The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is considered by many to be the most successful terrorist group. Through their offensive in Syria and Iraq — exploiting the vacuum created by the Syrian civil war — they have taken wide swaths of territory and surprised the world. Their ongoing struggle with their former parent organization, al Qaeda, has some feeling that al Qaeda, and especially its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is waning in influence.
ISIS's recent success contributed to confusion in assessing the potential terrorist affiliation of the Kouachi brothers who brutally attacked French magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people. They were eventually killed during a hostage standoff. Several experts now agree that the brothers were acting on behalf of al Qaeda — specifically its Yemeni branch (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP) — though the scope of AQAP's direct involvement is still unclear. Further complicating matters, a third gunman, Amedy Coulibali, who killed a police woman in France and was killed the same day as the Kouachi brothers after he took hostages at a kosher market, allegedly received assistance from the Kouachi brothers in carrying out operations. Coulibali allegedly pledged allegiance to ISIS's leader, who is actively fighting al Qaeda.
In light of the attack in France, the other so-called lone-wolf attacks in Europe and Australia recently, as well as ISIS's battlefield successes and burgeoning global influence, the discussion has shifted somewhat into a reexamination of the reach and influence of these two competing terror entities that essentially used to be one and the same.
Consider the declaration by ISIS of the caliphate. This has long been a goal for the al Qaeda franchise and its founder, Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden, however, was skeptical of declaring a caliphate too quickly for several reasons; namely, he did not want to give the concept of a caliphate a bad name if it could not provide critical services to its citizens. This fear was articulated in a recent report released by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center. "[Today's] generation of Sunni jihadists has never seen its utopian vision of the global caliphate put into practice, and as a result, they have never witnessed it fail. ... [Bin Laden] feared the damage these nascent caliphates would inflict on the broader jihadi movement should they prematurely fail."
Many believe ISIS was too quick to declare a caliphate with widespread reports of power outages and food shortages within the territory they control. However, as Christian Sahner, author and doctoral candidate at Princeton University, stated back in October, "As an institution within Islamic history, the caliphate is the prestige, the sort of paradigmatic way in which Muslims in the past have organized their societies and looked to leadership ... as a result in sort of an aspirational way today [Muslims] will often seek to [reestablish it]." The notion of the caliphate, Sahner contended, is shared by many Muslims and has bound them behind its idea.
Despite Baghdadi’s acceptance of provinces outside Iraq and Syria, it is still unclear if he overtly holds any authoritative influence over them or has sent any representatives to do his bidding abroad. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, maintains a global structure where their "emirates" take orders from central leadership.
Both al Qaeda and ISIS called for attacks of retribution against Charlie Hebdo and the West. However, most of the so-called lone-wolf attacks carried out in the name of ISIS have been haphazard at best. It was clear that the Kouachi brothers exhibited military training when carrying out their attack. So far, ISIS has merely called on their global supporters to "erupt volcanoes of jihad" and attack Western targets. Recent reports indicate al Qaeda did order the attack. The order apparently came from the franchise's leader, Zawahiri. A video released by the local affiliate in Yemen claimed to have financed the operation. This news signals potentially a greater global reach on their members and supporters. Even more disturbing, the fact that the Kouachi brothers utilized their training in Yemen to attack Charlie Hebdo signifies realized fears of so-called foreign fighter blowback, long feared from those in Syria but not necessarily elsewhere.
AQAP is considered al Qaeda's most dangerous entity and has received significant attention from the U.S. despite the new military offensive against ISIS. Their English-language magazine Inspire created by American Anwar al-Awlaki includes instructions on how to build improvised explosive devices and carry out potential plots. The U.S. has waged between 72 to 84 drone strikes within Yemen against AQAP in the last decade. AQAP's bomb maker makes the group an especially dangerous threat given his proven ability to design nearly undetectable explosive devices — the infamous underwear bomber successfully smuggled his concealed explosive device on a plane and the thwarted ink cartridge plot was only discovered due to a potential insider spy within the terrorist group.
One thing is clear: Both groups, despite their internal bickering, pose direct threats against the West. Bobby Gosh, managing editor of Quartz, contends, "the real lesson from Paris is that the distinctions between [a]l Qaeda and [ISIS] are immaterial to self-styled jihadis." Ghosh continued to reiterate that both ISIS and al Qaeda only differ on personal and political levels, while both groups "share a nihilistic worldview, a loathing for modernity, and for the West. They subscribe to the same perverted interpretations of Islam." The institutional split between the two groups did not stop cooperation between the Kouachi brothers and Coulibali, Ghosh noted.
In line with Ghosh's points, Clint Watts, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, indicated that the Paris attack might be exactly what jihadi scholars always wanted — "broad based jihad via a loose social movement." Watts continued: "The Kouachis and Coulibaly knew each other prior to the al Qaeda and Islamic State split. All were definitely inspired by a combination of both groups, but whether they were fully directed in all of their cumulative actions appears unlikely. A more appropriate way to think about the Hebdo plot and many others to come is 'networked.'"
Both groups continue to elicit immense influence over disaffected populations. Aside from disagreements on politics and direction, individuals will still act out along the lines of both ISIS and al Qaeda's warped perception, regardless of the split — a chilling sentiment.
Pomerleau is a freelance journalist based in Washington covering politics and policy. Follow him @MpoM24.