Can Al Qaeda Compete With ISIL?

By Archana Sundarachari and Wesley Wark

The world’s attention has been riveted for weeks on the military exploits and brutal excesses of a relatively new jihadist entity, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS or IS). ISIL traces its roots to the U.S. occupation of Iraq and was once an affiliate of Al Qaeda, operating under the banner of ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’.

The former affiliate, once nearly crushed by the U.S. and by Iraqi tribal and military power, had a resurgence born out of the depths of the Syrian civil war. No longer connected to Al Qaeda, it has emerged as AQ’s principal challenger on the global stage: a vanguard terrorist organization seeking the creation of a new caliphate and demonstrating its capacity by seizing significant swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq.

If the Al Qaeda alarm can turn governments in all three states towards policies addressing these deep-rooted social problems, then some good may come of it.

Al Qaeda, severely diminished in strength and now led by Osama bin Laden’s former deputy, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, recently attempted to re-brand itself as a genuine rival to ISIL with a wider global mission. In early September, the 63 year-old Zawahiri released a lengthy video address in both Urdu and Arabic announcing that he had drawn the mujahedeen of the Indian subcontinent into a single entity under the AQ banner. Zawahiri promised to use the new group, Qaedat al-Jihad, to “crush the artificial border established by the English occupiers [of the Indian subcontinent] dividing Muslim populations in the region.” He also remarked on the need for unity among jihadists and the wrongness of discord—a direct rejoinder to ISIL’s attacks on non-Sunni sects, which Zawahiri branded as takfiri, the act of one Muslim accusing another of apostasy.

Zawahiri’s reach as commander of Al Qaeda may be limited, and his leadership not fully supported by what remains of rank-and file AQ fighters, but AQ continues to have some connection to former affiliates and can continue to claim a global role. Yet even formal allegiance to Al Qaeda on the part of former affiliates may be fraying, as instanced by media reports that the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula (AQAP) may be moving to shift its allegiance to ISIL.

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Zawahiri desperately needs to shore up Al Qaeda’s inspirational role as a global terrorist organization and to open up new areas of operation. In the opening passages of the video, he emphasizes his fealty to Mullah Omar, the current leader of the Afghan Taliban. William McCants, director of the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, describes this as an implicit move to feature Mullah Omar as a “counter-caliph” to the ISIL leader, al-Baghdadi.

Government authorities in both India and Bangladesh appear to have taken the Zawahiri announcement seriously. A spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India stated that the government would take whatever action is required against the threat. Police forces in India are reported to be on heightened alert. The Bangladesh government has called for a serious probe and ordered heightened surveillance of madrassas run by right-wing Islamist political parties and groups such as Amaat-e-Islami and Hefazat-e-Islam.

Traditionally, India has never been a popular recruiting ground for Al Qaeda, nor has it been a launch pad for al Qaeda-led attacks. Those who plotted the 26/11 Mumbai bombings had to rely on the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba to enlist fighters from Pakistan after failing to recruit support from India, a country with the third-largest Muslim population in the world. One terrorism expert, Wilson John, from the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, believes “there is an ideological disconnect” between Indian Muslims and extremist groups like Al Qaeda.

Nevertheless, several communal conflicts have tested the strength of India’s secular identity. The 1992 Babri Masjid demolition and the 2002 Gujarat riots both saw a significant loss of Muslim and Hindu lives, as well as the expansion of Muslim and Hindu fundamentalist movements.  In his video, Zawahiri specifically mentions Ahmedabad and Gujarat, clearly referencing the Gujarat riots, and calls for action to fight all oppressors of Islam. Zawahiri’s reference can also be seen as a challenge to the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, who was the chief minister of the state of Gujarat during the communal riots in 2002 and who was widely condemned for the deaths of over a thousand people (mostly Muslims) and for the displacement of over 150,000 people under his rule.

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Al Qaeda activities in Myanmar and Bangladesh have been minimal up until the Zawahiri announcement. Yet the bloody conflict between the displaced and essentially stateless Rohingya Muslims and the dominant Burmese Buddhists may have been seen as another opportunity for Al Qaeda to gain a foothold.

Muslim citizens in India, Myanmar and Bangladesh share legitimate grievances against the state. Internal conflicts are deeply rooted and the causes are complex, ranging from a host of historical and socio-economic reasons to a lack of opportunities, political representation and participation.

Al Qaeda’s surviving leadership clearly sees a jihadist opening here. Whether it has the capacity to turn that opportunity into reality remains very doubtful. If the Al Qaeda alarm can turn governments in all three states towards policies addressing these deep-rooted social problems, then some good may come of it.

Archana Sundarachari is an MA candidate at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs who has done research on foreign policy and security in South Asia.  Wesley Wark is a Visiting Professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School on Public and International Affairs and an expert on terrorism.


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