Islamist fighters from the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria wave their movement’s flag at the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus, in July 2014.
ISIS’s propaganda machine is going dark as the group is cleared from its final strongholds in Iraq and Syria. Quietly in the shadows, accompanying ISIS’s territorial demise has been an equal and opposite resurgence by its jihadi rival, al-Qaeda.
Perhaps the clearest articulation of this rebalancing can be seen in the two groups’ media activity. Despite the presumed survival of ISIS’s so-called caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, no public message has been heard from the group’s senior leadership since September 2017. But al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has published six speeches in 2018 alone. The latest, titled “America is the First Enemy of the Muslims”, highlights the group’s gradualist priority of remaining “loyal and steadfast on the path of jihad”, a veiled dig at ISIS’s ideological impetuousness—the hare to al-Qaeda’s tortoise.
As ISIS has declined, al-Qaeda has experienced a “resurrection”, according to terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman. Through its loose archipelago of franchises, the latter group has consolidated and entrenched itself in conflict zones worldwide, including the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, the Caucasus, Afghanistan/Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and Kashmir. ISIS “can no longer compete” with its older sibling “in terms of influence, reach, manpower, or cohesion”, Hoffman notes.
By drawing on the Salafi-jihadi movement’s spiritual father, al-Qaeda has recognised bin Laden’s ability to transcend the division plaguing the movement.
Despite these tectonic shifts in the global jihadi landscape, particularly striking in Zawahiri’s latest video is the continuity of al-Qaeda’s message from its high-water mark around the time of the 9/11 attacks. In 2001, al-Qaeda’s then leader, Osama bin Laden, likened the United States to Hubal, a pre-Islamic god worshipped at the Kaaba in Mecca before the rise of Islam. Today, Zawahiri echoes this allusion, using contemporary footage of Islamic scholar Abdallah bin Bayyah preaching moderation at the United Nations, as well as former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson describing Saudi Arabia’s efforts to counter extremism, as examples of such “idol worship”. Now as then, the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation are painted as “hypocrites” who “stood behind the head of global unbelief . . . America and its supporters”.
By drawing on the Salafi-jihadi movement’s spiritual father, al-Qaeda has recognised bin Laden’s ability to transcend the division plaguing the movement. Compared with the Marmite effect of Baghdadi and of his divisive predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, bin Laden is an ideologue all Salafi-jihadis can get on board with.
The 66-year-old Zawahiri, a veteran of the jihad in Egypt in the 1970s and Afghanistan in the 1980s, has lived through the transformation of the global jihadi movement. His experience of a long campaign for hearts and minds means al-Qaeda has grasped the power of presenting America as a common enemy to unify an increasingly fragmented Salafi-jihadi landscape. But al-Qaeda has also learned to revel in its against-all-odds underdog status. Zawahiri claims the group has “little capabilities, about zero compared side by side with the Americans”, a major contrast to the triumphalism of ISIS videos that depict imagined invasions of Washington by the “Soldiers of the Caliphate”.
Research published in 2015 by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change showed that al-Qaeda affiliates, including its Syrian and Yemeni arms, were twice as likely to depict themselves as underdogs in their propaganda as ISIS was.
This emphasis has been a recurring theme in the group’s propaganda. Research published in 2015 by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change showed that al-Qaeda affiliates, including its Syrian and Yemeni arms, were twice as likely to depict themselves as underdogs in their propaganda as ISIS was. This research was conducted at the height of ISIS’s power, meaning that the discrepancy was likely due to the group’s fixation with presenting its caliphate as a fully functioning state.
Zawahiri’s rhetoric draws nostalgically on a golden age when the movement focused on attacking the “first enemy of the Muslims” rather than engaging in sectarian factionalism in the Middle East. For al-Qaeda’s leader, this spirit can be recaptured. The 9/11 attacks are held up as a “practical example” that striking America directly is possible, while al-Qaeda operations against US diplomats and military infrastructure in Aden, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in the 1990s are fondly depicted.
Such sentiment has echoes of an infamous 2005 letter written by Zawahiri to al-Qaeda in Iraq’s then leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, condemning the group’s targeting of civilians. Zawahiri wrote, “Many of your Muslim admirers among the common folk are wondering about your attacks. Don’t lose sight of the target.” Our Institute’s analysis shows the consistency of this focus over time. Al-Qaeda emphasises the far enemy 50 per cent more often in its propaganda than ISIS does.
Although its message may be consistent, al-Qaeda has identified the current US administration as a golden opportunity to sow its ideology. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, then US President George W. Bush gave a significant speech declaring that “Islam is peace”. Compare this with events in 2017, when al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s al-Masra newspaper approvingly quoted then White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s claim that the United States was at war “with Islam as a religion”. Claiming that the administration of US President Donald Trump has “revealed the true face of America”, Zawahiri asserts that conflict with Washington “is a religious hostility at its core”, in which a “Crusader material secular West” is pitched against al-Qaeda’s version of “true Islam”.
Through its message of jihadi unity and continuity, al-Qaeda has made a concerted effort to profit from ISIS’s decline. But 22 years after declaring war on the United States, the group’s leadership is refocusing on the old enemy as a means of consolidating a jihadi movement that has suffered defeat on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. Counter-terrorism policymakers globally must not ignore long-standing threats, but rather learn lessons from al-Qaeda’s resilience, acknowledging that military victory, whether in Afghanistan or the Levant, is only half the battle against extremist ideologies.