IS came into the limelight only during the Syrian Civil War which began around the late 2011 after the Arab Spring protests fail to unseat President Bashar Al Assad and turned into an armed conflict.
Even during the initial days of the civil war, when the fight was not about religion but about nationalism, IS wasn’t a big player on the ground. Though it was trying to make inroads into Syria from its bases in Iraq, yet it maintained a low profile. When the conflict was prolonged and the main objective became religion rather than nationalism, most groups got a numerical boost that was when the IS began to prosper.
What brought maximum attention to the group was when they started occupying and contolling towns in Syria and implementing a strict Quraan law by interpreting it in a fanatical way; this was when they called themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. With the increase in attention, so grew the number of recruits and contributors all over the world.
The group is a very pragmatic one when it comes to prolonging the fight by financing it and keeping it alive. So it resorted to all manners of extortions, robberies, kidnappings for ransom and the like to keep themselves well funded. They relied less on external support. This again, is a very pragmatic move. This ensures lesser dependency on external actors and therefore lesser pressures. Then they started gaining control of oil wells in Syria and started selling its oil, ironically enough, to the Assad government itself.
Then finally came the capture of cities in Iraq, this was when the world finally woke up to the threat the IS posed which is now flared into a big discussion. Many commentators believe that the IS has now surpassed the power of the Al-Qaeda, which perhanps could be considered an umbrella organization for the global jihad.
There is certain merit in that argument. After all the IS is perhaps the only jihadi organization which has fixed territories and boundaries which it holds. Its leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi was so confident of his gains, he declared himself to be the Caliph of the territory his organization now held. In addition they are well endowed with resources, recruits and weapons, thereby becoming nearly self-sustaining.
However, this may sound big now. The big picture will always prove that the IS will never be a bigger threat than the Al-Qaeda.
First of all, the IS is brutal. They have alienated everybody. Their only allies right now happen to be a few Sunnis in Iraq who may be willing to support them. There is not a single state in the world that would call the IS its ally. If anything, the international community is united in the opinion that the IS needs to be defeated. Even the Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia has called the IS a threat. Their brutality in terms of killing indiscriminately has alienated them from everybody. Not only that, the IS has issued threats to almost everybody of death and occupation. The IS recently issued a threat to President Putin of Russia vowing to take Chechnya and Dagestan. Such threats don’t leave them with a lot of friends.
The traditional dichotomy in dealing with terrorists, whether they are freedom fighters or terrorists is now pretty clear in the IS context; they have been understood as terrorists all over the globe without an exception.
We can see new convergences as a result of the rise of the IS, some of them extremely unusual. For example, USA and Iran have common intentions of having an Iraq free of IS. Turkey is suddenly warmer towards the Kurds because the IS is a more dangerous enemy. In fact, the IS has targeted Turkish diplomatic personnel in Iraq. And finally, this being the most ironic, the Al-Qaeda and the USA are on the same page. The Al-Qaeda has declared that the IS is too violent and are betraying global jihad with their violent ways.
So in short, it has no allies, it has managed to unite the world against it, and its obsession with fame has ensured that it will remain limited to the current territory they hold, which again, is dwindling because Iraq is fighting back really hard and are trying to push them out of the towns they have been occupying. It has also received very wide condemnation across the Muslim clergy around the world for the self-appointment of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi as Caliph being illegal.
Now on the other hand, the Al-Qaeda emerges as the winner.
First of all, the world now sees Al-Qaeda as a saner and a more rational organization. The world is now convinced that there actually could be somebody worse than the Al-Qaeda. Some may even have crazy ideas of empowering the Al-Qaeda to snuff out the IS. This by itself is bad. They would have secured support of the extremist Muslim clergy and therefore a more legal sanction as the true organization upholding global jihad. This keeps them above the IS in terms of standing.
Secondly, while the world concentrates on the threat from the IS, the Al-Qaeda is working on the side-lines. They are collecting funds, recruits, gaining influence and power while infiltrating new areas and bolstering the various branches it has all over the world. This is merely down-time for them. One that helps you recuperate, re-arm and get ready for the future.
Thirdly, the IS has unwittingly played into the hands of the Al-Qaeda. If anything the IS has brought the topic of global jihad back into the headlines. It has created discussion amongst Muslims all over the world. The IS is soaking up a lot of recruits especially now from all over the world. Many commentators think that this is a setback to the Al-Qaeda. It is not.
For one, the recruits thronging the IS can be described as enthusiastic youth at best. Many of them are unemployed back in their home countries, with very little prospects and very little to do. Many of them may feel persecuted due to their identity especially in the West and so this is a good chance to gain some respect. Their understanding of Islam is rudimentary.
A recent article came out which stated that the Amazon shopping carts of many IS volunteers contained books such as “Islam for Dummies” clearly indicating that they are misguided and that religion may not be the dominating factor why they are volunteering.
The Al-Qaeda on the other hand wants volunteers who have a better understanding of what they are doing and why they are in it. They want volunteers who have specialized skills and will be able to blend in as well-adjusted individuals in society. The maladjusted, misunderstood, unemployed youth of the IS variety is not something the Al-Qaeda is looking for.
On all these counts, it looks like the Al-Qaeda has gained significantly from the current war in Iraq and Syria. The IS will in all probability die out soon. It will be very hard for them to expand and the problem with the IS remains that it tries to fight like a conventional army when it is not. It seems a little late to change tactics given the kind of territory it holds now. Al-Qaeda in the meantime would have emerged as a stronger organization by then.
The Al-Qaeda will remain a bigger threat in the future.
Ashwath is a graduate in Political Science from Fergusson College, Pune. He is an aspiring diplomat and hopes to join the Indian Foreign Service someday. He enjoys writing about foreign policy, international security and international affairs. When he is not writing or reading, he enjoys playing pool with his friends, watching foreign cinema and listening to instrumental music.