Is ISIS bigger than al-Qaeda?

The recent arrest of 62 people in Saudi Arabia for collecting donations, coordinating the smuggling of individuals and weapons, terrorist planning to assassinate Saudi officials, and bomb government buildings is raising alarm about support networks of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – or ISIS. ISIS is gaining

adherents throughout the al-Qaeda universe including AQAP in Yemen.

The fear is that ISIS, which is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is quickly replacing al-Qaeda central headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri. The warning signs were apparent in late 2013 when al-Baghdadi started to distance himself and ISIS from al-Qaeda. Now ISIS is starting to transplant operations to neighboring states, branching out to its first target, the Saudi Kingdom. This development is dangerous.

Zawahiri disowned ISIS earlier this year. He said, “al-Qaeda al-Jihad announces that it has no link to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. It did not create it, did not invest it with authority, did not consult with it, and did not express approval of it. Rather, al-Qaeda ordered it to stop its actions. Therefore, it is not an al-Qaeda affiliate, no organizational relationship binds the two, and al-Qaeda is not responsible for its behavior.” Consequently, al-Zawahiri threw his support to al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda group in Syria. As we know, al-Nusra is fighting battles against ISIS.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Zawahiri’s rejection of ISIS has helped al-Baghdadi to weave his own narrative for global jihad that is attractive. He claims to be a descendant of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Al-Baghdadi has designated himself as a global leader of the jihad fighters in particular and of Muslims in general, and as a herald of the Caliphate. Importantly, al-Baghdadi argues an apocalyptic viewpoint: “One should also beware of the likelihood of a false messiah claimant appearing among them, who would in fact be the Dajjal (Anti-Christ).” ISIS at present find their strength in a region between Iraq and Syria, and this is the place from which Dajjal would likely emerge.

ISIS is gaining adherents throughout the al-Qaeda universe including AQAP in Yemen.
Dr. Theodore Karasik

This rhetoric, according to Arab officials, is trumping more traditional al-Qaeda theorists such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini, imprisoned in Jordan in the Umm al-Lu‘lu‘ facility in Zarqa and the Muwaqqar prison outside Amman. In addition, the narrative and critiques are attracting foreign fighters to Syria, where ISIS trains them in the battle field and in administrative and financial skills, and send them off to their homeland or to a third country for operational development.

Praise for Baghdadi is evident. On many jihadist web forums is a banner marking …”time passed since the announcement of the Islamic State and the umma’s forthcoming hope…and it will continue to persist by the will of God.” The symbolic importance of an Islamic State across jihadi social media goes some way in explaining the current outlook of such as an Islamic State as a state, not a group, and its wide appeal among extremist jihadis. Jihadi scholars such as Abu Ja‘far al-Hattab, a member of the Shariah Council of Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia, and the more mysterious Abu al-Hasan al-Azdi, who appears connected to the Shumukh forum are arguing to support and declare bayat (allegiance) to al-Baghdadi. While it began as a purely Iraqi entity, ISIS has since its very beginning entertained a vision of limitless territorial expansion for its state. The target now seems to be Saudi Arabia.

‘State’ development

The expansion of the concept in “state” development of ISIS is seen now in linkages to Yemen. In early 2014 AQAP leader in Yemen, Maamoun Hatem, declared his support for ISIS. Hatem tweeted a link to a speech titled “The Yemeni support for ISIS” to express support of ISIS and “refute the allegations against it.” Consequently, the linkage between ISIS and AQAP is apparent in the killing by drone of a Chechen and Uzbek fighters in Yemen in early May. The Yemeni army killed a top Al-Qaeda operative with Chechen links. Abu Islam al-Shishani was the first fighter from the Caucasus killed in the violence. He had reportedly fought against Russian forces in Chechnya before moving to Yemen to join AQAP, a merger of the network’s Yemeni and Saudi branches. Later, a local jihadist commander Abu Muslim al-Uzbeki had been killed in clashes in Abyan province. Arab officials claim that these two fighters had previously visited Syria to liaison with ISIS and it is assumed the two were in Yemen coordinating near term activities. The killings of the two also illustrate the role that foreign fighters play in regional violent jihadist activities.

ISIS’s rise at the expense of Zawahiri’s movement signals that a new, more dangerous hybrid based on state development by wrecking everything in its path is emerging from the Syrian terrorist incubator. Clearly ISIS is playing a significant role in turning the Syrian civil war into a highly sectarian, proxy war to achieve its religious obligations with fervor. Ultimately, ISIS seeks to create an Islamic state from where they would launch a global holy war. Perhaps that war is now beginning as Baghdadi’s ISIS eclipses al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda.


Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.

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