Debunking the myth that al Qaeda doesn’t seek to control territory like the Islamic State

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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Arjuna says:

    Noting the excellent analysis above, I would simply add that the Islamic State have always been the bastard stepchild of Al Qaeda (or Umm Qaeda, the Base or Mother in this sense). This is because: (1) Baghdadi came up through Al Qaeda in Iraq, (2) he views himself as the legitimate successor of OBL as the leader of the Sunni Mujahideen, and (3) he has taken Abu Musab Al Suri’s long term strategy for AQ and simply moved it up by 3-5 years.
    The two groups are infinitely more similar than they are different. To wit, they are both extremely lethal and moving towards a rapprochement, as AAZ’s last message suggests. Z even stresses that Baghdadi is the head of an emirate, making him a legitimate emir, if not the caliph. They (AQ and IS) are going to try to outdo each other with more and more spectacular attacks (what I refer to as “operational outbidding”) and eventually, the use of WMD. When someone lands a big blow, it will influence greatly their relative strength as the head of the snake.

  • RichardL says:

    to add to the comment of Arjuna (with whom I agree on all points, including his rating of the analysis): it is not known where al Suri is and he might well be doing what he has been doing so well for so long, i.e. give advice for the jihadi cause. He might have joined the caliphate. His strategy (that guy even quotes from Bakunin!) clashed with OBL’s strategy and maybe he did not feel at home with AQ any longer or it got too dangerous. He certainly has very little in common with Zawahiri.

    The media narrative of the last 6 years was the narrative that Obama wanted to be spread. I stopped listening a long time ago. It really angers me when I read that IS is “too extremist even for AQ”. Just because Obama wants to arm AQ.

    The stupidest strategic maxim will always be, my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

  • Tony says:

    Well, take a look at AQ (Nusra) on all these maps about who controls what in Syria. Nusra shows up as grey, Islamic State as black. That about sums it up. Nusra is very clever in co-opting other groups, because it does seem that the armed factions being united together increased their strength on the battlefield. See: Jaysh al Fatah.

    Islamic State goes so far as to even execute Taliban informants by blowing them up (something LWJ didn’t seem to cover) and I’d say that they can only get away with that because they are still such a Jihadist powerhouse. Once, or should I say if, they lose large parts of what they control in Iraq and Syria, they won’t have the magnetic pull they once did.

  • mike merlo says:

    how Foreign Policy arrived at such a conclusion is beyond me. Just the usual nonsensical rubbish that regularly emanates from the ‘Blink’ Tankers

    with all due respect its a gross ‘misunderstatement’ to characterize IS as a “bastard stepchild.” In any Revolution be it religious, ideological, etc., ‘evolutions’ of various sorts & degrees always take place. What has taken place with IS in respect to AQ is a natural outgrowth of an Organic Event that’s fraught with dynamic tensions always in search of ‘expressions.’ These same ‘expressions’ have taken place multiple times in the AfPak Theater. Initially Zaraqawi was acting independently of any AQ Religious oversight or fealty. We now know that it was AQ that acquiesced to Zaraqawi’s intransigence not the other way around. That the emergence of a Baghdadi & the accompanying ‘apparati’ didn’t emerge sooner rather than later is IMO more of a surprise as opposed to what has transpired

  • Arjuna says:

    Good points, Mike. I just meant that they are bastards full stop and children of AQ in the sense that they came later in time. I like to call the killers of ISIS “Al Qaeda on steroids”… they are faster, bigger, badder and stronger, but AQ are much sneakier which is why we can’t let our guard down and focus only on the loudmouths.
    I believe the scuttlebutt that Baghdadi was in touch directly with Bin Laden before OBL died and was already dreaming of an end run around the Egyptian before the Pacer was killed. This probably supports your theory of insurgent evolution. As Omar BL said about dad: “His followers will be much worse.” Ain’t that the truth.

  • Arjuna says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, RichardL. This Sky source sounds awfully sure that Abu Musab Al Suri is in Iran, recently “freed” and on his way to Syria (presumably to hook up with Nusra or, more likely, the Khorasan Group). He ain’t in the Caliphate in my opinion. He’s dyed-in-the-wool AQ.


    Can’t blame the Persians for making that trade. At least they got one of their Knights (a Diplomat) back, unlike another country I know which traded a Pawn, a sad sack, doped-up deserter, for FIVE enemy Knights.

  • aze says:

    The fact is that it is a point the Islamic State raises against Al Qaeda: it doesn’t seek to control territories.

    You probably need more in depth analysis to understand why…


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