A Reuters article published yesterday about an audiotape released by Ayman al Zawawiri perpetuates a facile narrative gaining credence in the media: that the Islamic State is unique as a jihadist movement in that it seeks to take territory and administer it, whereas al Qaeda is merely interested in blowing stuff up (especially Westerners). An excerpt:
While al Qaeda has specialized in high profile bombings, Islamic State seems bent on seizing and holding territory in its quest to create a self-sustaining caliphate.
Reuters has promoted this theory in the past. In another piece, from June, the wire service discussed the Islamic State’s offensive in the Iraqi city of Baiji:
Unlike its predecessor in Iraq al Qaeda, the group holds territory it captures. It now controls about a third of Iraq in the north and the west, as well as large parts of neighboring Syria.
This isn’t to single out Reuters; the idea has made the rounds of late as analysts seek to draw distinctions between al Qaeda and its rival and former branch, the Islamic State (the Islamic State was previously the Islamic State in Iraq, and prior to that, al Qaeda in Iraq). Another example is an article published at Foreign Policy titled, “Osama bin Laden Would Not Have Taken Ramadi”:
Put simply, al Qaeda was less interested in conquering territory and more interested in using affiliates around the globe to kill large numbers of westerners. The Islamic State’s priorities are almost exactly the opposite: seizing and holding territory in a way that would have made bin Laden uneasy while not yet focusing on mounting attacks outside the borders of its self-proclaimed caliphate.
Aside from being completely wrong about the history of al Qaeda in Iraq and its successor, the Islamic State of Iraq, what this line of analysis fails to understand is that al Qaeda and its branches and allies have in the past controlled territory, and continue to do so to this day. A simple look at al Qaeda’s position in terrorism’s hot spots throughout the world disproves the idea that the jihadist group does not wish to hold ground.
In Iraq, by early to mid-2006, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) controlled vast areas in the northern, central, western, and eastern areas of the country. It took the US military to surge more than 30,000 troops, the bolstering of Iraq’s security forces, and the support of the Sunni Awakening to eject AQI from areas it overtly controlled. Al Qaeda in Iraq/the Islamic State of Iraq openly held and administered territory for one and in some areas two years before the US and Iraqi offensive drove the group underground.
In Syria, al Qaeda’s branch, the Al Nusrah Front, in conjunction with its jihadist and rebel allies, controls a significant amount of land in the north. A key difference between Al Nusrah and the Islamic State is not territorial ambition; rather, al Qaeda’s official branch is just more clever than its rival, which refuses to cooperate with other jihadist groups. Al Nusrah’s strategy is far more dangerous and insidious; it co-opts allied groups and even so-called moderate rebels, making it far more difficult for the West to understand and address the threat.
In Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) controlled large areas of Abyan and Shabwa provinces for more than a year between 2011 and 2012. And, with the current chaos there after the advance of Iranian-supported Houthi rebels and the collapse of President Hadi’s government, AQAP again controls areas in Abyan, Shabwa, and Hadramout provinces.
In Somalia, the Islamic Courts Union, which was infused with al Qaeda operatives, controlled much of southern and central Somalia from the summer of 2006 until Ethiopian troops invaded in December 2006. Shabaab, which emerged from the ICU and is now al Qaeda’s official branch in East Africa, still controlled vast areas of the south, and retook the capital of Mogadishu and other major cities and towns by 2009. An offensive by African Union and Somali forces beginning in 2011 again drove Shabaab from most of its major strongholds, but the jihadist groups still controls rural areas and some towns to this day.
In Mali, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine (an AQIM front), and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (then a member of al Qaeda’s network), took control of northern portion of the country in early 2012 and held it until French forces intervened in early 2013.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaeda has supported both Taliban branches to take and hold territory. In Afghanistan, al Qaeda forces fought alongside the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” from 1996 to 2001, and continues to do so in support of its efforts to reinstate the Taliban. In Pakistan, al Qaeda helped establish the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan in late 2006 and supported its push to control most of the northwestern tribal areas between 2007 to 2009. Al Qaeda continues to support the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan and other Taliban groups inside Pakistan as they wage their insurgencies.
In Libya, al Qaeda and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are following the same strategy as the Al Nusrah Front and embedding itself within other local jihadist groups, such as the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC). The MSC controls the city of Derna.
A simple look at the history of al Qaeda and its regional branches and their efforts and success with taking and holding ground shows that al Qaeda is not “more interested in using affiliates around the globe to kill large numbers of westerners,” as Foreign Policy wrongly claimed.
A major difference between al Qaeda and the Islamic State is that the former believes the caliphate should not be established until the conditions are right and there is a consensus among Muslims for the establishment of said caliphate. The Islamic State, on the other hand, believes the caliphate must be declared now and anyone who stands in its way is its enemy.
Despite the fact that both groups seek to govern, the Islamic State has been successful in selling itself as a radically different organization. This perception is partially fueled by its rapid takeover of territory in Iraq and Syria between 2013 and 2014 and the group’s slick and aggressive media campaign. But the real irony in all of this is that the Islamic State was actually part of al Qaeda’s global network when it seized control of vast areas in Syria and in western Anbar province in Iraq. The Islamic State wasn’t truly independent of al Qaeda until Ayman al Zawahiri ejected the group in February 2014.