Has ISIS eclipsed al-Qaeda?
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which controls a large swath of territory stretching over the borders of Iraq and Syria, has surpassed the power and influence of Al-Qaeda, the group from which it traces its origins, experts say.
ISIS, which began in 2004 under the name of the Organization of Monotheism and Jihad (JTJ) as a loyal offshoot of Osama bin Laden’s veteran Al-Qaeda, evolved over the years into its own entity, gaining critical mass during the Syrian civil war which erupted during the Arab Spring in 2011.
But splits would soon emerge.
In late 2013, Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered that ISIS be disbanded. ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, however, contested al-Zawahiri’s ruling and the group continued to operate in Syria.
Then in February of this year, Al-Qaeda cut off all ties with ISIS – according to U.S. officials, due to the group’s extreme brutality and animosity toward other Islamist groups.
Although ISIS has had control over the Syrian city of Raqqa since last year and Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul since June 2014, in addition to a lot of other territory, Al-Qaeda – meaning “the base” – maintains a more global presence, with branches in countries including Somalia, Algeria and Yemen.
Earlier this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called ISIS “an imminent threat to every interest we have,” whether in Iraq or elsewhere, adding that the threat posed by the group could be larger than that posed by Al-Qaeda itself.
“This is beyond anything that we’ve seen,” Hagel said. “The sophistication of terrorism and ideology married with resources now poses a whole new dynamic and a new paradigm of threats to this country.”
The defense secretary’s comments mark “escalating rhetoric” from the Obama administration, soon after an ISIS video showing U.S. journalist James Foley being brutally beheaded was released last week, according to U.S.-based Foreign Policy magazine.
In response to Foley’s death, Barack Obama referred to the group as a “cancer” while just seven months ago he had likened the group to a basketball team.
“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said at the time.
Although ISIS would appear to enjoy more support from a larger following, the group’s land-grabbing tactics may make it unsustainable, said David Mack, a former U.S. ambassador and scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
“Right now, ISIS seems to have generated a lot of enthusiasm around what you might call the jihadist community but they will not be able to sustain that very well over the long term,” Mack told Al Arabiya News.
Al-Qaeda also has a different strategy than ISIS, according to Aymenn al-Tamimi, an expert with the Middle East Forum thinktank.
“Al-Qaeda central doesn’t control territory in the manner ISIS does,” Tamimi said, according to the Washington Post.
Charles Lister, a fellow at the Brookings Doha Center thinktank, told CNN in June – soon after ISIS’ announcement of its “Islamic caliphate,” that Al-Qaeda would retain considerable support, but that there would be a “dualistic position” of Al-Qaeda’s local focus and more cautious approach, and ISIS’s “hunger for rapid results.”
According to Ed Blanche, a terrorism expert, Al-Qaeda’s power seems to have culminated and then tailed off after their most notorious act – the attacks of the World Trade Center towers on Sep. 11, 2001.
“[ISIS have] probably eclipsed Al-Qaeda, which for all intents and purposes, started with a big bang on September 11t and sort of went downhill,” he told Al Arabiya News.
Being able to learn from Al-Qaeda enabled ISIS to grow faster, Blanche said.
“[ISIS] have probably been able to capitalize on … manpower much more ideologically prepared that Al-Qaeda was when it launched itself. So it’s utilized Al-Qaeda and eclipsed them at the same time,” he said.