45. For more on Jama’at al-Muslimeen, see Kévin Jackson, “The Forgotten Calipahte,” December 31, 2014: http://www.jihadica.com/the-forgotten-caliphate/

46. Author’s interview with Abu Qatada al-Filastini, December 7, 2016, Jordan.

47. Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, “A Call to the Ummah & Mujahideen,” 2014.

48. Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, “Why Did I Not Name Them Khawarij Even until Now?,” June 2015.

49. In a statement from March 2016 titled “قتل عاد وقتال الإستئصال بين الرغبات الدولية وشيخ الإسلام ابن تيمية” [The fight of Aad and the fight of eradication: between the wishes of international powers and Shaykh Al-Islam ibn Taymiyah], Maqdisi says he will stick to not calling them Khawarij despite the attacks against him.

50. See Maqdisi’s two statements titled “And Be Not Like Her who Undoes the Thread which She has Spun, After it has Become Strong” (July 10, 2014) and “This is some of what I have and not all of it” (July 2014).

51. For instance in Bin’ali’s “في الرد على أبي قتادة الإفادة” [Benefit in responding to Abu Qatada], April 29, 2014 in which Bin’ali expresses his surprise that a man so knowledgeable can backstab the Mujahideen, meaning the Islamic State.

52. An example is Zaydan’s “النقض لقول من جعل الخلافة الاسلامية من دين الرفض”, which is a rebuttal of an Abu Qatada letter criticizing the Islamic State. The article can be accessed here: https://thabat111.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/النقض-لقول-من-جعل-الخلافة-الاسلامية-من/

53. For instance Shinqiti’s statement from January 8, 2014 titled “فتاوى بلا طيار” [A Stable Verdict] in which he criticizes senior scholars for saying the Islamic State is not a lawful emirate, accusing these scholars of being the source of the fitna. For more see Cole Bunzel, “The Islamic State of Disunity: Jihadism Divided,” Jihadica, January 30, 2014, http://www.jihadica.com/the-islamic-state-of-disunity-jihadism-divided/

54. Abu Muhammad Al-’Adnani, “Apologies, Amīr of Al-Qāʿidah,” Al-Furqan Media Foundation, May 11, 2014, https://pietervanostaeyen.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/new-audio-message-by-isis-shaykh-abu-muhammad-al-adnani-as-shami-apologies-amir-al-qaida/

55. Al-’Adnani, “This Is the Promise of Allah.”

56. Majlis Shura ahl al-ilm Fi-l-Sham, “Response of the Ulama of Shaam to Sheikh Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdese,” August 30, 2015.

58. “Fatwa by Some of the Scholars of Jihad Regarding the IS Group’s Attack on the Mujahideen,” June 3, 2015.

59. Della Porta, Clandestine Political Violence (see note 6 above), 75.

60. Ibid.

61. For more on the Islamic State’s media, see for instance Scott Gates and Sukanya Podder, “Social Media, Recruitment, Allegiance and the Islamic State,” Perspectives on Terrorism 9, no. 4 (2015): 107–16; Aaron Zelin, “Picture Or It Didn’t Happen: A Snapshot of the Islamic State’s Official Media Output,” Perspectives on Terrorism 9, no. 4 (2015): 85–97.

62. In “The Dawn of Mass Jihad: Success in Syria Fuels Al-Qai’da’s Evolution,” CTC Sentinel, September 7, 2016, Charles Lister describes how the emergence of the Islamic State in mid-2014 led Jabhat al-Nusra to reveal more about its hard-line Islamist nature.

64. Patrick Cockburn, “Syrian Civil War: Jabhat al-Nusra’s Massacre of Druze Villagers Shows They’re just as Nasty as Isis,” Independent, June 13, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/syrian-civil-war-jabhat-al-nusras-massacre-of-druze-villagers-shows-the-group-is-just-as-nasty-as-10318348.html

65. See letter captured from Abbottabad titled SOCOM-2012–0000019, p. 15.

66. Paul Cruickshank, “Al-Qaeda’s New Course Examining Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s Strategic Direction,” IHS Defense, Risk and Security Consulting, May (2012).

67. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner (Translation by Laura Mansfield, 2006 [2001]).

68. Bill Roggio, “Wuhayshi Imparted Lessons of AQAP Operations in Yemen to AQIM,” Long War Journal, August 12, 2013, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2013/08/wuhayshi_imparts_les.php

69. See for instance AQAP’s magazine Al-Masra no. 35 page 2, where criticizes the Istanbul attack and the killing of innocent Muslims.

70. Adam Simpson, “The ‘Islamic State’ Challenges Al-Qaeda in Yemen,” International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, January 7, 2016.

71. Author’s interview with Abu Qatada al-Filastini, December 7, 2016, Jordan.

72. Nelly Lahoud, The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

73. This said, the split between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State has led Sunni Jihadism to become an extremely competitive field, where actors are fighting an increasingly politicized struggle about both ideology and authority. For an elaboration on role of ideology see Abu Hanieh and Abu Rumman, The “Islamic State” Organization: The Sunni Crisis and the Struggle of Global Jihadism. In the book, the two authors conclude that the fitna is both the result of competing ideologies and a struggle for power.

74. Tore Hamming, “The Extremist Wing of the Islamic State,” Jihadica, June 9, 2016, http://www.jihadica.com/the-extremist-wing-of-the-islamic-state/

75. Richard English, Does Terrorism Work? (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016), 30.

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