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We Asked a Counterterrorism Expert Who Will Win the Fight Between the Islamic State and Al Qaeda

Combat between al Qaeda and the Islamic State is already a reality, and it's poised to shape the landscape of terrorism the rest of the world has to contend with for years to come.
August 7, 2015, 3:09pm

IS fighters. Photo courtesy of VICE News

For much of the 90s and especially after the 1998 US embassy bombings, whenever the world talked about Islamic terrorism, the conversation inevitably turned toward al Qaeda. They loomed as the big daddy of jihadi violence, the brand rogue militants wanted their little insurgencies affiliated with if only to tap into the group's global network of funding and training. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 only burnished their influence. But in 2014, the world got to know the Islamic State, and Americans started to panic about the new threat.

Once an al Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State has been at odds with their old buds for a while now, and US counter-terrorism officials are split over which represents the greater threat, as the New York Times reported earlier this week.


Al Qaeda could never get behind the Islamic State's obsession with purging those Muslims they deemed apostates, often focusing more energy on this endeavor than on fighting Western powers. Nor were al Qaeda leadership all that hyped about what they saw as the Islamic State's alienating style of violence. Al Qaeda formally severed ties with the Islamic State last year, and ever since, the two organizations have been in hot competition for ideological and physical control of numerous splintering militant groups across the Islamic world.

The jihadisphere, in short, is in turmoil.

To get a better idea of who will win out in the long-run, VICE reached out to Patrick M. Skinner, an ex-CIA officer and counterterrorism expert currently serving as director of special projects for the security intelligence firm the Soufan Group. We asked Skinner to tell us about the current contours of the conflict between the Islamic State and al Qaeda, to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the groups when squaring off against each other, and to give us his best predictions as to which organization will come out on top.

VICE: We know there's active conflict between al Qaeda [in the form of local affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra] and the Islamic State in Syria right now. How's that playing out?
It's not the strength of the groups; it's their philosophy [that matters]. Al-Nusra tends to co-opt a lot of other groups. And ISIS fights everybody, so they lose [a lot of battles] because they fight everybody all the time and nobody wants to work with them. So that's their downfall in Syria. They do well in certain areas, but al-Nusra is more powerful because they have more partners.


The Islamic State is a political entity as well—it's concerned with infrastructure and holding territory. Does that make them more of an easy target, more vulnerable, than al-Nusra and other mobile, cell-based [al Qaeda-affiliated] organizations?
Yeah, they have something to lose. And they have lost. They've lost a couple provinces in Syria. To be a state, you have to have physical control. You can't melt away. And they're fighting rebel groups that can do hit-and-run. And the Islamic State can't do hit-and-run.

In Syria, they can't leave Raqqa. They have supply lines. That's a big deal. That's probably going to be one of their downfalls in Syria because they really are grounded. They have two avenues into Turkey and when those get shut, which they will, they're in trouble.

That's a strategic weakness for the Islamic State, but which group has the tactical advantage? As I understand it, the Islamic State is more about traditional massed force attacks—shows of force—while al-Nusra [and al Qaeda at large] are more focused on insurgencies. How does that dynamic play out between the two of them?
The one interesting thing about the Islamic State is that they do both when they have the ability. When people do terrorism, it's because they don't have the strength of a traditional army. So where they have that strength, they do pretty effective infantry attacks. Militarily speaking, the [Islamic State] attack on Mosul was pretty good. Where they don't have it, they still do terrorism. They'll do a lot of suicide bombings.


But they've kind of merged it, like [in] Ramadi, they had 27 huge truck bombs. They softened up the defenses—there is no defense against that many massive car bombs. And then they went in with small arms.

Al-Nusra kind of does the same thing. They're a serious fighting force. They tend to do one thing more than ISIS: They infiltrate other groups and then they do sleeper cells, which ISIS doesn't. So al-Nusra basically collapsed two moderate rebel forces last year, Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, because basically it put in a bunch of sleepers and then they attacked.

Tactically, they're not that far apart. It's just that in some places, ISIS doesn't have to be a terrorist group, like in Mosul or Ramadi or Raqqa, because they control all the levers of power. So they're not a terrorist group, they're a state army there.

It's a matter of strategy rather than tactics that will settle things between the Islamic State and al-Nusra in Syria, then? And the Islamic State's strategy is weaker?
Yeah, they can't leave Raqqa. It's their capital. Everyone focuses on, Oh my God, they established a caliphate (or said they did), and they have this capital . The thing about having something is that it can be taken away from them. But the other groups can just leave Raqqa. They can come and go. They can move in and out. But if you want to be a state, you can't do that.

They're going to lose Raqqa sometime. It's not imminent. But when they do, it's going to be very notable.


But if they're making a state, couldn't they just build up a strong enough army with enough numbers to repel any threat from al-Nusra's terrorist strikes? Or couldn't they become hyper-aggressive and just cleanse al-Nusra out of the region?
They've actually done pretty well. Their foreign fighter numbers are going to go down. All of the Western countries have cracked down on travel so they're not getting those massive numbers. But they've done a pretty good job of local conscription or recruitment or volunteers (it's hard to tell). They've been able to replace their numbers. Right when you think that they're at their weakest, they strike somewhere else. That's what happened in Ramadi.

They're going to come at rebel groups in Syria as hard as they can. They're already hyper-violent. I think that as pressure comes, yeah, they're going to rage and strike out as much as they can. They're not in any danger of collapse. When we talk about how they're getting hurt, these are long-term concerns.

They're going to try to prevent being encircled, especially in Syria. Which makes them vulnerable, because you know that they have to do that, and the other rebel groups are going to be taking advantage of that.

Beyond the Syrian front, where the most direct conflict is taking place between the Islamic State proper and al Qaeda's local affiliate, both sides have their branches all over. How does the conflict between the two groups look, or could it look, in these other theaters?
What [the Islamic State] is trying to do in places like in Libya, they established their own little line. Then they got kicked out of Derna. They're not there anymore, because the other groups… these are some real, strong groups and ISIS fights everybody all the time. It's just what they do.


Now, Mullah [Muhammad] Omar's death [the Taliban supreme commander to whom al Qaeda and its affiliates had sworn their allegiance] is going to have a big impact. People need to wait a couple of months to see how it plays out. But the big divide between ISIS and al Qaeda has been over allegiance. And now that Mullah Omar's dead (and may have been dead for years), other groups have yet to explain what they're going to do. Some Mullah Omar affiliates might say: You know what? We're going [with ISIS]. ISIS is going to try to poach as many of those affiliates as they can. They're already saying: Hey, come join the winning team.

But the fighting is really in Syria. [Elsewhere] I think ISIS is going to wait and see over the next couple of months and include as many affiliates as they can over the Mullah Omar debacle. It's a big deal that that happened. They're not going to get into open conflict in many places, because when they do, they tend to lose—because al Qaeda has been in these places for a long time.

Well, there were those reports about confrontations elsewhere, like against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but [the Islamic State] didn't make much headway there I guess, did they?
They'll increase [there]. The original Taliban, they were fighting to get something back. They wanted to return to what they used to have. But the younger fighters are just fighting. And ISIS appeals to that. But it's like Libya: each province is so different that it's going to be hard for them to establish that homogenous group that they always want to do. Afghanistan resists that. Even at their height, the Taliban didn't control the whole country. They'll make advances, but Afghanistan is very different from Iraq.

So Syria's the big theater for a conflict with the Islamic State then. You've said that strategically they're weak because they're locked into their territory. But how long does it take al-Nusra or a similar group to hammer away and defeat them?
Well, last year we would have thought they would have burned themselves out [quickly]. The governance was so bad that someone would rise up. That has not happened. They've managed to balance insane violence against some level of social services. It's a low bar in Iraq and Syria. Basically all they had to do was be better than chaos, which they are in some ways. So I don't think they're going to burn out. They're going to have to be pushed out. If left alone or contained, they'll stay there forever. They're going to have to be strangled.

There's going to be a lot of fighting. It's going to be very difficult. Unless the US just goes all-in, which they're not going to do, right now nobody is strong enough to take them out themselves. If all of the rebel groups can work together, they can end ISIS control. But they're not a group.

If we have to boil it down, between al-Nusra/al Qaeda and the Islamic State, you're saying that al-Nusra doesn't have the strength to take down the Islamic State, but that because of how al-Nusra is structured, the Islamic State can't beat them either?
Yeah, right now neither of those guys can beat the other. Al-Nusra's in a better position because they tend to make alliances. So of the two, in Syria, al-Nusra has the better long-term forecast. ISIS, they shoot themselves in the foot every day, because they shoot everybody all the time. Al-Nusra can't kick them out of Raqqa, but they can do a lot of damage in a lot of other places, because Syria's a very, very large country. And they can just keep working with other groups.

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