Small Wars Journal

An ISIS-Al Qaeda Merger?

Sat, 09/02/2017 - 2:42pm

An ISIS-Al Qaeda Merger?

Thomas R. McCabe

Some reports indicate (or claim) that ISIS and Al Qaeda are discussing a merger.[1] Since the discussions have supposedly been between representatives of “Caliph” al-Baghdadi of ISIS and al Qaeda Central (AQC) head Ayman al-Zawahiri, in the interest of caution we should assume that the discussions are not just about a reconciliation in Syria and Iraq but about a global merger.

If such a reconciliation were to somehow take place, it would obviously be very bad news for the rest of us. It would risk combining the ultraviolence, media savvy and worldwide mobilization of jihadis (including both its efforts to build international terrorist networks, especially in Europe, and its ability to mobilize free-lance terrorists) demonstrated by ISIS with the deliberate planning endorsed by AQC and practiced by various branches of al Qaeda.

However, we should regard such reports with skepticism. The first reason is timing.

At present, neither side is really in a position to impose terms—if either could have done so they would have done it before now. At first glance, this might look like a situation where negotiation would be worthwhile. However, AQC actually has little reason to negotiate, since it is actually in an overall position where it can afford to wait.  ISIS, currently in retreat in its core area in Syria and Iraq, is dealing from a position of weakness that can be expected to get weaker over time. Self-proclaimed “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed his position as caliph by right of conquest.[2] What will happen to that claim when those conquests are gone, and the ISIS statelet has clearly been lost?  ISIS will only be able to spin defeat for so long before it is obviously double talk for having lost.[3] This being the case, why should AQC negotiate at all, unless AQC is exploring the possibility of an ISIS surrender or positioning itself to absorb ISIS assets as the organization is overrun.

In any case, such a reunion would be a tall order, for a variety of other reasons. There are actually significant or major differences between the two organization. These include 1) ISIS and AQC view each other as traitors; 2) theological/ideological differences; 3) differences over strategy; and 4) this is very much a blood feud.

ISIS and al Qaeda regard each other as traitors. The split between ISIS and al Qaeda has, effectively speaking, been a worldwide revolt by ISIS against Al Qaeda Central.  AQC regards the revolt as an act of rebellion and betrayal,[4] while ISIS denounces AQC for having betrayed the legacy of Bin Laden and having joined the enemies of Islam.[5] For a reunion to take place, one or the other, or both, will have to admit they were wrong. Since this is also an ego contest between both the leaders and the organizations, don’t expect that to happen.

The split has led to what amounts to a worldwide civil war over leadership of the international jihadi movement.[6] While fighting between ISIS and al Qaeda’s latest permutation in Syria has gotten the most prominent attention, Syria is not the only place they are fighting. They are also fighting in Afghanistan, in North Africa, in Somalia, and in Yemen. In addition, ISIS is fighting other jihadis, such as the Taliban,[7] along with al Qaeda.

In regard to theology/ideology, there are significant differences between al Qaeda and ISIS, especially over how immediately murderous to be toward other Muslims.[8] While both are jihadi organizations with deep roots in the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, ISIS is even more extreme in their interpretation than al Qaeda. For ISIS, any Muslim that does not follow the Muslim faith in the manner dictated by ISIS is an apostate who deserves to be killed. This included nearly all Muslims, and in particular applies to Shia Muslims, who ISIS considers pagan apostates who should be annihilated.[9]

The major differences in strategy is that ISIS was formed to pursue the immediate establishment of a caliphate, while for al Qaeda the establishment of such a caliphate was considered an ultimate goal to take place at some time in the future, with a more immediate objective of establishing jihadi emirates—local jihadi states. ISIS has ruled as a conquering power, especially in Syria and Iraq, and imposed its rule by force, largely ignoring trying to cultivate local support. Al Qaeda, or at least some of its affiliates,[10] has to a degree learned from its past mistakes and has been pursuing a long game of trying to sink roots into the society where it is operating while pursuing the jihadization of that society from the ground up.[11]

Finally, this is very much a blood feud. ISIS and the Al Qaeda factions in Syria in particular have spent extensive time and effort killing each other, which can be expected to continue if and when either is forced to retreat to an area occupied by the other. Much of Al Qaeda in particular comes from the Middle East, where revenge is an honorable motive and pride is taken in holding grudges. Further, on a more personal level for individual Al Qaeda members, while evidence on the subject is mixed, [12] Al Qaeda factions are likely to view at least some (possibly many) ISIS members--especially those who had previously been members of Al Qaeda factions who defected to ISIS[13]--with hostility. Al Qaeda is likely to consider such ISIS people to be at least traitors who betrayed their religious oath of unconditional allegiance to al Qaeda’s leadership,[14] who are possibly secret allies of the Assad regime, and who cannot be trusted and deserve to be punished.

Conclusions and Implications

For these reasons, a merger between ISIS and AQC looks unlikely at this point. Al Qaeda may well just be positioning itself to pick up as many ISIS assets as possible when convenient.[15] On the global strategic scale, as ISIS is defeated al Qaeda can be expected to reassert its claim to leadership of the global jihadi movement while attempting to selectively annex ISIS personnel and networks. This annexation is most likely to happen if and when Baghdadi is killed, which will automatically dissolve the pledges of personal allegiance (bay’at) given to him as ‘caliph’ and leave the ISIS survivors up for grabs. Some of the ‘wiliyats’ (provinces) of ISIS may carry on as independent groups--several of them were actually previously existing groups with their own agendas and priorities that joined ISIS. These groups were often violently hostile to the Shia, and whether they would join a group that has currently downplayed its hostility to the Shia is also probably unlikely.

To a degree, this means we are probably being lucky and dodging a bullet—this time.  But while the ISIS statelet may be eradicated and ISIS as an organization may be eclipsed, the forces and mentality it has unleashed within Islam and for that matter within the jihadis--virulent intolerance and murderous hyper violence targeting the entire world, including other Muslims--must be expected to continue to roil the Middle East, the Muslim world, and the rest of the planet.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take many people like this to cause a great deal of mayhem.[16] And meanwhile, al Qaeda remains out there, waiting in the shadows.

End Notes

[1] “ Islamic State seeking alliance with al Qaeda, Iraqi vice president says,” Reuters, 17 Apr 2017, , accessed 18 Apr 2017. Also see Rikar Hussein and Ahed al-Hendi, “Might IS, al-Qaida Team Up in Iraq?”, Voice of America Extremism Watch, 20 Apr 2017, , accessed 21 Apr 2017.

[2] Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, “This is the Promise of Allah” [Proclamation of the Caliphate], SITE Institute Jihadist News, June 29, 2014, , accessed June 29, 2014.

[3] They can be expected to try. Their on-line publication Dabiq proclaimed the importance of the otherwise insignificant village of Dabiq in northern Syria, where the al-Malhamah al-Kubrā (The Grand Battle) against the Crusaders was supposed to take place. See Thomas R. McCabe, “Apocalypse Soon?  The Battle of Dabiq,” Small Wars Journal, 12 July 2016, . They then abandoned the place, and in their on-line publication Rumiyah (which replaced Dabiq after they lost the village) they now claim that the battle for Dabiq was only a precursor to the actual coming Battle of Dabiq which will be part of the al-Malhamah. See “Toward the Major Malhamah of Dabiq,” Al Hayat Media Center, Rumiyah Issue 3, , accessed 20 Mar 2017.

[4] Kyle Orton, “Al-Qaeda Explains its Split with the Islamic State,” The Syrian Intifada, 6 Dec 2016, , accessed 2 Jan 2017.

[5] Al Hayat Media Center, “In the Words of The Enemy,” Dabiq Issue 10, P. 66-69, July 2015, , accessed 1 Aug 2015.

[6] “Jail, Jihad, and Exploding Kittens,” The Economist, Nov 1, 2014,‌news/middle-east-and-africa/21629476-todays-jihadists-are-too-extreme-even-leading-ideologues-holy-war-jail. Also see Daniel Byman and Jennifer Williams, “Jihadism’s Global Civil War,” The National Interest, March/April 2015, pp. 10-18.

[7] “Islamic State kills senior Afghan Taliban official in Pakistan: militants,” Reuters, 29 Apr 2017, , accessed 30 Apr 2017.

[8] For a good overview, see Brian Fishman, The Master Plan, Yale University Press, 2016.   

[9] For a typical commentary about Shia Muslims, see Al Hayat Media Center, “The Rafidah; From Ibn Saba’ to the Dajjal,” Dabiq, #13, P.32-45, , accessed 11 May 2017.  According to this article, Shiism is a Jewish plot.

[10]Charles Lister, “The Dawn of Mass Jihad; Success in Syria Fuels al-Qa`ida’s Evolution,” CTC Sentinel, 7 Sept 2016, , accessed 8 Sept 2016.  

[11] AQC may be objecting to this effort to build local roots and demanding its affiliates return to a primary concentration of attacking the West and the United States. See Charles Lister, “Al Qaeda’s Turning Against its Syrian Affiliate,” Middle East Institute, 18 May 2017, , accessed 19 May 2017.

[12] It must be noted that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, then the manifestation of Al Qaeda in Syria, accepted at least some defectors from ISIS. See Sirwan Kajjo, “2 Top IS Commanders Reportedly Flee Raqqa,” VOA News, 7 Dec 2016, , accessed 8 Dec 2016. This may have been done at local initiative.

[13] Jabhat al-Nusra (al Qaeda in Syria at the time) experienced a significant number of defections to ISIS, including some leaders. See Lister, “Al-Qa’ida Plays a Long Game in Syria.” CTC Sentinel, 11 Sept 2015, , accessed 12 Sep 2015.

[14] As noted in Charles Lister’s The Syrian Jihad, New York, Oxford University Press, 2015, P. 104.

[15] Sirwan Kajjo, “2 Top IS Commanders Reportedly Flee Raqqa,” Voice of America News, 7 Dec 2016, , accessed 8 Dec 2016. They defected to al Qaeda’s then current manifestation in Syria.

[16] Paul D. Shinkman, “Would-be Attackers Undeterred by ISIS Losses in Iraq, Syria,” US News and World Report, 9 June 2017, , accessed 10 June 2017.


Categories: Islamic State - ISIS - IS - al-Qaeda

About the Author(s)

LtCol Thomas R. McCabe, USAFR (Ret) is a retired career analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense and a retired lieutenant Colonel from the U.S. Air Force Reserve. He worked for over ten years as a Middle East military analyst for the Air Force and for two years as a counterterrorism analyst after being mobilized after 9/11. He has been published in Small Wars Journal, Parameters, Orbis, Middle East Quarterly, and Democracy and Security. His articles should not be considered the opinion of any agency of the U.S. Government.


The banner seems to imply ISIS and AQ members will not change sides or perhaps go with a different faction if that is where the action is or for whatever personal reasons the organization change allows them to fight in better conditions of their choosing. The author was clearer than I am being in his conclusion.
He is clear that this is not an organizational change with satellite Al-Qaeda factions suddenly going over to the Islamic State.
It is pretty clear the genocidal action of the Islamic State in regard to other minorities in the region do not offend Al-Qaeda's rank and file. In Syria, Al--Qaeda, Al-Nusra have community ties that run deep. I received a report this morning that European nations now recognize the threat of over 50,000 radical Islamists that purposely blended in with the immigrant population and are a terrorist threat in those countries. In the USA either because the DNC failed to push a mass immigration policy airlifting tens of thousands of Muslim refugees and discrediting opposition with the slur opposition is Islamophobic.
These radical Islamists are a mix bag they are all foreign fighters and many are directed by Al-Qaeda or Islamic State. The author raises a good question, we should take it further to address where the individual terrorist's loyalty lies and does it extend to acts by lone wolves such as the Orlando and fort Lauderdale shooters, the FBI admitted after President Obama's last term ended were inspired by the Islamic State, not white Christian homophobes.