Islamic State, which broke off from al-Qaida, has distinguished itself by higher levels of ruthlessness and on-the ground results – conquering and administering territory in the heart of the Arab world – outshining its mother movement.
Though the two Sunni jihadist groups are not too dissimilar ideologically, it is the power Islamic State has achieved in practice that sways the masses of Muslims to its side.
It was Osama bin Laden himself who foresaw his organization’s demise: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”
Lee Smith uses this statement by bin Laden in his book, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, explaining, “The wars waged between Arabs according to the strong horse principle make the Arabic-speaking peoples of the Middle East a much graver threat to themselves than they are to anyone else.”
Arab tribes have been fighting and allying with each other for centuries. And tribes also tend to unite against an invasion by outsiders.
The ruling al-Saud family defeated or allied itself with other tribes in order to take and form Saudi Arabia.
In terms of Islamic State, the current strong horse in the Islamist world, it has a similar long term goal as other Islamist groups, the main ones being al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood – of conquering the world under the rule of an Islamic Caliphate.
All three have different strategies on how to get there.
The Brotherhood, which is the basis ideologically for its two jihadist predecessors, al-Qaida and Islamic State, is a more pragmatic, patient group that prefers to bide its time, building followers from the ground up through its social welfare networks of schools, clinics and charities, before waging jihad.
Sayyid Qutb, the Brotherhood writer that led the way for the emergence of al-Qaida, wrote in his book, Milestones: “Indeed, Islam has the right to take the initiative. Islam is not a heritage of any particular race or country. This is Allah’s din [law] and it is for the whole world. It has the right to destroy all obstacles in the form of institutions and traditions that restrict man’s freedom of choice.”
Al-Qaida did not have the patience to build up support at the grassroots level, but wanted to strike its Arab and Western enemies immediately. And now Islamic State has paved the way for further radicalization.
Caliph Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi and his mentor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Qutb, have a similarity in that they all moved the ideology of their followers in a more extreme direction, though holding different roles.
Daniel Pipes, the president of the Middle East Forum, told The Jerusalem Post he agrees with that statement.
“These are similar processes of radicalization. The Islamic State appears to be the ultimate radical group, but who can say for sure these days?” says Pipes.
“Two simultaneous processes are under way. One is radicalization. The other is becoming part of the mainstream and winning elections, as symbolized by Turkish Prime Minister [Recep] Erdogan,” says Pipes. “ I think the former is doomed but the latter is very dangerous.”
In his previous writings, Pipes said Islamists that are willing to play the “democratic game,” such as the Brotherhood, are more dangerous in the long run than radical jihadists, since stronger Western or Arab forces would eventually defeat them.
“Baghdadi is a brilliant administrator, Qutb was a writer,” so Pipes does not see their roles as similar.
Jean-Pierre Filiu, professor of Middle East studies at Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs and a long-time French diplomat who served in Arab countries told the Post he thinks any comparison to the Brotherhood is irrelevant, as what is really going on here is that Islamic State’s separation from al-Qaida is the “posthumous victory of Zarqawi over bin Laden.”
“Baghdadi won against [al-Qaida head Ayman al-] Zawahiri because, like his mentor he is a seasoned fighter, not a chatterbox,” said Filiu, implying Islamic State’s results and growing power is more than al-Qaida’s leadership has achieved.
“Bin Laden had altogether 10 days of fighting experience; Baghdadi has a 10-year record of guerrilla warfare. Basically, Bin Laden became a loser, while Baghdadi became a winner,” he said.
Asked about the idea that al-Qaida is more patient or pragmatic in its strategy than Islamic State, Filiu said he does not think it is a question of patience, but that “Zarqawi and Baghdadi are doers and killers.”
Baghdadi is based in the center of the Middle East, not in the distant tribal wastelands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said. Moreover, Baghdadi’s organization controls and administers territory and does not have to deal with a hosting country such as al-Qaida had to do with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Filiu said the Islamic State leader is better at playing on Muslims’ emotions, motivating them to support his fight.
“In the real world of real jihadis, ideology does not matter that much.”
Filiu referred to the story of the French journalist held hostage for months in Syria, Nicolas Henin, who said one of his captors was a Frenchman, Mehdi Nemmouche.
“The former French hostage just testified that his kidnapper did not even mention Allah once during his months of detention,” said Filiu.
Reuters contributed to this report.