Critical Analysis: Will al-Qaeda Rejoin Forces with ISIS?

by Casey Smartt, Denver Journal of International Law and Policy

October 14, 2014


By now, most, if not all, world leaders have taken notice of the threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (“ISIS”). Currently, 14 nations have joined the United States’ fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. However, al-Qaeda still maintains a strong presence in the Middle East. As such, how plausible is a nightmare scenario where the two previously affiliated groups join forces?

To answer this question, one must understand the origins of ISIS. In October 2004, Abu Masab al-Zarqawi and his militant group Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist group, al-Qaeda. In doing so, they became known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (“AQI”). In the 2006 surge, US troops claimed defeat over AQI because they killed al-Zarqawi. However, in 2011, AQI rebooted as ISIS and slowly but surely, began rebuilding its ranks. But, ISIS’ relationship with al-Qaeda began to deteriorate because of ISIS’ brutality against civilians. Further, ISIS, now ruled by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ignored al-Qaeda’s leader’s, Ayman al-Zawahiri, commands to stop expanding into the Syrian civil war during the Spring of 2013. Not only did ISIS defy orders, they also began attacking al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. This aggressive act of defiance led al-Zawahiri to officially sever ties with ISIS in February 2014.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi contested Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s ruling and the group continued to operate in Syria. Photo credit: AFP through Al Arabiya News.


Nevertheless, the international response to ISIS’ merciless rampage through Iraq and Syria has given the former allies a reason to once again join forces. This is because the U.S. airstrikes have supposedly targeted al-Nusra forces. This has given al-Qaeda a strong incentive to team with ISIS. Moreover, a number of fighters from other Islamist groups are defecting to ISIS because it is now seen as more capable of creating an Islamic State. Thus, al-Qaeda could be forced to adopt the “if you can’t beat them, join them” philosophy. An al-Nusra spokesperson, Abu Firas al-Suri has already spoken out against the airstrikes, stating “This is not a war against al-Nusra, but a war against Islam.” ISIS also has a strong incentive to make a deal with al-Qaeda because air strikes are slowly crippling their resources. ISIS and al-Nusra have already formed a brief alliance in the takeover of Arsal, a small town that sits alongside the Lebanese-Syrian border. ISIS and al-Nusra fighters captured a number of Lebanese policemen and soldiers. A video released by the Nusra Front shows an al-Nusra fighter shooting a Lebanese soldier in the head, while another begs Hezbollah to leave Syria. Other images purportedly showed the beheading of another Lebanese soldier. This is a preview of what would happen if al-Qaeda with its funding resources teamed up with the super-organized ISIS fighters.


However, an actual alliance between al-Qaeda and ISIS is unlikely to happen. This is because any formal agreement made by al-Qaeda would require the approval of its leader, al-Zawahiri. He is a staunch critic of ISIS. In 2005, al-Zawahiri wrote a letter that accused ISIS’ brutal tactics, then AQI, of damaging al-Qaeda’s image among potential Muslim recruits. Further, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel, told The World Post “Baghdadi’s demand to be recognized as Caliph is simply too much for al-Qaeda.” It appears that any “team effort” by al-Qaeda and ISIS will be done in a smaller capacity, such as an al-Qaeda affiliate coordinating with ISIS.  Thus, the nightmare scenario, while possible, has too many political hurdles to pose a significant threat.

Casey Smartt is a 3L law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and Cite & Source Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.