Over the course of the past couple weeks I have talked to several people who have asked my opinion on the possibility of a reconciliation between al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The question is being brought about by a number of factors.
First is the fact that the Islamic State is losing ground in Iraq and in parts of Syria and has suffered significant losses in men, materiel and in its financial apparatus. This is taken to mean the group has been humbled a bit, and now that it is under heavy pressure, its leaders might be tempted to join forces with al Qaeda. Second, al Qaeda has lost some sub-groups to the Islamic State, and it is commonly perceived to be losing ground to the Islamic State in the propaganda war. Furthermore, in parts of Syria, such as in Qalamoun, some local Islamic State commanders have periodically cooperated with the local al Qaeda franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra, to fight regime forces and Hezbollah. Finally, some unconfirmed rumors are floating around the Internet jihadisphere saying al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is going to dissolve al Qaeda and give the regional franchise groups their independence.
Many fear that if the groups joined forces, their combined capabilities and resources would pose a major threat to the rest of the world. This fear is certainly not unfounded. A united jihadist movement would pose a more substantial threat than does the currently divided movement. However, because of a number of factors, it does not appear that either the Islamic State or al Qaeda could accept such a merger.
Several important factors keep the Islamic State and al Qaeda divided. Perhaps the most superficial of these factors is the clash between the personalities of the groups. A great deal of personal animosity appears to exist between the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani. This personal enmity has manifested itself in Islamic State propaganda that makes direct, personal attacks against al-Zawahiri and al-Golani. For example, the group's English-language magazine, Dabiq, has depicted al-Zawahiri as a manipulative and dishonest man. In the seventh edition, the Islamic State essentially labeled al-Zawahiri a deviant by charging that he had "abandoned the pure heritage" that Osama bin Laden left and had turned al Qaeda to a mistaken ideology. For his part, al-Zawahiri has called Islamic State militants "Kharijites," or radical, rebellious extremists. Al-Golani and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have also been quite critical of al-Baghdadi.
But the conflict goes beyond personal attacks. The Islamic State takes issue with several tenets of al Qaeda's approach to jihadism as codified in al-Zawahiri's September 2013 General Guidelines for Jihad. The Islamic State is particularly incensed with al-Zawahiri's guidance to avoid targeting Shiites. Al-Zawahiri directed al Qaeda franchise groups and individual militants to focus primarily on fighting the United States and the "Crusader Alliance" and only to attack "deviant sects" such as Shiites, Ismailis, Qadianis and Sufis defensively. He also ordered his followers not to attack the homes, places of worship, religious festivals or social gatherings of other Muslim sects. The Islamic State, on the other hand, believes these so-called deviant groups are heretics and, therefore, should be eliminated.
The disparity in whether to attack Shiite and other Muslim sects originates in differing approaches to the takfir doctrine, which deals with labeling Muslims apostates and therefore justified targets for attack. The Islamic State believes it can declare entire sects apostates, for example the Shiites, whereas al Qaeda believes that takfir should be declared in a much more limited manner.
Al Qaeda's General Guidelines for Jihad also states that jihadists should avoid targeting Christian, Sikh and Hindu communities living in Muslim lands, unless they transgress, which would be grounds for a proportional response. On the other hand, massacres of such communities and attacks against their homes, places of worship and festivals have been a hallmark of the Islamic State since its inception. This difference in targeting philosophy led al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to sharply criticize Islamic State sympathizers for the March 20 suicide bombings of two mosques in Sanaa that killed 142 Houthis and wounded hundreds of others.
The Islamic State also takes exception to the al Qaeda guidelines that call for jihadists to support and participate in popular uprisings against oppressive regimes. Al Qaeda made the guidelines to take advantage of Arab Spring-type demonstrations, and jihadists participated in violent demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia. But the Islamic State charges that by taking this approach, al Qaeda is changing jihadism from fighting to holding peaceful demonstrations and pursuing popular support, or even supporting democracy - a deadly sin in the eyes of most jihadists.