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How Islamic State overtook al Qaeda

Police forensic investigators work at the crime scene of a mass shooting at the Pulse gay night club in Orlando, Florida, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Mohamad Bazzi

On June 12, a gunman stormed a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others. During the massacre and ensuing three-hour standoff with police, the shooter, Omar Mateen, called 911 and declared his allegiance to Islamic State. The group claimed responsibility the next day, proclaiming Mateen “one of the soldiers of the caliphate in America.”

But US officials cautioned that even if Mateen was inspired by Islamic State to undertake the worst mass shooting in modern US history, there was still no evidence he had a direct link to the group – that he had been trained or instructed by its terror planners. Rather, Mateen might have heeded the call of Islamic State leaders to carry out “lone wolf” attacks in the West, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.

Two years ago, Islamic State militants marched into Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. In quick succession, the jihadists captured a large swath of northern Iraq and consolidated their control over parts of Syria. Today, Islamic State has in many ways overshadowed al Qaeda as the world’s most serious terrorist threat. Western and Middle Eastern security officials now view Islamic State as the greater danger to their domestic security, especially because of its mastery of social media and its ability to recruit thousands of disenchanted young Muslims into its ranks.

Since 2013, Islamic State and al Qaeda have been competing for funding, recruits and prestige – and they often argue over tactics. Islamic State has overshadowed al Qaeda in the wholesale slaughter of civilians, as epitomised by recent attacks in Paris, Baghdad, Beirut and elsewhere. By late 2014, Islamic State seized large chunks of territory in Syria and Iraq. The group then proclaimed a caliphate in the territory under its control, and named its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as caliph and “leader of Muslims everywhere”.

Islamic State established a regional base that has allowed it to govern territory, train thousands of fighters and generate income from illicit trade in oil and other resources – all on a scale larger than anything al Qaeda has achieved. Islamic State has also established a larger recruitment effort and more sophisticated social media presence than al Qaeda’s.

With its self-declared caliphate, Islamic State has gained control of more resources and generated more income than al Qaeda. The group generates money by selling oil and wheat, imposing taxes on residents of the territory it controls, and through extortion. In 2014, Islamic State raked in about $2 billion, according to the US Treasury Department. That included $500 million in oil sales on the underground market, and up to $1 billion in cash stolen from banks while the group made its initial march across Syria and Iraq. By contrast, al Qaeda has historically relied on donations from wealthy individuals, especially in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

But even in its weakened state, al Qaeda still poses a danger to the West, the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. In recent years, al Qaeda has become more active in Yemen and it has established a strong affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, which is a dominant force among the jihadists fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It’s essential not to underestimate al Qaeda’s ability to evolve and adapt to a new landscape – as it has done before. When the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to drive out the ruling Taliban movement that sheltered Osama bin Laden and his supporters, al Qaeda was temporarily thrown off balance. It quickly regrouped, dispersing its surviving members, distributing its ideological tracts and techniques to a wider audience on the internet, and encouraging new recruits to act autonomously under its banner.

Islamic State and al Qaeda differ in other important ways: al Qaeda wants to overthrow what it views as the corrupt and “apostate” regimes of the Middle East – the “near enemy”. But in order to do so, al Qaeda’s leaders focused on the “far enemy”: the United States and the West.

That focus was partly motivated by US actions abroad. For decades, Washington has supported repressive regimes in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which spawned al Qaeda’s top leaders. Both bin Laden, a Saudi, and his top lieutenant and successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, at first turned against the dictators at home. Then – realising that the United States was helping to prop up these regimes – they targeted the “far enemy”. We will never know whether these men would have attacked America if it hadn’t supported the governments they were trying to destroy. But it did not help.

In targeting America, al Qaeda believes it will eventually force Washington to withdraw its support for autocratic Arab regimes and abandon the Middle East entirely. But Islamic State does not subscribe to al Qaeda’s vision and instead it mainly focuses on the “near enemy” – meaning the so-called apostate regimes in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Arab world. So far, Islamic State has been more successful in its strategy, which relies on capturing and holding territory.

It was Zawahiri who convinced bin Laden to shift his attention to the “far enemy,” helping inspire the Sept. 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 first met bin Laden in 1987. At the time, bin Laden, a multimillionaire Saudi dissident, helped train and finance a cadre of “Afghan Arabs”, Islamist volunteers from across the Middle East who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Those fighters later formed the foundation of bin Laden’s network.

In the late 1980s, Zawahiri established an office in Peshawar, a Pakistani city near the Afghan border that served as training ground and supply conduit for the Afghan resistance. It was in Peshawar that Zawahiri began to cement his relationship with bin Laden – and to reshape the Saudi’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, Islamic State has tried to fill the vacuum by expanding into new territory. In November 2014, Baghdadi announced that he was creating new “provinces” of his self-declared caliphate in five new countries: Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria and Egypt. While Islamic State sympathisers had pledged allegiance to Baghdadi in other states, he singled out only those countries where the movement has a strong support base and could mount sustained attacks.

But Baghdadi also called on his 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, Islamic State militants have been heeding the self-proclaimed caliph’s call.


Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday. He is writing a book on the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran. He tweets @BazziNYU

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