ISIS: A Bigger Threat Than Al-Qaeda – Analysis


By Anil Gupta

he recent declaration of a caliphate by the Sunni jihadi outfit, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), should ring alarm bells all over.

By this announcement the jihadi outfit seeks to erase borders from the Mediterranean to the Gulf and undermine the authority of Iraqi and Syrian governments as well as challenge the legitimacy of other Muslim states in the region.

It has also appointed its terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph. ISIS has also called upon jihadis worldwide to pledge their allegiance to the caliphate.

The idea of caliphates dates back to the medieval era of caliphs who succeeded Prophet Mohammad as political and military leaders of the Muslims. The Ottoman Empire of Turkey was the last caliphate and was abolished in 1924.

This poses a direct challenge to Al-Qaeda, which was till recently considered as an umbrella and the unquestioned leader of the global jihadi terrorist outfits. Is Al-Qaeda losing its supremacy? By declaring Al-Baghdadi as caliph, the ISIS is trying to eclipse Al-Qaeda and its supremo Ayman al–Zawahiri.

The announcement of the caliphate and call for allegiance to it is the most significant event in jihadi history since 9/11. Moreover, ISIS also claims to lead 1.5 billion Muslims around the world and its area of focus is not just Iraq and Syria but the entire world.

Al-Qaeda versus ISIS
Ever since the elimination of Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda has been lying low and trying to regroup, recoup and recover under its new leader al-Zawahiri.

The ISIS also has its origin as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, when in October 2004 the group’s then leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi swore loyalty to Osama bin Laden. ISIS was formally disowned by the Al-Qaeda in February this year after refusing to accept al-Zawahiri’s decree to cease operations in Syria in favour of another Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra in short. The Al-Qaeda declared ISIS as its non-affiliate and announced that it has nothing to do with their activities and does not share any organisational relationship with ISIS.

The establishment of a caliphate was the cherished dream of Osama bin Laden as well. But Al-Qaeda was unable to translate his dream into reality.

But for a few towns it captured and controlled for a few months in southern Yemen, Al-Qaeda never controlled swathes of territory like the ISIS. The ISIS has not only walked the talk, but in fact also has talked the talk.

By announcing that it is removing the last two letters from acronym ISIS and calling itself ‘Islamic State’ as well as by declaring al-Baghdadi as its Khalifah with a new name Khalifah Ibrahim, the ISIS has posed a direct challenge to al-Zawahiri. ISIS spokesperson al-Adnani made the group’s intentions clear when he said: “It is now incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the Khalifah Ibrahim and support him. He is the Imam and Caliph for Muslims everywhere.” The bugle for turf war has been sounded.

ISIS is the richest terrorist outfit in the world.

The ISIS not only controls swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, it has its well defined system of governance. It levies taxes and generates revenue through sale of oil. Extortion is another common method of revenue generation. Its ideology is barbaric and extremist, and there is no room for tolerance. Its cadre is ruthless and not people friendly.

Recently released photos and videos displaying ethnic executions and destruction of holy places are ample evidence of its philosophy and the mind-set of its cadre. Financially, Al-Qaeda today is no match to the ISIS, a factor that may influence many splinter jihadi groups to gravitate towards ISIS.

The ISIS also does not have any dearth of manpower. Apart from the disgruntled Iraqi Sunni youth, it has significant number of fighters from Syria and other Arab countries on its rolls. It reportedly also has fighters from UK and Australia in its ranks. So far there is no evidence of any Indians having joined the ISIS.

The recent offensive by the Pakistani Army in North Waziristan may force more jihadis to move to the caliphate for a safe sanctuary. Thus, ISIS ranks may also swell with Uzbeks, Chechens and the Uighurs. If this monster is not reined-in in time, it could pose a serious challenge to global peace and acts of terror worldwide may increase. Undoubtedly, Al-Qaeda is on the decline but not finished as yet.

Implications of declaration of Caliphate
While the Shia-led Iraqi government has outrightly rejected the idea of a caliphate, its acceptance in Syria is also doubtful. Even some of the Sunni groups supporting ISIS in Iraq are against the idea of caliphate and oppose it.

“The strategic goal of Baathists is capture of Baghdad, not the establishment of a caliphate. The ISIS’ pronouncement will most likely intensify intra-jihadist struggle and widen the split between ISIS and its insurgent Sunni allies in Iraq,” says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert. While in Syria, a number of small groups have pledged allegiance to the caliphate, the cadre of Nusra is divided on the issue.

The Syrian Opposition Council in Eastern Ghouta and the Free Syrian Army are opposed to the idea of caliphate. “There are millions of Syrians who are not with ISIS so how they can speak about a caliphate in our land,” announced Free Syrian Army spokesperson Omar Abu Leila. The idea of a caliphate is not finding universal acceptance in both Iraq and Syria, the two immediately affected states. This section of the society needs to be bolstered to bring to halt the evil design of ISIS.

Now there is an evident divide between Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The jihadi groups world over would have to decide between either of the two.

Thus, a vertical divide amongst jihadi groups would now pose a twin threat to global peace. The global war on terror would now have to get ISIS as well on its cross hairs. In fact, ISIS now poses a bigger and tougher challenge than Al-Qaeda and should be designated as number one enemy for the global war on terror.

Buoyed by its lightning success and in pursuance of its ‘Dream Map’ released a couple of weeks back, the ISIS may be encouraged to make forays into Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir.

This would pose a serious threat to regional security. It would be in the best interest of South Asian peace for India and Pakistan to replace their policy of ‘confrontation’ with that of ‘cooperation’ to ward off the threat of terror, a common enemy. The region is volatile and the ISIS only needs to add fuel to the fire.

How the Al-Qaeda-backed groups like Afghan Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Haqqani Group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) react in this changing scenario would to a large extent determine the success or failure of ISIS in the region.

In the interest of global peace and to supress the monster in the form of ISIS, the international community needs to unite once again and face the challenge head-on. The centre of gravity of the global war on terror must now shift to Iraq and Syria.

The Iraqi Army needs to be strengthened and reinforced. The US and Iran must bury their differences and come together to rejuvenate the battered and demoralised Iraqi Army. Iran must immediately send in its elite troops. The US must intensify the drone and air strikes on the captured territory.

International peace must take precedence over regional politics. The US must revisit its policies in Syria and Iran. India, Afghanistan and Pakistan must cooperate and put the zero-sum game in Afghanistan on the back burner.

The Iraqi Kurds must be given moral and material support to prevent the move of ISIS into Kurdish territory.

The international media, particularly in the Middle East, must expose the barbaric and draconian acts of the ISIS to portray it as the enemy of the Islamic world.

A well-conceived and orchestrated psychological warfare campaign needs to be launched world over to alienate the moderate Sunni groups and draw a wedge between them and the ISIS. They must be made to believe that ISIS would marginalise them. Also, the rift between Al-Qaeda and ISIS should be exploited to own advantage.


No modern progressive nation, including in the Muslim world, is willing to return to the medieval era. The concept of caliphate does not find favour amongst the international community. The global war on terror is not yet over. A bigger threat than Al-Qaeda has emerged and needs to be eliminated for the sake of global peace.

South Asia Monitor

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