Divided They Stand? Similarities between ISIS and al Qaeda and Implications for U.S. Policy

Lossing, Sarah [Browse]
Senior thesis


Kurtzer, Daniel C. [Browse]
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs [Browse]
Princeton University. Program in Near Eastern Studies [Browse]
Class year
Summary note
U.S. counterterrorism rhetoric often focuses on the “ISIS-al Qaeda conflict,” but outside of Syria, the question is whether such a conflict really exists. Are the two global, Salafi-Jihadi networks really as divided as their leaders promote publicly? What is the impact on U.S. counterterrorism strategy of assessing and reacting to these groups as independent actors? This thesis sheds light on the similarities among ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates that often go overlooked in the face of leadership statements and events in Syria and Iraq. It explores the implications of this mixed relationship on current U.S. counterterrorism policy and provides recommendations for how to better address current and developing Salafi-Jihadi threats. The thesis offers an analysis of the similarities and differences between ISIS and al Qaeda at both the global and regional levels. It demonstrates that the two groups share more similarities at the local level than the rhetoric of each group’s leadership may suggest. The thesis then discusses how the current basis of U.S. counterterrorism policy that focuses on the differences between ISIS and al Qaeda has led to a prioritization of ISIS, leadership, and retaliatory action despite the possible pitfalls of doing so on achievement of long-term objectives. Two case studies then demonstrate the similarities between ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates outside of Iraq and Syria by examining regions in which the two groups cohabitate and may collaborate in sharp contrast with the rhetoric of conflict espoused by the groups’ leaders. In Libya’s eastern hub of Benghazi, ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates conduct attacks against a common enemy in a shared space while the United States limits its counterterrorism attacks to ISIS-controlled regions alone. In Mali and the greater West African region, a new ISIS branch that splintered from an al Qaeda affiliate has received little attention from the global community, yet both groups are increasing the scope and range of their attacks and conducted joint operations. French and UN forces in the region have been unable to halt the spread of Salafi-Jihadism, no matter the name or allegiance of the group, and this failure could spell disaster for the United States and the West in the near future. The thesis offers recommendations for the Trump administration’s counterterrorism policy. These recommendations seek to customize counterterrorism strategies for each region of concern, reduce the focus on the ISIS name as an indicator of a group’s threat level, and emphasize the importance of intelligence collection and scope as a method for determining U.S. counterterrorism priorities and the likelihood and source of future attacks. No counterterrorism strategy can hope to predict and halt all future attacks. However, perhaps with reorientation of the mindset used to divide Salafi-Jihadi groups into a broader spectrum might ensure that another ISIS does not rise and that the current ISIS and al Qaeda lessen or lose their ability to harm the United States, its interests, and its allies.

Supplementary Information