Al-Qa`ida’s operation in Syria is both its most dangerous and dysfunctional. Al-Qa`ida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s rebuke of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in which he ordered it to focus solely on Iraq and defer authority in Syria to Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), is evidence that terrorist groups can still pose a significant threat even when plagued by internal divisions.[1] Moreover, despite al-Qa`ida’s internal strife in Syria, the context in which it operates is deeply advantageous compared to other environments, including Iraq.

The dramatic growth of al-Qa`ida affiliates in Syria is a direct result of its preexisting networks in Iraq. These networks were built in 2004 and 2005, became nearly dominant in 2006 and 2007, and then suffered a dramatic series of setbacks at the hands of the U.S. military and the famed Sunni Awakening. Those setbacks were a result of endogenous conditions and exogenous factors.[2] They were enough to deeply damage al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI),[3] but not enough to destroy it. As a result, when the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turned violent in Syria, AQI was ready to take advantage in a country where the context was quite different than Iraq.

This article compares the AQI of 2006-2007 to JN and the ISIL[4] today with the objective of estimating the relative danger of the latter two groups. It first looks at the endogenous and exogenous constraints on AQI during its zenith, before examining whether those same factors will weaken JN and the ISIL in Syria. The article finds that the growth of JN and the ISIL in Syria poses a significantly larger global threat than their precursor, AQI, during the height of its strength in 2006-2007. Moreover, there are signs that JN and ISIL are likely to remain powerful militant actors for a sustained period, unlike the earlier iteration of AQI, which was significantly weakened by the Sunni Awakening just as its power was peaking. Compared to AQI’s earlier incarnation, JN and the ISIL are more likely to sustainably control territory, project power around the region, possibly sponsor global terrorist attacks, and catalyze a new generation of jihadist insurrection.

AQI’s Endogenous Weaknesses
AQI suffered from three primary endogenous weaknesses that constrained its operations: ideological extremism, expansive and shifting strategic goals and limited operational capacity.

Ideological Extremism
From its founding in 2004, AQI embraced an expansive notion of takfir—excommunication, or the act of declaring that a Muslim is not truly a Muslim—both in terms of the types of people who were eligible for this designation and by virtually eliminating any standard for who was qualified to make that weighty declaration.[5]  By doing so, AQI established a predilection for extreme violence conducted by largely independent operating commanders.[6] For obvious reasons, federating what it meant to define ideological purity made it difficult for AQI to build coalitions with other militant groups—even those with similar ideologies, such as Ansar al-Islam and Ansar al-Sunna—or tribal factions. This isolation deeply undermined AQI’s ability to govern territory that it seized.[7]

Expansive and Shifting Strategic Goals
AQI had expansive strategic goals. After October 2006, AQI aimed to govern areas it controlled in Iraq, and celebrated that shift by changing its name to the Islamic State of Iraq (an obvious precursor to the ISIL).[8] The determination to build an Islamic state, however, put AQI out-of-step with many Iraqi Sunnis who felt a sense of nationalism even as they were isolated from governing institutions. AQI’s attempts to impose draconian social policies on a population unaccustomed to them alienated AQI from their would-be constituency, and that led the group to spend as much time fighting its potential allies as it did trying to overthrow the Shi`a-led government of Iraq. AQI’s strategy aimed to provoke a Shi`a backlash against Sunnis that AQI would rebuke, thereby winning the hearts and minds of that constituency. Yet attempting to establish a jihadist state in a majority Shi`a country by challenging the existing tribal social framework was a course fraught with risk from the start.[9]

Limited Operational Capacity
AQI’s strategy was ultimately undermined by its operational weakness. Although AQI was strong enough to provoke a Shi`a backlash, it was too weak to adequately defend Iraqi Sunnis. Additionally, AQI had few mechanisms to improve its human capital. AQI depended on foreign fighters for the suicide bombers that were central to its operational success, and its personnel vetting and training programs were inadequate despite collecting a wide range of information on its volunteers.[10] When fighters with Western passports entered Iraq, they were funneled directly into the suicide bomber pipeline, just like others with less useful credentials.[11] Moreover, AQI’s lack of safe haven in Iraq meant that foreign fighters posed serious security risks because their accents and lack of local knowledge stood out.[12]

AQI’s Exogenous Weaknesses
The U.S. strategy to apply exogenous pressure on AQI exploited these endogenous weaknesses. The United States succeeded in four key areas to limit AQI’s success: seizing operational initiative and battlespace control, limiting foreign support, giving AQI allies alternatives, and reining in the sectarian fight.

Seizing Operational Initiative and Battlespace Control
The U.S. Special Operations Forces campaign against AQI meant that no AQI base or safe house was secure. From 2006 to 2008, AQI did not have an operational safe haven in Iraq, let alone a strategic one. By killing key AQI leaders and disrupting communications, the United States denied AQI the ability to effectively train its recruits or communicate with its operational leaders, which exacerbated the extremist tendencies built into AQI’s ideology.[13] This was true even after AQI’s leadership intended to moderate its interaction with other Sunni groups in Iraq. Without such guidance, and considering AQI’s ideological disposition, it is not surprising that operational leaders often defaulted toward radical—and often counterproductive—conflict with other Sunni groups. In other words, AQI’s operational extremism—and the backlash it caused—was likely the result of both endogenous ideological radicalism and bad training and guidance encouraged by exogenous pressure from counterterrorism forces.

Limiting Foreign Support
Despite widespread opposition to the invasion of Iraq, foreign fighters joining AQI were engaged in an illicit endeavor. Governments allied with the United States criticized the U.S. invasion, but intelligence around the region worked to stem the flow of fighters and funds, often at U.S. urging.[14]

Giving AQI Allies Alternatives
The Sunni Awakening in Iraq did not destroy AQI, but U.S. financial and military support for tribal groups did encourage rebellion against jihadist elements.[15] The efforts by the United States were productive, just not decisive.

Reining in the Sectarian Fight
AQI’s ideology was inherently sectarian, and the specter of Shi`a-supremacist and Iran-affiliated elements in the Iraqi government was useful for AQI’s outreach strategy to recalcitrant Sunnis, pushing a narrative that saw Sunnis defending themselves against Shi`a oppressors who would kill their families. The Baghdad security plan that separated Sunni and Shi`a neighborhoods, targeted Shi`a militias along with AQI, and efforts to cleanse key Iraqi state institutions—such as the Ministry of Interior—weakened AQI’s argument to Iraqi Sunnis that they were the only counterforce to Shi`a domination.

The ISIL’s and JN’s Endogenous Weaknesses
When comparing AQI’s weaknesses in Iraq with the ISIL’s and JN’s in Syria, it becomes clear that the combination of endogenous weaknesses and exogenous pressure that led to AQI’s setbacks in 2008 was unlikely to be replicated in the near-term. Although the jihadist groups in Syria have significant endogenous weaknesses, they generally operate in a more permissive environment, and applying effective exogenous pressure against them is proving more difficult.

Ideological Extremism
JN and the ISIL are both disposed to extreme ideological positions out of step with Syria’s more secular traditions.[16] Nevertheless, neither has engaged in mass declarations of takfir and systematic repudiation of Syrian social structures like AQI did in Iraq. Although this may be simply a temporary tactical effort, it nonetheless illustrates a predilection for moderation not often shown by AQI. JN in particular touts a hybrid Syrian and jihadist character. Nevertheless, the ISIL continues Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi’s tradition of conflict with other jihadists, both asserting control over JN in Syria and repudiating Ayman al-Zawahiri’s authority over its actions.[17] This intransigence has led to the ISIL falling out with Ayman al-Zawahiri.[18] Therefore, although JN, and even the ISIL, have surpassed AQI’s efforts to relate to non-jihadists, they nonetheless fall into the same fighting against other militants, such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), that has hampered jihadists from Algeria, Kunar Province, and Iraq.[19]

Expansive and Shifting Strategic Goals
In Syria, the problem is less that al-Qa`ida’s affiliates have expansive goals, but that they have divergent ones. Whereas JN remains focused primarily on evicting Bashar al-Assad from power, the ISIL is increasingly content to consolidate governing control over areas of Syria outside of al-Assad’s control.[20] This is consistent with AQI’s approach to state building in Iraq, but is being implemented in an environment much more conducive to that goal. Whereas Iraq’s population was 60% Shi`a, Syria’s population is 74% Sunni.[21] Nonetheless, the ISIL’s strategy of partition seems out-of-step with Syrians who initiated the uprising with the nationalist goal of keeping Syria unified by evicting al-Assad.

Limited Operational Capacity
Perhaps the simplest and most obvious explanation of JN’s and the ISIL’s prospects for power projection and sustainability is that these groups are stronger than AQI was in Iraq. They now include up to 12,000 fighters combined.[22] The ISIL is also bringing in much larger numbers of foreign fighters—including Europeans—many of whom are learning to use sophisticated weapons and small unit tactics rather than simply being ushered into suicide attacks.[23] Lastly, it is far easier for foreign fighters to enter Syria than it was Iraq.[24] Larger numbers, better training and a higher survival rate are likely to produce a larger “bleedout” of foreign fighters from Syria than Iraq. Despite reasoned claims that the vast majority of foreign fighters will not go on to become active jihadists, the scale of jihadist veterans from Syria significantly raises the risk that some will pursue al-Qa`ida’s ends in the future.[25] The ISIL’s command-and-control capability is mixed. The group increasingly clashes with other militants in a manner reminiscent of the ISI, but it has also avoided such confrontation and engaged in a coherent public relations strategy to improve its image among Syrians and outsiders alike.[26]

The ISIL’s and JN’s Exogenous Weaknesses
On balance, AQI’s Syrian descendants face fewer endogenous weaknesses when compared to AQI: demographics favor them, external support is more forthcoming, and they are perceived as legitimate actors outside of al-Qa`ida’s usual band of narrow supporters. The real difference, however, is that they face much less exogenous pressure.

Seizing Operational Initiative and Battlespace Control
JN and the ISIL have more safe havens than AQI ever had in Iraq. The Syrian military has been denied access to vast swaths of Syria for months and there is not a U.S. Special Operations campaign or drone program to keep JN and the ISIL unbalanced. Those safe havens mean that JN and the ISIL can mitigate their ideological extremism through better training, and foreign fighters can be vetted and trained more thoroughly because they are less of a security hazard than foreign fighters were in Iraq. That capability both improves JN’s and the ISIL’s effectiveness in Syria, but it also increases the possibility that elements in these groups will attempt to operate outside of Syria and Iraq. In the past, pressure from al-Qa`ida’s core leadership prevented AQI from expanding its area of operations—most notably in late 2005 after AQI attacked Western hotels in Jordan. The ISIL in particular has rejected Ayman al-Zawahiri’s authority and implicitly asserts that their vision extends to the entire Levant.[27]

Limiting Foreign Support
Whereas U.S. allies generally supported efforts to prevent foreign fighters from flowing to Iraq (Bashar al-Assad, ironically, turned a blind eye as jihadists flowed through Damascus airport to Iraq), even close U.S. allies such as Turkey, which has allegedly backed JN skirmishes against Kurds in Syria, and Qatar have tolerated or supported jihadist activity in Syria.[28] This policy dramatically increases the risk of bleedout in the future and has bolstered Bashar al-Assad politically by allowing him to use the threat of sectarian jihadists to maintain cohesion within his regime.

Giving JN/ISIL Allies Alternatives
In Iraq, providing alternatives to Sunni militants meant providing military support for tribal militias, which was both useful practically and an important symbol of U.S. intent, while simultaneously working with the Iraqi government to legitimize their role in society.[29] In Syria, fear of accidentally supporting jihadist groups has restrained U.S. policymakers from providing weapons and there is no indication that a sustainable accommodation between FSA units and the al-Assad government is near. A program to support the FSA with weapons would be useful, although it would be prone to abuse by jihadist groups.

Reining in the Sectarian Fight
Much of the U.S. effort to prevent sectarian war in Iraq boiled down to segregation. The United States has no ability to separate the combatants in Syria, but a de facto—and very bloody—separation is occurring.[30] Despite the ISIL’s focus on consolidating governance in territory it controls, the group will not allow for a cease-fire with the al-Assad regime. The specter of continued conflict with al-Assad significantly bolsters al-Qa`ida in Syria, contrary to the notion advanced by some that the conflict bleeds and weakens jihadist groups.

Al-Qa`ida in Iraq was always fighting an uphill battle: it “incorporated” in a country dominated by a sect it despised, while 100,000 of the most capable soldiers in the world vigilantly attempted to crush it. The dissolution of Syria has dramatically changed that context.

JN and the ISIL are far more likely than AQI was during the U.S. occupation of Iraq to sustain control of territory. Safe havens—such as those in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example—have notably been a precondition for well-organized al-Qa`ida attacks against Western targets. Indeed, the controversial drone tactics used in Pakistan and Yemen were designed to prevent the sort of safe haven now developing in northeastern Syria.

These safe havens increase the risk that al-Qa`ida affiliates in Syria will project power abroad. The ISIL’s regional re-branding, despite Ayman al-Zawahiri’s determination to roll that back, means it now publicly acknowledges regional aspirations in Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. These aspirations have always been latent in AQI, but were suppressed in earlier years when al-Qa`ida central ordered the group to focus on Iraq.[31] Bleedout from Syria is likely to be significantly worse than Iraq as well. Not only are far more foreign fighters entering the conflict, they are playing much more complex roles as fighters and commanders rather than simply as fodder for suicide attacks. Considering that the most important role of a veteran jihadist is as a trainer and motivator, this outflow is worrisome. Although the worst fears of Iraq in 2006 were avoided, they have the potential to be realized in Syria.

Brian Fishman is a Counterterrorism Research Fellow at the New America Foundation. He previously served as the Director of Research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, where he remains a Non-Resident Fellow.

[1] “Al-Qaeda’s Zawahiri Disbands Main Faction Operating in Syria,” al-Arabiya, November 9, 2013.

[2] This framing borrows heavily from Assaf Moghadam and Brian Fishman eds., Fault Lines in Global Jihad: Organizational, Strategic, and Ideological Fissures (London: Routledge, 2011).

[3] For the purpose of clarity, this article refers to the 2006-2007 al-Qa`ida affiliate in Iraq as al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI) rather than the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which was its formal appellation from October 2006 until changing its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in 2012.

[4] This article uses the name the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to refer to the Iraq-based al-Qa`ida organization that operates in both Iraq and Syria and was recently chastised by al-Qa`ida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.

[5] For more, see Mohammed Hafez, “Tactics, Takfir, and Anti-Muslim Violence,” in Assaf Moghadam and Brian Fishman eds., Self-Inflicted Wounds: Debates and Divisions Within al-Qa`ida and Its Periphery (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2010).

[6] Mohammed Hafez, Suicide Bombers in Iraq (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2007).

[7] Nelly Lahoud, The Jihadis’ Path to Self Destruction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

[8] Brian Fishman, “Fourth Generation Governance: Sheikh Tamimi Defends the Islamic State,” Combating Terrorism Center, March 23, 2007.

[9] See Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi’s letter to al-Qa`ida’s leadership, which was released to the media in February 2004. The relationship between Ansar al-Sunna and AQI was occasionally hostile. For example, see Brian Fishman, “Ansar al-Sunnah Threatens al-Qa’ida in Iraq,” Combating Terrorism Center, February 26, 2007.

[10] Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, Al-Qaeda’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2007).

[11] Ibid.

[12] For example, see the Combating Terrorism Center’s Harmony document collection, including: NMEC-2007-657700, NMEC-2007-657739, NMEC-2007-612449. These documents are available at

[13] See NMEC-2007-612449 in particular. Also see the story of AQI’s clash with the Islamic Army of Iraq in Brian Fishman, Dysfunction and Decline: Lessons Learned from Inside al-Qa’ida in Iraq (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2009).

[14] Anthony Cordesman, Iraq and Foreign Volunteers (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2005).

[15] See, for example, David J. Kilcullen, “Field Notes on Iraq’s Tribal Revolt Against Al-Qa`ida,” CTC Sentinel 1:11 (2008).

[16] Kristen Chick, “Veil Ban: Why Syria Joins Europe in Barring the Niqab,” Christian Science Monitor, July 20, 2010; “In Secular Syria, Top Muslim Cleric Picks Sides in Civil War,” National Public Radio, March 12, 2013; Omar Hossino, “Syria’s Secular Revolution Lives On,” Foreign Policy, February 4, 2013.

[17] Despite al-Zawahiri’s order that the ISIL should be abolished, the group continues to operate in Syria under that name.

[18] “Al-Qaeda’s Zawahiri Disbands Main Faction Operating in Syria,” al-Arabiya, November 9, 2013.

[19] Lauren Williams, “Islamist Militants Drive Free Syrian Army Out of Raqqa,” Daily Star [Beirut], August 15, 2013.

[20] See, for example, Bruce Hoffman’s quote: “They want to carve out a jihadi state or a jihadi territory and obviously anything above that is gravy, like overthrowing the Assad regime. I don’t think they have ambitions of taking over the entire country, although they’d be happy to.” See Ben Hubbard, “Qaeda Branch in Syria Pursues Its Own Agenda,” New York Times, October 1, 2013.

[21] “The World Factbook: Iraq,” Central Intelligence Agency, November 5, 2013; “The World Factbook: Syria,” Central Intelligence Agency, October 25, 2013.

[22] Charles Lister, “Syria’s Insurgency Beyond Good Guys and Bad Guys,” Foreign Policy, September 9, 2013. Estimates of AQI fighters range considerably, from about 1,000 up to several thousand. See Ned Parker, “Iraq Insurgency Said to Include Many Saudis,” Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2007. Thomas Hegghammer estimated that 4,000 foreign fighters entered Iraq. See Thomas Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad,” International Security 35:3 (2010/2011).

[23] Michael Birnbaum and Souad Mekhennet, “As Son Heads to Syrian Front, Family in Germany Plots Kidnapping to Bring Him Back,” Washington Post, November 11, 2013. In July 2013, Hegghammer and Zelin estimated that more than 5,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria, a number that has certainly increased since then. See Thomas Hegghammer and Aaron Zelin, “How Syria’s Civil War Became a Holy Crusade,” Foreign Affairs, July 7, 2013.

[24] There are a number of reasons for this. Europeans and other foreign fighters are able to take a train or airplane to Turkey, and then enter across the Turkey-Syria border. The Iraq-Syria border is another major crossing route.

[25] Thomas Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting,” American Political Science Review 107:1 (2013).

[26] Ben Hubbard, “Rebels Push for Ceasefire in Border Stand-Off,” New York Times, October 5, 2013.

[27] For more on this argument, see Brian Fishman, “Redefining the Islamic State of Iraq: The Fall and Rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq,” New America Foundation, August 18, 2011.

[28] Dan Murphy, “US Designates Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra Front a ‘Terrorist’ Group at Lightning Speed,” Security Watch, December 10, 2012; “Turkey and the Syrian Kurds: A Little-Notice Battle,” Economist, September 25, 2013.

[29] Greg Bruno, “The Role of the ‘Sons of Iraq’ in Improving Security,” Washington Post, April 28, 2008.

[30] Arthur Bright, “Baghdad’s Sunni/Shiite Security Wall,” Christian Science Monitor, April 20, 2007.

[31] Brian Fishman, “Redefining the Islamic State: The Fall and Rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq,” New America Foundation, August 18, 2011. Al-Qa`ida in Iraq also had regional aspirations, attacking outside of Iraq five times before it was compelled by al-Qa`ida central to focus on Iraq: the failed chemical attack in Amman, Jordan, in April 2004; the attempted cross-border suicide attack in Jordan in December 2004; rockets fired at the Red Sea port of Aqaba; the attack on Western-owned hotels in Amman in November 2005; and a rocket strike from southern Lebanon into northern Israel in December 2005. See “Jordan Was ‘Chemical Bomb’ Target,” BBC News, April 17, 2004; Sahar Aloul, “Zarqawi Handed Second Death Penalty in Jordan,” Lebanon Wire, December 18, 2005; “Al-Zarqawi Group Claims Attack on U.S. Ships,” MSNBC, August 23, 2005; “Al-Zarqawi Group Claims Attack on U.S. Ships,” MSNBC, August 23, 2005; Ilene Prusher and Nicholas Blanford, “Al-Qaeda Takes Aim at Israel,” Christian Science Monitor, January 13, 2006.

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