Chapter 1 - Dangerous liaisons: Will Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) strike a grand bargain?

Once written off as irrelevant, Al-Qaeda has proven extremely resilient and its offshoot, ISIL, has become an even greater menace. Could the two ultimately merge? Although they appear incompatible, their core objectives and strategies are similar. Both movements call for all Muslims to support their brothers, and both see no possibility of compromise with Western liberal states. They are divided on their use of violence, the current priority of attacking the far enemy and the timing of declaring a caliphate. While there are many obstacles to closer ties, the trajectories of these terrorist organisations have proven unpredictable. Neither side has completely rejected future cooperation. The dangers of an alliance are so dramatic that we must study what the second‑ and third‑order consequences of one would be.

You are pitiful, isolated individuals! You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of history!Footnote 1

Thus in 1917, Leon Trotsky consigned the Mensheviks to perennial insignificance—a fate from which they never recovered. Many would argue that only five years ago, Al-Qaeda’s downfall was similarly imminent. Its founder and leader was dead; a succession of key lieutenants had been eliminatedFootnote 2, and the transformative events of the Arab Spring that same year appeared to have further solidified this process. Civil protest, it was believed, had achieved what terrorism had manifestly failed to deliver. The longing for democracy and economic reform accordingly had triumphed over terrorism and sectarianism—with Al-Qaeda the big loserFootnote 3. The entire movement, in the words of a contemporaneous US State Department analysis, was “on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverseFootnote 4’’. As John O. Brennan, then Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counter-terrorism and Assistant to the President, told an audience gathered at a prominent Washington, DC think-tank in April 2012, “For the first time since this fight began, we can look ahead and envision a world in which the Al-Qaeda core is simply no longer relevantFootnote 5’’. Less than a month later, on the first anniversary of bin Laden’s killing, US President Barack Obama himself proudly proclaimed that, “The goal that I set—to defeat Al-Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild—is now within our reachFootnote 6’’.

How completely and utterly different it all looks today. In early February 2016, Director of US National Intelligence (DNI) James R. Clapper painted a singularly bleak and melancholy picture of a newly resurgent Al-Qaeda alongside an ambitiously expansionist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in his annual worldwide threat assessment. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “have proven resilient and are positioned to make gains in 2016 (...) They will continue to pose a threat to local, regional, and even possibly global interests (...)”. More alarming still was the rise of an even more sanguinary and extreme off-shoot. “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (…)”, the DNI explained, “has become the preeminent terrorist threat because of its self-described caliphate in Syria and Iraq, its branches and emerging branches in other countries, and its increasing ability to direct and inspire attacks against a wide range of targets around the worldFootnote 7’’.

If a week is a long time in politics, five years must seem like an eternity in global terrorism, given the depressing turn of events that General Clapper described. The ongoing fixation with the threat posed by ISIL makes it easy to forget that less than two years ago, an ‘Islamic State’ ruled by that group had not yet come into existence and that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s putative caliphate was nothing more than a self-indulgent reverie. Indeed, the Sykes-Picot boundaries appeared indelible and both President Obama and Vice-President Biden were trumpeting the stabilisation of democracy in Iraq and attendant withdrawal of US military forces as proof that “America's war in Iraq (...) is overFootnote 8’’.

Given this concatenation of astonishing developments in so short a period of time, is it really inconceivable to imagine, that by 2021, Al-Qaeda and ISIL might re-unite—or at least have entered into some form of alliance or tactical cooperation? Although admittedly unlikely in the near-term, such a rapprochement would no doubt result in a combined terrorist force—and heightened global threat—of epic proportions. One that, according to a particularly knowledgeable US intelligence analyst whom the author queried about such a possibility, “would be an absolute and unprecedented disaster for [the] USGFootnote 9 and our alliesFootnote 10’’.

Underpinnings of a possible grand bargain

There often seems to be a collective amnesia when terrorism and counter-terrorism policies are involved. It was only recently that the conventional wisdom inside the proverbial Washington ‘Beltway’ was that the bloody split between Al-Qaeda and ISIL would consume, neuter and ultimately destroy them both. Instead, as the DNI lamented, we are now faced by two formidable global terrorist movements—and their geographically growing and increasingly diffuse affiliates and acolytes.

As the conventional wisdom on Al-Qaeda has rarely been correct anyway, it is not surprising that this expectation has also proved to be little more than wishful thinking. Indeed, the unflagging overconfidence that has repeatedly, but just as incorrectly, declared victory in the war on terrorism demands, at this time of escalating and multiplying terrorist threats, that we at least explore the reasons why such an unnerving development is not as far-fetched as some hopefully contend.

There are at least four arguments that render this possibility plausible:

  • First, the ideological similarities between Al-Qaeda and ISIL are more significant than their differences;
  • Second, those differences that do exist are rooted more in an outsized clash of egos, and of tone and style, rather than substance and core beliefs;
  • Third, both Al-Qaeda and ISIL embrace the same strategy based on a common ideology—albeit one more faithfully and viciously applied by ISIL; and,
  • Fourth, that efforts to re-unite have been a regular feature of the behavior and rhetoric of both sidesFootnote 11.

Ideological symmetry

Both Al-Qaeda and ISIL fundamentally adhere to the principles first articulated by Abdullah Azzam, three decades ago, that it is an obligation for Muslims everywhere to come to the defence of their brethren wherever they are threatened and endangered. To Azzam’s mind—as to bin Laden’s, Zawahiri’s and Baghdadi’s—an aggressive, predatory war is being waged against Islam by its enemies. Those are broadly conceived as infidels and non-believers, including the Western democratic liberal state; corrupt, repressive Western-backed local apostates; the Shia; and, other Muslim minorities. In this inevitable clash of civilisations, it is incumbent upon all Muslims to come to the defence of the umma (worldwide Muslim community)Footnote 12. The need for global jihad to defeat these enemies is an integral aspect of Al-Qaeda’s as well as ISIL’s ideology and mindset.

Both movements, moreover, share the view that the Western liberal state system is inimical to the imposition of sharia, or Islamic law. ISIL, for instance, regularly inveighs against democracy as that “wicked methodology”Footnote 13, thus reflecting Al-Qaeda’s long-standing view of this system of governance. Like Al-Qaeda, ISIL also rails against the West’s control of the Muslims’ most precious natural resources—its oil and natural gas fields—and the established order’s creation and support of corrupt, compliant local apostate regimes that facilitate continued exploitation and expropriation.

Like Al-Qaeda in years past, ISIL similarly invites Western military intervention in Muslim lands in order to exploit new opportunities for continued enervation of economies and exhaustion of military might. “If you fight us”, an ISIL proclamation from 2014 states, “we become stronger and tougher. If you leave us alone, we grow and expandFootnote 14’’. ISIL, however, generally behaves as if it is an Al-Qaeda on steroids: not least in its unsparing sectarianism and unmitigated disdain for both the Shia and various Islamic minorities as well as its enslavement of women and sadistic torture and execution of prisoners and hostages.

Personal enmity

Admittedly, despite the symmetry of ideology and shared enemies, the most salient impediment to reconciliation is the strong personal enmity and vicious rivalry between Baghdadi and Zawahiri. It is patently obvious that they loathe one another. Their dispute, however, seems to be predicated more on timing and process than on any substantive differences. In a nutshell, Zawahiri still argues that the ‘far enemy’ has to be eliminated and Muslim lands completely cleansed of Western and other corrupt local influences before the caliphate can be established. Baghdadi, as the events of June 2014 show, saw no reason to wait for that eventuality and instead decided immediately to take the offensive by attacking ‘near enemies’ both in Syria and Iraq while losing no time in declaring himself caliph.

Their respective styles also differ. Baghdadi, to an extent not really seen in Al-Qaeda, has created a cult of personality around himself that additionally luxuriates in death and dismemberment: thus reminiscent more of the Khmer Rouge’s Pol Pot or the Tamil Tigers’ Velupillai Prabhakaran than Azzam, bin Laden or Zawahiri. Baghdadi’s megalomania is facilitated by his claims of familial lineage reaching back to the Prophet himself. But this also makes a credible successor more difficult to identify. Accordingly, Baghdadi’s elimination as a result of a US airstrike or some other successful military action could throw ISIL’s leadership into disarray and provide Al-Qaeda with an ideal opportunity to effect either a voluntary or enforced re-unification. For that matter, either Baghdadi’s or Zawahiri’s deaths would likely pave the way for a rapprochement, whether involving a consensual reunification or a hostile take-over of one group by the otherFootnote 15. The attempted coup that occurred in Raqqa in December 2014 by pro-Al-Qaeda ISIL members, however, suggests a more likely scenario of Al‑Qaeda absorbing ISIL rather than the reverse. Regardless, the result would be a combined terrorist force of chilling dimensions.

Same strategy

Given the deep ideological commonalities between ISIL and Al-Qaeda, it is not surprising that their strategies are similar—to the point that it appears as if ISIL has arrogated for itself Al-Qaeda’s own decade-old strategy. Indeed, it is Baghdadi’s adherence to this same strategy that, as explicated below, arguably accounts for his rush in June 2014 to declare the resurrection of the caliphate and establishment of the ‘Islamic State’.

That ISIL patently thinks and acts strategically is evidenced by its apparent adoption of the same seven-stage strategy to victory promulgated by Al-Qaeda’s operational chief, Saif al‑Adl, in 2005. ISIL is currently at the fifth stageFootnote 16 along this path. This clearly illuminates Baghdadi’s preemptive declaration of the caliphateFootnote 17.

…Baghdadi’s elimination … could throw ISIL’s leadership into disarray and provide Al-Qaeda with an ideal opportunity to effect either a voluntary or enforced re-unification…

It is disturbing to map the accuracy of this strategic trajectory dating from 2005 to the present and to realise that, from ISIL’s vantage point, the movement is right on schedule in having declared the Caliphate in June 2014.

Similarly, the apocalyptic elements of the seventh and final stage—where the Caliphate is expected to triumph over the rest of the world—are clearly evident in ISIL’s ideology and strategy. Its vision ineluctably entails an eventual epic clash between Islam and the infidels prophesised to occur in Dabiq, Syria, the name chosen by the group for its online magazine. As previously noted, like Al‑Qaeda, ISIL sees itself and its fighters defending the Sunni umma against an array of aggressive predators, including apostate Iraqi and Lebanese Shia, Iran, the United State and the rest of the West. This alone ensures that ISIL’s aims are not exclusively local, as is frequently argued, but like Al-Qaeda’s, are global in ambition given the inevitability of this impending clash.

Mutual efforts to re-unite

ISIL portrays itself as the most faithful embodiment and effective agent of bin Laden’s core goals and vision and asserts that Al‑Qaeda, under Zawahiri, has deviated from its historical mission and the grand ambitions it was once on the verge of achieving. In this respect, it is therefore not surprising that ISIL’s propaganda is profoundly reverential of bin Laden and deeply respectful of Al-Qaeda (though not Zawahiri): it refers to its soldiers, emirs and sheikhs in a positive manner and continues to glorify bin Laden’s accomplishments.

For his part, Zawahiri has been very careful in his publicly released statements to hold out the prospect of reconciliation. This is clearly evidenced in his statement from September 2015 when the Al-Qaeda leader declared,

I here confirm clearly and unequivocally that if there is fighting between the Crusaders, the Safavids, and the secularists, with any group from the Muslims and the mujahideen, including the group of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and those with him, then our only choice is to stand with the Muslim mujahideen, even if they are unjust to us and have slandered us and broke the covenants and stole from the Ummah and the mujahideen their right to consultation and selecting their Caliph, and evaded to be ruled by the Shariah in disputesFootnote 18.

That these overtures are not exclusively rhetorical is evidenced by past serious attempts to achieve some modus vivendi. On at least three occasions in the second half of 2014, for instance, the elements required for some form of alliance or tactical cooperation had nearly coalesced: the attempted rapprochement in September shortly after US and coalition airstrikes against ISIL began in earnest; the similar efforts that followed in November after Baghdadi was incapacitated during a US bombing runFootnote 19; and the aforementioned failed internal coup staged in Raqqa that December by Al-Qaeda supporters within ISILFootnote 20.


For almost a decade and a half, Al-Qaeda and the Salafist-jihadist terrorist network that it spawned have defied our efforts to bring this struggle to any kind of meaningful conclusion. Its longevity is as much a history of our missteps and misreading of the threat as it is our adversaries’ enormous capacity for change, adaptation and regeneration. That we now face an enemy that has transcended terrorist tactics to evidence credible conventional military capabilities in the cases of ISIL and Jabhat al‑Nusra in Syria, as well as Al‑Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, is testament to a challenge that has only become more variegated, diffuse and complex—and, quite simply, exponentially more difficult to defeat.

The US-led efforts against terrorism have now lasted longer than direct US military involvement in Indochina fifty years ago. The insistent claims since approximately 2011 that Al-Qaeda was on the brink of strategic defeat now surpass the time that it took Western Allies to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. It is difficult to imagine a worse constellation of terrorist threats than that currently posed by both ISIL and Al‑Qaeda, as well as their piebald affiliates, associates, franchises and provinces. Any kind of coordination of terrorist operations, much less a more formal modus vivendi, would have profound and far-reaching consequences for international security.

That likelihood is no less plausible than a Salafist-jihadist movement that today exercises sovereignty over large (but fortunately non-contiguous) swatches of territory and populations stretching from North Africa to South Africa. It is also no less plausible than a movement that has thus far withstood the greatest onslaught directed against a terrorist foe from the most technologically and doctrinally sophisticated military in the history of humankind. That this clash has consistently thwarted previous expectations of triumph with new tragedies, like the November 2015 Paris and March 2016 Brussels attacks, is reason alone to seriously study both the impact and second- and third-order effects of a potential ISIL‑Al‑Qaeda alliance.

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