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A Tale of Two Caliphates

START was recently asked to give a talk for the intelligence community comparing and contrasting the Islamic State’s vision for the caliphate with that of al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership.  As we prepared for the talk, key points of divergence became apparent, not just for their respective visions for the Caliphate, but also regarding the operations and strategies that support those visions.

The Caliphate:

For al-Qa’ida senior leadership, “the Caliphate” is a master-frame that it dangles well out in front of violent Islamist groups the world-over, hoping to align their otherwise dispersed and diverse violent campaigns on azimuths that converge in the triumphant, albeit distant, future.  The Caliphate is a conceptual destination; a grandiose victory that signals the onset of global conquest in which all of the world’s territories will be governed by their interpretation of Islam. 

For the Islamic State, by comparison, it is the reality of an extant Caliphate and its associated obligations that will purify Islam, rally dispersed actors to make the hijra, and ready Muslims for the apocalyptic military battle with the West in the Levant. The Caliphate’s growth in size and strength is seen as the means to the end of a final decisive military confrontation with the West. Where al-Qa’ida and its associated movement summons fighters to active jihadist fronts, Caliph Ibrahim called upon doctors, jurists and engineers to build the institutions of the caliphate. Primed by the online discourse of the last ten years, aided by person-to-person social media interactions and inspired by the Islamic State’s advances on the ground, fighters claiming that “We Are All ISIS” mobilize to join the Islamic State independently or from within existing Islamist political networks (like Sharia4Belgium and al-Muhajiroun in European states), without the Islamic State having to establish an extensive network of on-the-ground recruiters in European and American cities.


Al-Qa’ida’s kinetic operations target the “far enemy,” the West, above all other targets.  Viewing their organization as the vanguard of the jihad movement, al-Qa’ida seeks to use spectacular, mass-casualty terrorist attacks to incite a heavy-handed military response from Western governments.  These state responses would seemingly evidence the War on Islam that al-Qa’ida portrays in its propaganda, thereby polarizing the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds and enabling the jihadists to mobilize resources for a civilizational conflict.  Al-Qa’ida strategist, Abu Bakr Naji, famously referred to this process as “awakening the masses.” For al-Qa’ida’s provocation to be effective, foreign governments must play their scripted roles in this cycle of violence, hence al-Qa’ida’s preference for sensational attacks that are politically difficult for Western nation-states to ignore. 

Before, during and after the Sunni awakening in Iraq, al-Qa’ida senior leadership discouraged Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s internecine violence in favor of attacks against the occupying forces.  In recent years and in various countries, amorphous front groups with names like Ansar al-Sharia have worked alongside of other Sunni jihadists and insurgents, many with divergent ideological orientations.  These front organizations are designed to provide basic social services to local populations and to engage in da’wa, the promulgation of their religious ideology.  For al-Qa’ida, it is not yet time to purify Islam by force.  Even attacks against the Shi’a should be moderated until the jihadists can regain Muslims’ loyalties.

By contrast, the Islamic State has thus far opted to deter full-scale Western intervention in Iraq and Syria while engaging in aggressive internecine violence to purge local challengers. When President Obama deployed U.S. military advisors to Iraq, the Islamic State threatened that #CalamityWillBefallUS via Twitter should the U.S. escalate its involvement in the fight. In response to recent U.S. airstrikes, the Islamic State released a video of the murder of journalist James Foley and threatened to murder journalist Steven Sotloff should airstrikes continue.  While limited intervention may serve to bolster the legitimacy and recruitment efforts of the Islamic State, as it can weather such a storm, baiting a large-scale intervention is not in their best interests.

Instead of the far enemy, the Islamic State’s military operations have focused on attacking competitors in their midst who do not submit to their ideological and organizational primacy, and seizing the resources necessary to build the institutions of the Caliphate. Operations are not only used to seize important border crossings, dams, and oil fields or to weaken competing militias in territorial strongholds, but also to purify Islam by force, using brutal public executions and amputations to intimidate and deter potential rivals.  The caliphate’s construction is predicated upon the rigid enforcement of the Islamic State’s interpretation of Islamic law in strongholds like the city of Raqqa in Syria. Unlike al-Qa’ida’s more accommodating stance in the post Arab-spring world, which resembles Abu Bakr Naji’s guidance for “managing savagery” in the early stages of a security vacuum, the Islamic State has continued the practices of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who attacked the Shia, secularists, non-violent Islamist parties, and Sunni-tribesmen that did not subordinate themselves to al-Qa’ida in Iraq. These practices reflect Naji’s guidance for how to deal with “other gangs and parties” farther along in the process of managing these tumultuous places. Naji argues, “We must drag everyone into the battle in order to give life to those who deserve to live and destroy those who deserve to be destroyed.”  


Al-Qa’ida is waging a protracted war of attrition against the West, specifically aiming to bleed the United States. Given the failure of local terrorist groups to overthrow their respective apostate regimes in the 1980s and 1990s, al-Qa’ida senior leadership reasoned that American support was the apostate regimes’ “center of gravity.” If they were able to attrite the American economic, military, or political will to remain engaged in the Muslim world, local jihadists could overpower the apostates. To wage this war of attrition, al-Qa’ida aims to reorient the violence of militant organizations and individuals in various locations around the world, focusing their wrath on far-enemy targets like Western embassies, businesses and tourist destinations within their own states.  Al-Qa’ida’s operations focus on the far-enemy because they need the U.S. to respond militarily in as many locations as possible, overextending itself and spending precious resources, all the while generating greater levels of anti-American sentiment from local Muslim populations in return, until continued U.S. engagement in the Muslim world becomes prohibitive.

The Islamic State is not currently waging a strategy of attrition, but one of outbidding. It is using its military superiority to eliminate or subjugate rival insurgent groups and non-violent communities in Iraq and Syria that could eventually pose a threat to the authority the Islamic State seeks to impose. Instead of inviting Muslim vs. Western violence and banking on that conflict to polarize communities and mobilize resources, it is benefiting from the resources already being mobilized by the sectarian polarization that is taking place in Iraq, Syria and beyond, which they actively seek to exacerbate. The Islamic States is willing and able to use extreme violence to carve out control at the expense of its rivals, and then to consolidate its hold on the resources pouring into the conflict. 


If sectarian conflict proves to be a greater means for insurgents to mobilize resources and destabilize apostate regimes than al-Qa’ida’s far-enemy centered war of attrition, the model presented by the Islamic State will supplant that of al-Qa’ida.  The Islamic State’s rapid military successes against the “Safavids” and their allied Shia militias are portrayed to resemble the Prophet Muhammad’s rapid military successes after leaving Medina to conquer Mecca, causing the Islamic State’s dedicated foot soldiers to see their efforts as favored by God.  As sectarian conflicts spread, jihadist groups will foster and exploit them. The West will be relegated to the role of observer, less frequently targeted (at least initially) but poorly positioned to take any meaningful action to protect itself or others.  The difficulty of coordinating and resolving the competing interests and actions of numerous external actors like Iran and Hezbollah, not to mention among America’s Persian Gulf allies, complicates any potential U.S. intervention. Sectarian violence may paralyze the West’s ability to engage in the Middle East (as it has in the Levant) where the Sunni-Shi’a demographic split would allow for larger scale sectarian conflict, severing regional ties more successfully than al-Qa’ida operations to date. In this case, the Islamic State will also serve as an agent of change for al-Qa’ida and its associated movement, which will have no alternative but to evolve in potentially unforeseen ways, or perish.

If the Islamic State’s caliphate project fails, however, their presence on the fringe of the radical spectrum may serve to make al-Qa’ida and its associated movement look more legitimate by comparison. This fringe effect could benefit al-Qa’ida in two ways.  First, as the international security community hones in on the Islamic State it could result in increased freedom of maneuver in the short-term, the very time when the crisis of legitimacy brought on by the Islamic State has created a tremendous incentive for al-Qa’ida to conduct a successful attack against the West. The U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan and ongoing instability in the Pakistani tribal belts may provide the requisite safe-haven for al-Qa’ida to hatch such an attack. Perhaps ironically, the presence of large numbers of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria drawn in by the Islamic State and other organizations may also provide al-Qa’ida with an opportunity to turn one or more of these individuals around to attack the West. Second, an al-Qa’ida perceived to be more legitimate, discerning and focused on the “true enemies of Islam” may secure greater funding and popular support in the long-term.