How ISIS overtook al-Qaeda
New York - Omar Mateen stormed a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others and declared his allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS). The group proclaimed the shooter “one of the soldiers of the caliphate in America”.
US officials cautioned that, even if Mateen was inspired by ISIS to undertake the worst mass shooting in modern US history, there was no evidence he had a direct link to the group. Rather, Mateen might have heeded a call by ISIS leaders to carry out “lone wolf” attacks in the West, especially during Ramadan.
ISIS has in many ways overshadowed al-Qaeda as the world’s most serious terrorist threat. Western and Middle Eastern security officials view ISIS as the greater danger to domestic security, especially because of ISIS’s mastery of social media and its ability to recruit thousands of disenchanted young Muslims into its ranks.
After ISIS seized territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014, the group proclaimed a caliphate and named its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as caliph and “leader of Muslims everywhere”. ISIS has governed territory, trained thousands of fighters and generated income from illicit trade in oil and other resources — all on a scale larger than anything al-Qaeda achieved. ISIS also established a larger recruitment effort and more sophisticated social media presence than al-Qaeda.
ISIS controls more resources and generates more income than al-Qaeda. The group sells oil and wheat, imposes taxes on residents of the territory it controls and collects money paid through extortion. In 2014, ISIS raked in about $2 billion, according to the US Treasury Department. Al-Qaeda has historically relied on donations from wealthy individuals, especially from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
Even in its weakened state, al- Qaeda poses a danger. In recent years, al-Qaeda has become more active in Yemen and has established a strong affiliate in Syria, al- Nusra Front, which is a dominant force among the jihadists fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
ISIS and al-Qaeda differ in important ways: Al-Qaeda wants to overthrow what it views as the corrupt and “apostate” regimes of the Middle East — the “near enemy”. To do so, al-Qaeda’s leaders focused on the “far enemy” — the United States and the West.
That focus was motivated by US support for regimes in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which spawned al-Qaeda’s top leaders. Both Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, and his top lieutenant and successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, at first turned against the leadership at home.
Realising that the United States was helping prop up those regimes, they targeted the “far enemy”. In taking on the United States, al- Qaeda apparently believes it will force Washington to withdraw its support for autocratic Arab regimes and abandon the Middle East.
ISIS does not subscribe to al-Qaeda’s vision and instead focuses on the “near enemy” — the so-called apostate regimes in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Arab world. ISIS has been more successful in strategy, which relies on capturing and holding territory.
It was Zawahiri who convinced bin Laden to shift attention to the “far enemy”, helping inspire the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Zawahiri fled Egypt in the early 1980s, after serving three years in prison for belonging to an outlawed militant group. He spent time in Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he met bin Laden in 1987.
Zawahiri established an office in Peshawar, a Pakistani city near the Afghan border that served as a training ground and supply conduit for the Afghan resistance. It was in Peshawar that Zawahiri began to reshape bin Laden’s thinking about militant Islam. Zawahiri helped turn bin Laden from a financial backer of the Afghan resistance into a strong believer in the ideology of jihad, fighting against the perceived enemies of Islam.
As al-Qaeda’s influence waned, ISIS tried to fill the vacuum by expanding. In November 2014, Baghdadi announced he was creating new “provinces” of his self-declared caliphate in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria and Egypt. While ISIS sympathisers had pledged allegiance to Baghdadi in other regions, he singled out countries where the movement had a strong support base and could mount sustained attacks.
Baghdadi also called on supporters to carry out “lone wolf” attacks wherever possible. “Oh soldiers of the Islamic State, erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere,” he declared. “Light the Earth with fire against all dictators.” And for more than a year, ISIS militants have been heeding the self-proclaimed caliph’s call.