Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jan 11, 2021
Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s rivalry in South Asia

In September 2020, the Islamic State (IS) in Yemen released a one-hour documentary stating all the major factors where it diverges from Al-Qaeda (AQ). The main differences presented here was that IS was far more particular about establishing a fully functioning state and applying harsh laws whereas AQ cautioned against this and preferred gradualism instead. Similarly, the Islamic State considered itself uncompromising in its stance towards other sects and factions that it did not agree with, whereas AQ was far more open to alliances (such as with Iran) and also did not prefer to attack other sects. This relates to the groups’ origins as well.

The Islamic State emerged as an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in 2014, because of ideological and tactical differences between the leadership of both groups. Over the years, the groups have engaged with each other both on the battleground and in their propaganda. Despite sharing some ideological tenets, the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda have different visions and tactics to achieve their ultimate goal of implementing their rule globally. This article charts out some of the ideological rifts between the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda and their regional affiliates such as the Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) by examining their magazines and the views of their supporters in the South Asian context.

The authors sifted through several Islamic State propaganda pieces including Sawt al-Hind (Voice of India), a monthly magazine released by the Islamic State since February 2020, and AQIS’ propaganda such as the Code of Conduct (2017) and the Nawai Ghazwa-e-Hind (2020). Moreover, chats of more than 25 different groups on Telegram were analysed to understand how supporters of each group battled each other ideologically. It is evident that the moderators of the Islamic State channels follow Al-Qaeda channels to be updated with the latest Al-Qaeda affiliated news and to criticise such developments. Posters and messages from Al-Qaeda-affiliated channels are also shared to the Islamic State channels, where they are then dissected and criticised by the moderator.

South Asian Specificity

All these differences and criticisms trickled down to the group’s regional affiliates as well. Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, for instance, has embedded its fighters with the Taliban and has fought off both US forces and IS operatives as well, as has been noted by AQIS in one of its magazines, Nawai Ghazwa-e-Hind (Voice of the Conquest of India). Moreover, AQ and AQIS have often condemned any brutal attacks by the IS. In South Asia, however, AQ has remained largely mute on IS attacks on Muslim targets, although it also stayed silent on its attacks against Western targets (thereby tacitly approving it).

IS, on the other hand, is quite vociferous and often criticises Al-Qaeda for its apostasy and deviations, including rejecting sectarianism and condemning the Islamic State for attacking or destroying Sufi/Shi’a shrines. In our observations so far, we notice that the group often links criticism on AQIS with AQ and the Taliban and hence, we refer to them interchangeably as well through the article. Moreover, many of the themes shown above are also witnessed in IS’ criticism of AQ/AQIS.

For instance, IS criticises AQIS’ allies for their various shortcomings. This was seen in the case of the Taliban, which the Islamic State often refers to as Taliban 2.0. In an article titled “Taliban, from Jihad to Apostasy”, the Islamic State criticised the Taliban for its negotiations with the United States, its alleged deep ties with the Pakistani Intelligence services, and for its recognition of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its borders. The Islamic State accuses Al-Qaeda and AQIS of being allied to the Taliban despite the group’s mistakes and accuses both the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban of hypocrisy and blinding the global Ummah to the truth.

The Islamic State also refers to Al-Qaeda as owned by its affiliates instead of the other way around, pointing to the group’s lack of control over its affiliates, let alone its control over the global Jihadi theatre. For instance, the Islamic State supporters refer to Al-Qaeda as AGH’s Al-Qaeda or Taliban 2.0’s Al-Qaeda, implying that Al-Qaeda is controlled by its affiliates and that it does not have any control over them.

Another theme witnessed is that of criticising AQ for being too diluted and not absolutist in its approach. An example of this was Islamic State’s criticism of a poster published by an Al-Qaeda affiliated group on Telegram, glorifying four fighters from Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (the Kashmiri branch of AQIS), who were killed by Indian security forces in Shopian in April 2020. The poster talks about the brave men who were martyred while fighting the “Hindu polytheists”. The poster was re-shared in Islamic State affiliated telegram groups, criticising the Al-Qaeda and Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind for not specifically targeting Muslim security forces in the region and giving space for fellow Muslims to help and collaborate with the Indian Armed Forces. Such policies, according to the Islamic State, are blasphemous and hence delegitimise Al-Qaeda as the rightful vanguard of Islam. Recurring themes highlighted above are central to the Islamic State’s campaign to poach Al-Qaeda’s supporters.

Largely, the authors recognise that the Islamic State is the more brash and aggressive of the two groups, whereas AQ and its affiliates try to shy away from the spotlight and even refrain from ideologically attacking IS too much. This dynamic has important effects on the security landscape of the nations these groups operate out of.

Implications for Security

The most important effect is, when two terrorist groups vie for recruits and media attention, they often increase the attack frequency and intensity to outbid the other group. Due to AQ’s and its affiliates’ habit of refraining from media attention, the brutality levels are generally capped. For instance, the Islamic State has conducted more than 20 suicide attacks on Sufi, Shia, Ahmadi, and civilian targets whereas AQIS has refrained from targeting such groups or opting for such brutality.

Thus, AQ/AQIS’ tactics of trying to win over other Muslims has resulted in it being far more discriminate, allowing for lesser violence relatively. Incidentally, this strategy of patience has also made it the more dangerous of the two given its ability to conduct operations outside the spotlight of the media and government agencies.

This understanding of terrorist group propaganda and debates should empower counter-terrorism institutions to better exploit differences and defeat such groups. For instance, it is well known that security agencies were able to infiltrate many cyber operations of groups like the Islamic State including encrypted chats. This was best seen in the 2014 operations where members of the Intelligence Bureau posed as ISIS handlers and dissuaded many Indians from joining groups abroad. Such monitoring should be sustained by Indian agencies for both groups. This will allow them to disrupt plots and identify potential differences between these groups which can be leveraged to root out different cells at best. Security agencies can also play such groups against one another to further weaken these groups. Lastly, security agencies could also co-operate regionally to target these groups presenting a more united front relative to such groups.

As such, terrorist group rivalries, which normally come with the burden of increased volatility, have been useful to the peace of South Asia given the differing trajectories on the part of AQ and ISIS. It is on security agencies to understand  how best to capitalise on these differences and weaken such groups in the long term. 

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Mohammed Sinan Siyech

Mohammed Sinan Siyech

Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a Non – Resident Associate Fellow working with Professor Harsh Pant in the Strategic Studies Programme. He will be working on ...

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Suraj Ganesan

Suraj Ganesan

Suraj Ganesan is a Counter-terrorism analyst at COVINTS Bangalore. His research areas include countering radical narratives and ideologies tracking operational capabilities of terrorist groups and ...

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