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Monday Morning Meeting on Al-Qaeda vs. ISIS: Competitive Extremism and Turf Wars

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  • May 15, 2023
    Monday Morning Meeting

    On 15 May 2023, Ms. Saman Ayesha Kidwai, Research Analyst, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), spoke on "Al-Qaeda vs. ISIS: Competitive Extremism and Turf Wars" at the Monday Morning Meeting. Dr. Adil Rasheed, Research Fellow, MP- IDSA moderated the session. Scholars of the institute enriched the discussion.

    Executive Summary

    The presentation discussed the ideological, methodological and end state divergences between Al-Qaeda and ISIS, as well as their ongoing turf wars across various regions, mainly in West Asia, Africa, and the Af-Pak region. Even after their central leaderships have suffered major setbacks in recent times, both Salafi-jihadist groups are contesting for more territories in erstwhile failed states or failing states. In fact, it is the regional affiliates, which are now more active than the parent organisations. The conflict between the Taliban and the ISKP in the Af-Pak region is a disturbing development for South Asia and a cause of concern for India, necessitating strict monitoring and strategic planning.

    Detailed Report

    Ms. Kidwai initially laid out how Al-Qaeda has sought to position itself as an anti-Western and anti-imperialist organisation, intent on driving out all foreign troops from Muslim lands. AQ believes that Western-backed regimes in West Asia will become vulnerable to collapse after the foreign forces' expulsion, resulting in Islamic rule. As per the speaker, AQ has criticised ISIS' use of Takfiri, a theological worldview that allows the ex-communication of fellow Muslims while justifying violence against them.

    She also pointed out that AQ has a broad, pan-Islamist concept of the Ummah and is willing to collaborate with non-conformists. At the same time, its affiliates' role in sustaining the parent organisation has been crucial for decades. Furthermore, AQ's position about creating a Caliphate is vague, and it seeks to gradually implement Sharia, in contrast to ISIS' doctrinal worldview. The latter prefers to implement Sharia in a top-down and oppressive manner.

    She also spoke about AQ's evolution after an American drone strike neutralised Ayman al-Zawahiri last year. She said that ISIS, which assumes itself to be the true heir to Osama bin Laden's legacy, pursues the policy of hardline jihadism. As stated by Ms. Kidwai its administrative framework is highly centralised and considers the Caliphate's establishment as the end goal of its jihad. Moreover, unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS is unwilling to negotiate or compromise with non-conformists. It even perceives nationalism and nation-states to be anathema to its brand of Islam.

    The speaker further highlighted how ISIS has primarily targeted its "near enemies," including Yazidis, Christians, Kurds, and most importantly, the Shiites, whom it decries as traitors to Islam. Additionally, it presents its Jihad versus Jihad waged by other rival groups such as Al-Qaeda as a battle "between puritanism versus populism."

    The speaker underlined the various turf wars between the two rival terrorist organisations and their affiliates in Syria, Iraq, and Africa. However, she mainly focused on the developments in the Af-Pak region and the conflict between Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the AQ-backed Afghan Taliban due to their significance for India's regional and national security.

    Ms. Kidwai, indicated that ISKP has exploited anti-Taliban sentiments among ethnic minorities and Afghan Salafists by positioning itself as their protector. ISKP has also presented itself as an inclusive alternative to the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. In light of this situation, the Taliban has adopted harsh tactics, including seizing livestock and property, arbitrary arrests, torture, and executions.

    The speaker Also highlighted a notable difference between the two groups vis-à-vis the role of women. The Taliban has marginalised women entirely, whereas ISKP has employed women on the battlefield and utilised them for radicalisation and recruitment. She further observed that the Taliban has engaged with international actors, namely China and Russia, being cognisant of the importance of garnering diplomatic recognition.

    Owing to the creation of two new ISIS modules; the role of ISKP in the Coimbatore and Mangaluru blasts; the reported connection of Popular Front of India with ISKP; multi-lingual propaganda materials, and the emerging nexus between ISKP, Laskar-e-Taiba, and ISI, Ms. Kidwai opined that ISIS should be considered an "emerging threat."

    The speaker also underscored that despite the reduction in the magnitude of attacks AQ and ISIS (or any of their affiliates) can carry out, their ideological pull has proven resilient. Furthermore, the continued turf wars between ISIS and Al -Qaeda could potentially dilute the transnational jihadist movement, weakening its impact. However, she also highlighted that there also lies the possibility that in desperate situations, these terrorist outfits could carry out significant terror attacks to retain credibility and legitimacy within the militant Jihadist pole.

    Q & A Session

    Following the presentation, Dr. Rasheed opened the floor for questions. On the question of ways of preventing radicalisation in certain groups, Ms. Kidwai mentioned that no strategy or plan can be deemed "full-proof" against this menace but engaging with moderate actors within communities, particularly along with other already existing methods can counter the threat of radicalisation.

    On the role of community members in preventing radicalisation, the speaker enumerated several instances where community members' contributions proved vital in addressing this security threat.

    This report was prepared by Mr. Mohammed Shoaib Raza, Intern, Southeast Asia and Oceania Centre, MP-IDSA.