ISIS and al-Qaeda: Tactical Twins, Strategic Enemies

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 24

How can “Daesh” and al-Qaeda be both tactical twins and strategic enemies? [1] Their tactics are very similar. Even their strategies have the same roots in classical guerrilla doctrine. In a short article, one cannot review all the points of convergence and difference between the two organizations. However, one can begin to define how their respective strategies diverge and why the two are now mortal enemies. Without clarity on these points, no effective counter-strategy can be devised against either.

A good approach to these questions begins with a description of the overarching political military context for Salafist-Jihadist groups, what I would like to refer to as the "strategic wrapper" into which their tactics fit. What I am calling a strategic wrapper is, in broad strokes, the model by which the success of their guerrilla and terrorist tactics may be judged. Without this strategic orientation, we are doomed to interpret temporary tactical adjustments as changes in strategic direction. Or, we might conflate legal and social doctrines with military doctrine and the desire for power of individuals at the center of these organizations. This is a difficult task unless we find the key to interpret al-Qaeda and Daesh thinking about war and politics.

Determining the strategic wrapper of Daesh or al-Qaeda cannot be solely an academic question, if we hope to defeat them. Fortunately, we do not need to guess at the strategic wrapper for either organization, but let us first be clear about what it is not. It is not an apocalyptic vision of end times, as some have suggested recently. The apocalyptic vision is used as a powerful mobilization narrative, but it does not influence military strategy, let alone tactics, for either organization.

By using it as a teaching tool, both organizations have endorsed The Administration of Strategy by Abu Bakr Naji, which states clearly that the path to establishing an Islamic state is exactly the same as the path to establishing any other state. [2] Another major influence on both organizations, Abu Musab al-Suri, did collect over 100 pages of ahadith (the traditions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) about jihad. Many of these were apocalyptic, which were meant as assurance that jihadists would win in the end no matter how long it might take or how powerful their enemies might seem. To amplify this point, al-Suri also quoted a number of European thinkers on the decadence of the West. In his days of darkest but defiant despair, al-Suri placed these 100 pages as an appendix to over 1500 pages about how to defeat jihadist enemies, especially the United States. [3] In all of those pages, the military strategy was rational and modern, based on an adaptation of historic guerrilla warfare to the context of jihadist warfare.

Although Daesh and al-Qaeda are both Salafist Muslim organizations, Islam is not their strategic wrapper. They both consider themselves to be Salafist-Jihadists, which establishes their claim to be within the Muslim community, and their Salafism is intended as a basis of the law within the territories they govern and the state they hope to establish. In the words of Abu Bakr Naji, Salafism-Jihadism is a mixture of divine and universal laws. Divine laws are revealed, and universal laws are subject to observation and reason. As a recent Daesh security manual emphasized, Allah created causality for human reason to interpret. [4] Prime examples of universal laws for Salafist-Jihadists are the laws of politics and war, which are subject to political military reasoning from empirical evidence. Naji cautions that these universal laws grind down all who ignore them. According to training materials from both organizations, Salafist-Jihadists do not use Islam to determine military strategy. They appear to bend Islam to meet the needs of their political military strategy, although Daesh is only too happy to debate such an assertion.

Daesh and al-Qaeda are fraternal, not identical, twins; their common characteristics are more salient than their differences. Continuing with the metaphor, one could say that they share the same political-military DNA. Although they would disagree, much of the Daesh group’s worldview can be traced to the writings and teachings of Ayman al-Zawahiri, which are elaborated in the works of Abu Musab al-Suri and Abu Bakr Naji among others. Like Maoist revolutionaries, these strategists argue that only field commanders can devise the strategic plan for a particular theater of operations. Der Spiegel discovered one such plan in Syria whose author clearly used the knowledge and experience of an officer from the fallen secular security state of Saddam Hussein (Der Spiegel, April 18).

Daesh and al-Qaeda are enemies because of the famous dispute over who was to be in charge of operations in Iraq and Syria. At the root of that disagreement was a rejection of al-Zawahiri’s regional strategy, not as a whole, but for the current period of what both sides see as the “long war.”

Tactical Twins: The Strategic Wrapper

The desktop computer that Ayman al-Zawahiri used in his office in Kabul before the US and Northern Alliance destroyed the Taliban government contained working papers, drafts of his writings, letters, business forms and checklists for interrogations. One of the working papers in a folder marked amn (security) contained an untitled white paper about guerrilla warfare. [5] Almost certainly written by Abu Musab al-Suri, the paper describes how to wage guerrilla warfare within an Islamic context. Many of the examples are taken verbatim from the Arabic translation of Robert Taber’s 1965 book War of the Flea, which examines why insurgencies (mostly socialist revolutions of the 20th century) succeeded or failed. The white paper includes a description of the three-stage Maoist revolution. The first stage is called “attrition,” the second “equilibrium," and the third "decision." Numerous Salafist-Jihadist writers and leaders who wrote about jihad have alluded to this Maoist three-stage process, including Abu Bakr Naji and Abu Musab al-Suri, who have influenced the Daesh organization’s military thinking.

The first stage is a stage of preparation, mobilization and training. It is marked by guerrilla warfare with light weapons and terrorism. The document in al-Zawahiri’s computer refers to Mao’s metaphor of the war of the flea, in which the weak flea’s relentless bites sicken and kill the apparently more powerful dog. Jihadists in this stage use terrorism in populated areas and guerrilla tactics to damage and exhaust the enemy, forcing its better equipped armies and security forces to withdraw to fortified areas and leaving pockets of territory (provinces, cities or parts of either) to the guerrillas. Lacking airpower, jihadists use the suicide bomber as their version of shock and awe done on the cheap, in combination with small unit tactics.

In the second stage, according to Naji’s explanation, the jihadists govern with what he calls the administration of savagery, which is a primitive proto-state that is set up as government forces withdraw. This "administration" governs what Naji defines as savage chaos, the equivalent ofHobbes’s state of nature in which people will accept any governance that provides security and rudimentary services such as food and shelter. This stage is sometimes called strategic equilibrium or stalemate. In this stage, for example, neither Daesh nor Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, can overthrow the central government, nor can the central governments of Syria or Iraq destroy the jihadists’ ability to hold territory. As this stage progresses, the guerrillas achieve the ability to wage semi-conventional warfare, using captured weapons if they are not supplied by some external power. For the most part, al-Qaeda is stuck in stage one and Daesh has achieved stalemate in stage two for most of the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq. However, these stages are not stable or absolute. Daesh gained territory quickly, but has lost control of some areas; in others, it has driven out all opposing forces, but the central governments are by no means defeated. Generally, both al-Qaeda and Daesh move back and forth between stages one and two, depending on local circumstances.

Stage three represents true victory for the insurgents, with a final series of decisive battles or with the collapse of an exhausted central government. The jihadist forces are now mostly a conventional army, and its mujahideen guerrillas become an adjunct. It is conceivable that stage three could be achieved in Syria, but not soon, not as long as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad maintains significant external support and the opposition groups remain divided. Achieving this military decision in Iraq seems highly unlikely because taking Baghdad and the traditional Shi’a south appears almost impossible. Castro in Cuba, the North Vietnamese with their Viet Cong vanguard and Mao’s Communist Party in China are solid examples of achieving stage three. The Daesh organization is far from that condition, and al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies are undecided as to the wisdom of creating an Islamic emirate at this stage. Unless the international community agrees on a way to topple Daesh, the organization will continue to occupy the peripheries of both countries and will continue to call its minimal and brutal government a state. However, Daesh can still judge itself to be winning even though it has not achieved Mao’s third stage. For the guerrilla, survival is a kind of victory, and holding and expanding territory represents movement towards final decision. At this stage, it is accurate to say that the jihadist movement, especially Daesh, in the Levant and Mesopotamia is winning.

Strategic Enemies

Since the end of World War I, all jihadist groups in Muslim-majority countries have shared, at a minimum, the goals of establishing some version of Shari’a as the only law of the state in which they operate, and eventually restoring the caliphate. Al-Qaeda and its heirs have also had the goal of creating Islamic emirates or states within Muslim areas to overthrow the Westphalian system in former colonies, in preparation for establishing a caliphate someday. Al-Qaeda hoped to achieve that goal after a long war to establish a new Islamic state in traditionally Muslim lands using what they referred to as the "prophetic method," by which they meant along the lines of their understanding of the original Muslim state in Medina. The prophetic method is also claimed by Daesh.

When Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rejected al-Zawahiri’s decision that his organization should remain the Islamic State in Iraq and that Jabhat al-Nusra should fight in only in Syria, the Iraqi leader did not reject only al-Zawahiri’s decision; he rejected the strategy jointly fashioned by Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri from the beginning. Al-Qaeda claimed to be the fighting vanguard for the jihadist movement. Al-Qaeda’s leaders’ strategy involved a network of local jihadist groups rising up together to overwhelm the world order at some distant future date after the United States would be forced to withdraw from the greater Middle East.

Al-Baghdadi’s vision is based on a clear and quite different plan. He envisioned victory through sectarian polarization, terror, ideological cleansing and the apocalyptic vision of a modern caliphate fighting on the brink of the end times. If the vision of the caliphate was ancient in Daesh’s description, the road to establishing it is very modern.

Modern insurgent groups traditionally use terrorism to manipulate the populations on which they rely for victory. Insurgents’ reliance, however, is never based on trust. Insurgents must first polarize societies and draw some factions to them while demonizing others. For al-Baghdadi and his predecessors, sectarianism became the stuff of polarization, while terror was the tool that shaped, enhanced and maintained it. Terror for Daesh is what the "propaganda of the deed" was for 19th century anarchists—a way to draw recruits by weakening enemies.

Al-Baghdadi and his lieutenants chose a strategy that required a totalitarian, ideologically pure end-state. They also needed to establish territory they ruled and held against all enemies as the jihadist ideology required—but they needed to do it as quickly as they could while chaos reigned in the Levant and Mesopotamia. They prepared their strategy for this course in late 2009 and early 2010, in anticipation of the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011. The principles of their strategy included: forced unification of ideological factions, the creation of a jihadist awakening movement among the tribes, military and political planning to deal with changing circumstances, emphasizing a jihadist icon for the coming period around which Muslims could rally and working with other groups to achieve goals. [6]

The Daesh leadership’s focus on creating a jihadist icon required it to declare a caliphate as soon as circumstances warranted, which came with the destruction of the border between Syria and Iraq and the taking of Mosul on June 14, 2014.

Now claiming to be the leader of all Muslims, al-Baghdadi also claimed leadership of the jihadist movement. Al-Zawahiri disavowed Daesh, and the jihadist shadow civil war began in earnest in Syria. At this point, the better-funded Daesh, with its superior propaganda, offers advantages to jihadist groups outside of Syria and Iraq that the current al-Qaeda has difficulty matching. In fact, Daesh’s ability to raise money and wage a quality information war is so much greater than al-Qaeda’s, it might seem to employ different tactics. In reality, the tactics are equivalent, but Daesh’s execution is so much more brutally effective that it looks new. Also, its political strategy of declaring the caliphate, with all of its downsides, still gives Daesh a propaganda advantage in recruiting foreign fighters.

If these two major jihadist factions could unite, the resulting organization would theoretically be much more powerful. However, one of them must first change its political strategy, which would likely require a leadership change. With economies built on criminal networks and extortion of local populations, neither faction appears to be on a firm foundation despite Daesh’s current success.

Michael W. S. Ryan is an independent consultant and researcher on Middle Eastern security issues and a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.


1. Daesh is the abbreviation of al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wal-Sham, the Arabic name for the group referred to as the Islamic State, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham. Daesh is the Arabic acronym equivalent of ISIS in English.

2. Abu Bakr Naji, Idarah al-Tawahhush: Akhtar Marhalah Satamurru biha al-Ummah (The administration of savagery: the most dangerous phase through which the ummah will pass), N.p. [presumably Peshawar]: Markaz al-Dirasat wa al-Buhuth al-Islamiyyah, 2004) formerly accessed at; for an explanation of Naji’s theory, see Michael W. S. Ryan, Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) pp. 147-192.

3. For references and an analysis of al-Suri’s use of apocalyptic ahadith, see Jean-Pierre Filiu, The Apocalypse in Islam, trans. M. B. DeBevoise, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011) pp. 186-193.

4. Michael W. S. Ryan, Hot Issue: "How DAESH’s Lone Wolf Guidance Increases the Group’s Threat to the United States," The Jamestown Foundation, November 24, 2015,

5. The Wall Street Journal reporter Alan Cullison shared files from al-Zawahiri’s desktop with the author. Cullison purchased the computer from a thief in Kabul after al-Qaeda had fled the city pursuant to the fall of the Taliban government. For the story, see Alan Cullison, "Inside Al-Qaeda’s Hard Drive," The Atlantic, September 1, 2004,

6. Khuttah Istratijiyyah li Ta‘ziz al-Mawqif al-Siyasy li Dawlah al-Iraq al-Islamiyyah (A Strategic Plan to Improve the Political Position of the Islamic State of Iraq), 2009/2010. Formerly available at See also, Murad Batal al-Shishani, "The Islamic State’s Strategic and Tactical Plan for Iraq," Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, August 8, 2014,