Al-Qaeda versus ISIS: Competing Jihadist Brands in the Middle East

By Charles Lister | Senior Fellow, Director of Extremism and Counterterrorism Program - The Middle East Institute | Nov 7, 2017
Al-Qaeda versus ISIS: Competing Jihadist Brands in the Middle East


The 2011 political unrest in the Middle East provided al-Qaeda and ISIS with an unprecedented opportunity for growth. While both groups share the goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate, they approached the goal with different strategies and to differing degrees of success. Al-Qaeda responded to the instability by attempting to soften its image. The group specifically instructed its affiliates to situate themselves in local conflicts and to slow down the implementation of Sharia law. ISIS, on the other hand, focused on seizing territory and violently disrupting state-building efforts. By the close of 2017, al- Qaeda’s rebranding has successfully allowed the group to expand its footprint in a number of Middle Eastern civil wars at the cost of its central authority. ISIS, meanwhile, has lost most of its territory but retains the ideological strength to inspire attacks abroad.

Key Findings

  • A number of al-Qaeda affiliates have re-named and re-branded in order to better embed themselves in local conflicts.
  • In addition to territorial losses, ISIS has lost credibility with the local population due to its brutal style of governance.
  • While al-Qaeda is better situated locally, ISIS remains more popular with the younger generation of jihadists.
  • The underlying causes of both movements are regional instability, the secular nature of regional conflict, and increasing globalization specifically with regards to weakened borders and increased internet use.
  • Competition between both groups for “Jihadist supremacy” has divided international attention and prevented either from being eliminated.

Read the full Policy Paper here.