Author : Dr.Tricia Bacon,
Period: Oct - Dec 2022

While there is a lot of discussion about the status of the international order and the return of competition between states, there is also a contest for leadership within the Sunni jihadist movement. The two groups competing for leadership are the Islamic State and Al-Qaida, though there is the possibility of a new group emerging to claim the mantle as well. The outcome of that competition is uncertain, but the result will have implications for the international terrorist threat from the movement.

The two organisations that are vying for leadership of the Sunni jihadist movements, the Islamic State and Al-Qaida, have both experienced significant setbacks. The Islamic State has a relatively unknown leader, while Al-Qaida has not yet named its Emir. In both cases, a dynamic leader would help them to resurge.  In their weakened states, neither Al-Qaida nor the Islamic State can make a fully compelling claim to be the leader. Each enjoys some advantages as it seeks to recover and has some disadvantages to overcome.

The Case for the Islamic State

In the case of the Islamic State, it can draw on its (relatively) recent accomplishment of declaring a caliphate and a caliph. It seized the imagination of the Sunni jihadist movement, which some saw as on the wane prior to the group’s meteoric rise. Though that territory has been lost, it was a powerful achievement that gives credence to the Islamic State’s claim to leadership. The group also benefits from being headquartered in the Middle East, the location that holds the most symbolic power within the movement.

In addition, the Islamic State has the manpower it needs to partially recover languishing in unsustainable camps and prisons in Syria. It has a well-documented interest in prison breaks to recover its members and bolster its ranks. The group also has an extensive number of so-called provinces, organisations across the world that have sworn loyalty to the Islamic State’s leader and received an endorsement in return. The strength and capability of its affiliates varies dramatically, but the sheer number of them gives the Islamic State a basis for its claim to be “remaining and expanding”.

The Case for Al-Qaida

In comparison, Al-Qaida is in a weaker state than the Islamic State, though it is important to bear in mind that Al-Qaida has sought to be a vanguard organisation rather than a mass one like the Islamic State. For its part, Al-Qaida benefits from having a safe haven in Afghanistan, albeit one at least somewhat constrained by the Taliban. The sanctuary provided in Afghanistan also has limits, as evidenced by the strike that killed Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, but it is still the most secure location for Al-Qaida in the world. Al-Qaida is also bolstered by its association with the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. Indeed, it is the second time Al-Qaida has played a role in defeating a superpower in Afghanistan, though it is prone to exaggerating its contribution to such outcomes. Though located outside of the Middle East, Afghanistan also has significant symbolic importance as the site where mujahidin expelled two superpowers as well as the location of a “true” Islamic state under the Taliban.

Al-Qaida also benefits from the quality of its affiliates. It has far fewer affiliates than the Islamic State, but its affiliates are capable organisations that demonstrate Al-Qaida’s viability, despite the core organisation’s weakness. In addition, these alliances have been tested and proved resilient. It is often overlooked that Al-Qaida’s affiliates showed remarkable unity by staying with Al-Qaida during the Islamic State challenge. At its peak, the Islamic State had a lot to offer prospective partners in terms of cache, money, and other resources, especially compared to Al-Qaida. Yet, Al-Qaida’s affiliates stayed with Al-Qaida, reflecting the strength of those alliances.

Wildcard Scenarios

There are two wildcards that could tip the scales in favour of one of the groups. First, as previously mentioned, both groups have a leadership deficit. A leader that captures the imagination of the broader movement would bolster either organisation in their competition for leadership. Both groups could strengthen their claim to leadership with a compelling leader, or both organisations could produce leaders who are rarely seen and unable to mobilize supporters and recruits. And leaders can sometimes emerge seemingly out of nowhere to galvanize a group or the broader movement. Individuals who were not previously well known sometimes emerge to take the top spot of a militant group and become effective leaders, as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did for the Islamic State.

Second, another wildcard is the locale of the next galvanizing cause for the Sunni jihadist movement and which group can capitalise it. Conflicts have served as powerful mobilising causes for this movement. Where the next galvanising cause emerges and, by extension, which group is better positioned to acquire a prominent position could determine who convincingly can claim to lead the movement.

There are also two low probability-high impact scenarios worth considering. First, there is a possibility, albeit remote as of now, that another organisation will join the competition for the leadership mantle within the Sunni jihadist movement. It could be a group currently affiliated with either the Islamic State or Al-Qaida, or it could be an organisation in a powerful position in the next galvanizing conflict. It may also be a surprise candidate could emerge from a region where the Sunni jihadist movement is strongest, like in Africa.

Second, there is a possibility, albeit a small one, that Al-Qaida and the Islamic State could reconcile and re-establish an alliance. This is highly unlikely at this stage, given the enmity that has developed between the two organisations as well as between their respective affiliates. In addition, there has been an important shift in the dynamic between the two groups to reduce the possibility of an alliance. When the alliances initially formed, the two groups were not rivals. The leader of Al-Qaida in Iraq, the Islamic State’s predecessor organisation, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi even once said to Bin Laden, “You, gracious brothers, are the leaders, guides, and symbolic figures of jihad and battle. We do not see ourselves as fit to challenge you”. But in the Islamic State break from Al-Qaida and its ascension, by unabashedly declaring itself the leader of the Sunni jihadist movement, the Islamic State became a rival to Al-Qaida. Non-rivals can ally and cooperate without concerns for their relative position, while rivals can cooperate or even ally, but those relationships tend to be temporary, tactical, and fluid, with concerns about relative power hindering the depth and duration of cooperation. Rivals also become concerned about who occupies the subordinate position in any relationship, and neither Al-Qaida nor the Islamic State seems likely to adopt the position as a subordinate.


The Sunni jihadist movement has evolved over time. It is not necessarily weaker overall; rather, the places where it is strong have shifted. It is now strongest in Africa, rather than the Middle East or South Asia. A competition between Al-Qaida and the Islamic State for leadership of the movement is underway. Neither group has an unambiguous claim to the role at this point, as they have both sustained significant losses and suffer from leadership deficits. But the leader of the movement has had important influence over the threat posed by it; thus, it merits close monitoring even as many countries’ attention shifts away from counterterrorism to focus on inter-state competition.

End Notes



Dr Tricia Bacon is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and a Visiting Fellow at the USI of India, New Delhi.
Article uploaded on 04-11-2022
Disclaimer : The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he/she belongs to or of the USI of India.