After some years of mutual respect, tensions between the two organisations came to a head in 2013 when they tussled for control of the Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra. The arguments were so sharp that the al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, eventually said he no longer recognised the existence of the Islamic State in Syria. The former IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani hit back, saying that al-Qaida was not only pacifist – excessively interested in popularity, mass movements and propaganda – but an ‘axe’ supporting the destruction of the caliphate.
The disagreements reflect contrasting approaches. Bin Laden – with decreasing success – urged his followers to keep their focus on the ‘far enemy’, the United States: Islamic State has always been more interested in the ‘near enemy’ – autocratic regimes in the Middle East. As IS sees it, by prioritising military activity over al-Qaida’s endless theorising, and by successfully confronting the regimes in Iraq and Syria, it was able to liberate territory, establish a caliphate, restore Muslim pride and enforce correct religious practice. For al-Qaida it’s been the other way round: correct individual religious understanding will lead people to jihad and, in time, result in the defeat of the West followed by the rapid collapse of puppet regimes in the Middle East. Al-Qaida worries that establishing a caliphate too soon risks its early destruction by Western forces. In 2012, Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, the leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, advised his forces in Mali to adopt a gradualist approach. By applying Sharia too rapidly, he said, they had led people to reject religion. Islamic State’s strategy in Iraq and Syria has always been more aggressive. When it captured a town it would typically give residents three days to comply with all its edicts, after which strict punishments would be administered. Unlike al-Qaida, IS is not concerned about alienating Muslim opinion. It places more reliance on takfir: the idea that any Muslim who fails to follow correct religious practice is a non-believer and deserves to die. In 2014 it pronounced the entire ‘moderate’ opposition in Syria apostates and said they should all be killed.
Islamic State has killed many more Sunnis than al-Qaida. But the most important point of difference between the two concerns the Shias. For bin Laden and Zawahiri anti-Shia violence, in addition to being a distraction, undermines the jihadists’ popularity. Islamic State has a different view, in large part because it draws support by encouraging a Sunni sense of victimhood.