It’s Not You, It’s Me: Key Questions on the al-Qaeda-ISIS Breakup

Photo by Scott Bobb/Wikimedia Commons

By Jeff Burdette |

In early February 2014, al-Qaeda, in a statement posted to an Islamist forum, publicly washed its hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), announcing its decision to sever ties and deny any responsibility over the group’s actions.[1] While the announcement was notable for its open and public nature, few al-Qaeda watchers were surprised to see the formalization of a breakup that began some time ago; one expert observed wryly that Zawahiri had fired a “guy who was very obviously no longer working for him.”[2] But the official breakup raises key questions about the future of ISIS and al-Qaeda, the growing competition between their two opposing ideologies, and the impact of the competition on the future direction of the global jihadist movement.

Public attention to the dispute dates to June 2013, when al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly rebuked ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for attempting to assert control over Jabhat al-Nusra (JN).[3] Rather than accepting this reprimand from his notional superior, Baghdadi released a statement detailing his “many legal and methodological reservations” with Zawahiri’s letter and announcing that he instead “chose the order of God over the orders that contravene Allah in the letter.”[4] In recent weeks the gulf between ISIS and al-Qaeda has widened further as a result of the outbreak of fighting between ISIS and other Syrian rebel groups, including JN.[5]

Baghdadi’s open defiance of Zawahiri this summer highlighted the rift, but its roots stretch back much further. In 2005, Atiyah abd al-Rahman[6] and Ayman al-Zawahiri[7] both wrote to al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi urging him to rein in his brutal violence toward other Muslims and focus instead on infidel Americans. Other than changes in some of the players (then attacks on Shias were a distraction from American and coalition forces, today fighting with other Islamist groups draws attention away from Alawites and the Assad regime), the substance of these old criticisms is not much different from those voiced by many prominent jihadist figures today. For instance, al-Qaeda cleric Abu Qatada recently bemoaned the damaging strategic and ideological consequences of infighting in Syria: “Your jihad in al-Sham belongs to the umma, not to you. Every day that passes with the brothers not resolving their differences will result in more evil.”[8]

While tension between ISIS and al-Qaeda is not new, the consequences of this public breakup certainly are. The question remains: what impact will the separation of al-Qaeda and its former affiliate to have?

First, will ISIS weaken? As a result of the announcement, ISIS is likely to see some defections. A day after al-Qaeda’s statement went public Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al-Muhaysini, an influential cleric, announced to his nearly 300,000 twitter followers that ISIS members should defect and join JN or the Islamic Front.[9] Open criticism from a key jihadist ideologue doubtlessly stings ISIS, but it’s unclear whether this will have a significant effect on fundraising and recruiting. ISIS’s ideological rigidity appeals to a different type jihadist than groups such as JN. While JN stresses the local fight against Assad and urges rebel unity, ISIS openly trumpets its regional and global aspirations and values strict ideological purity over a broader coalition. More concretely, ISIS has also long since developed its own extensive fundraising and recruiting channels, independent of al-Qaeda.[10] As in any organization – terrorist or otherwise – success is its own recruiting tool, and ISIS can point to numerous high profile victories. In Syria, foreign fighters have been a particular boon; a large number of the estimated 11,000 plus foreign fighters who have entered the war have joined ISIS. Finally, ISIS’s territorial gains signal its growing strength amidst other rebel factions in the war.[11] While ISIS has recently lost some ground to other factions, it nonetheless holds large swaths of territory in northern Syria.[12] More recently, the group won a major symbolic victory by seizing Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq – it still holds parts of both – and even seized parts of the town of Sulaiman Bek in northern Iraq.[13]

Second, will the split have lasting consequences for the al-Qaeda brand? If ISIS falters, al-Qaeda will have a cautionary tale that it can use to discipline other dissident affiliates. But if ISIS thrives, affiliates may question whether they benefit from adopting the al-Qaeda label.

Whether or not they conceive of themselves as a direct competitor, ISIS’s ambitions certainly threaten al-Qaeda’s claims to leadership of the worldwide jihadist movement. Baghdadi has demonstrated his global aspirations by anointing himself Emir al-Mu’mineen (Commander of the Faithful), a religiously significant title traditionally bestowed upon caliphs. ISIS is also increasingly attractive to other jihadist groups. It has reportedly won the support of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based group responsible for several recent high profile attacks in Egypt. ISIS’s success in seizing and holding territory in Iraq and Syria offers them a prominent platform to showcase its ideological and strategic conception of global jihad.[14]

Finally, if the ISIS brand does grow at the expense of al-Qaeda, what consequences will it have for the jihadist milieu? Al-Qaeda has often emphasized unity and practical strategic concerns over ideological purity. For instance, in Zawahiri’s 2005 letter to Zarqawi he argues that even though targeting Shias is theologically just, or even desirable, doing so before the West has been defeated is poor strategy. Similarly, he urges Zarqawi to refrain from brazen acts of slaughter and resist the impulse to impose sharia too quickly in the areas he seizes. He tells Zarqawi to implement Islamic law in cooperation with the local population, not against their wishes. Further, Zawahiri argues that strategic errors risk undermining popular support, which, in his view, is “the strongest weapon which the mujahideen enjoy.”[15] While al-Qaeda’s worldview may at least occasionally act as a brake on aggression and brutality, ISIS does not even have the pretense of such constraints. From Zarqawi to Baghdadi, ISIS has been largely uninterested in courting public support or in subverting ideological considerations to strategic ones. As has been made starkly clear by ISIS’s campaign in Syria, neither unity nor the views of locals are a priority.[16] ISIS has often been accused by other rebel groups of expending more resources and energy attacking fellow rebels and consolidating the areas it has seized than targeting the Assad regime it is ostensibly in Syria to fight.[17]

One of the more curious results of the recent rebel infighting is that JN, despite its impeccable al-Qaeda credentials, has at times been portrayed as moderate, at least in comparison with ISIS. While JN certainly cannot claim moderation in any reasonable sense of the word, it may emerge as the least radical jihadist option if the ISIS brand gains currency.

Jeff Burdette is a Master’s candidate in Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. His research interests include jihadist terrorism and Middle East security issues.

[1] “Translation of al-Qaeda Statement on February 3, 2014, Acknowledging ISIS Officially Isn’t Party of AQ.” Available at:

[2] J.M. Berger,, February 3, 2014, available at:

[3] “Translation of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s letter to the leaders of the two Jihadi groups.” Available from:

[4] “Iraqi al-Qaeda chief rejects Zawahiri orders,” Al-Jazeera, June 15, 2013. Available at:

[5] Abdullah Suleiman Ali, trans. Joelle El-Khoury, “ISIS losing ground in Syria to Jabhat al-Nusra,” As-Safir, February 12, 2014. Available at:

[6] “Atiyah’s Letter to Zarqawi- English Translation.” Available at:

[7] “Zawahiri’s Letter to Zarqawi- English Translation.” Available at:

[8] Tamer al-Samadi, trans. Rani Geha, “Rift grows between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS,” al-Hayat, November 15, 2013. Available at:

[9] Thomas Joscelyn, “Pro al-Qaeda cleric calls on ISIS members to defect,” Long War Journal, February 3, 2014. Available at:

[10] Mushreq Abbas, “ISIS leader al-Baghdadi proves formidable enemy,” Al-Monitor, February 5, 2014. Available at:

[11] Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Syrian rebel groups pulling in foreign fighters,” BBC, December 24, 2013. Available at:

[12] Evan Wexler and Sarah Childress, “Map: Syria’s Shifting Battle Lines,” PBS, February 11, 2014. Available at:

[13] “Militants seize part of north Iraq town, villages,” Al-Arabiya, February 13, 2014. Available at:

[14] Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “ISIS, al-Qaeda compete for supremacy in global jihad,” Al-Monitor, February 11, 2014. Available at:

[15] This is not to claim that al-Qaeda has always followed its own advice. Al-Qaeda groups have imposed harsh Islamic rule wherever they have seized territory and bear responsibility for several thousand Muslim deaths.

[16] Marlin Dick, “ISIS condemned for brutal murder of fellow jihadist,” Daily Star, January 3, 2014. Available at:

[17] “Syria: Western-backed Coalition accuse ISIS of serving Assad’s interests,” Asharq al-Awsat, January 2, 2014. Available at:

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