Search
MALI-UNREST-HOTEL
Picture taken of a room at the Radisson Blu hotel the day after the deadly jihadist siege at the luxury hotel in Bamako, Mali on Nov. 21, 2015. Habibou Kouyate—AFP/Getty Images

What to Know About the Deadly ISIS vs. al-Qaeda Rivalry

Nov 24, 2015

One was an American public health expert working on women’s health and HIV. Six were employees of a Russian airline. Three were Chinese railway executives. Another was an official with the Belgian parliament. One was an Israeli educational worker. Six were Malians.

The 20 victims of the armed assault on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako on Nov. 20 included a cross-section of international visitors to this West African country. According to multiple reports, the gunmen separated Muslims from non-Muslims by demanding they recite verses from the Quran.

The siege at the hotel followed an uptick in attacks by militants in Mali, including groups that denounced the country's fragile peace accord. But the digital aftermath of the assault on the hotel illustrated an ongoing rivalry between al-Qaeda, other assorted jihadist groups, and the militants of ISIS, who have pioneered their own brand of indiscriminate killing.

In contrast to the wholesale slaughter of civilians in Paris and Beirut a week earlier—by suicide bomb and assault weapon—the killings in Bamako typified the somewhat more targeted approach to terrorism professed by al-Qaeda, whose leaders have said that they disapprove of ISIS’ indiscriminate tactics. Al-Qaeda supporters expressed their admiration for the attack online.

While the killing in Mali unfolded, one al-Qaeda supporter wrote online that ISIS “should learn a thing or two” from the gunmen in Mali. Another supporter posted: "Lions who carried out #MaliAttack separated Muslims from Christian in order2 protect the inviolable blood of Muslims."

The sparring between al-Qaeda and ISIS over tactics is just one front in a much larger struggle within the jihadi universe in which the two networks compete for funding, prestige and recruits. It is a fight that ISIS had been winning decisively prior to the attack in Mali. By seizing and controlling huge chunks of territory in Syria and Iraq—and proclaiming a "caliphate"—ISIS had supplanted al-Qaeda as the preeminent force in the international jihadist movement.

The caliphate provided ISIS with a territorial base for training, governing and extracting resources (in the form of oil, wheat, taxation and extortion) on a scale al-Qaeda has never come close to achieving. The group has also succeeded in building an army of fighters from across the world, many of them drawn through online recruitment efforts. ISIS' online presence is bigger and far more sophisticated than al-Qaeda's, including social media campaigns that sometimes produce tens of thousands of posts in a day, propaganda videos with high production values, and intensive efforts to recruit individual followers across the world.

The killings in Bamako were claimed by an al-Qaeda splinter group called Mourabitoun, which was founded by the Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar. According to some reports, the group acted in concert with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an al-Qaeda franchise operating in the Sahara and Sahel regions. Separately, a new Malian group called the Macina Liberation front also claimed responsibility for the attack. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was "likely" that Belmokhtar's group was behind the attacks.

If that all seems confusing, it is, even for experts who study international jihadism. The relationship between Mourabitoun and al-Qaeda remains murky. The group's founder, Belmokhtar, split with al-Qaeda in 2012 after he was rebuked by the al-Qaeda leadership for being uncooperative. Further complicating matters, the U.S. claimed to have killed Belmokhtar in an airstrike in Libya in June, although his death was never confirmed.

The attack in Mali underscored the possibility of an unpredictable and bloody scenario in which multiple jihadist groups and sub-groups around the world compete for notoriety and resources, in a possible contest of who can kill more and more creatively. In its own attacks ISIS appears to rely a loose network of militant cells, including foreign fighters returning to their home countries from Syria and Iraq. Those cells may plan and execute attacks with the approval of ISIS' leaders, but with with little direction from the central command in Syria and Iraq. It was ISIS' local franchise in Egypt that claimed to have bombed a Russian passenger jet on Oct. 31, killing 224 people.

“They’ll banner under one network or the other, but I feel like it’s way more loose and way more self initiating than it was 10 years ago,” said Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank in Philadelphia. “From a counterterrorism standpoint it's like a giant pile of spaghetti. Which noodle are you going to pull on and run with? It’s a capacity problem and it’s a triage problem.”

Both ISIS and al-Qaeda have killed now civilians in terror attacks on a large scale. Al-Qaeda, while it may now claim to be more careful in its targets, has engaged in indiscriminate killing in the past, including the September 11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people. But al-Qaeda faced a strategic and tactical turning point during the bloody insurgency against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Between 2003 and 2006, the man who became al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, presided over a devastating series of suicide bombings that killed numerous Iraqis, particularly Shiite Muslims (al-Qaeda's followers are primarily Sunni). The campaign marked the embrace of an extreme sectarian worldview that labeled Shiites as apostates.

Osama bin Laden's deputy, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, eventually rebuked Zarqawi, urging him cease indiscriminate attacks that killed Muslims, arguing they undermined the organization’s recruiting efforts. Zarqawi was killed in 2006, but remains of the extremist group formed the basis for what became ISIS.

While al-Qaeda leaders expressed a desire to impose some limits on the use of violence and focus the fight on non-Muslims, ISIS seemed to embrace brutality and sectarianism as a selling point. The group has captured world attention with propaganda videos depicting grotesque scenes of killing, including footage of hostages beheaded and burned alive. Analysts have described those videos as an attempt to “outbid” its militant competitors in a tournament of cruelty.

In recent months, the two groups have engaged in a propaganda battle, each assailing the other over strategic and doctrinal differences. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates recently lashed out at ISIS for targeting Muslims. In a video released in the name of al-Qaeda branches in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula that surfaced before the Paris attacks, the militants accused ISIS of “deviation and misguidance.”

On the other side of the divide, ISIS accuses al-Qaeda of lacking purity when the group forms alliances with local forces and insurgent groups in Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. The most recent edition of an online ISIS publication called Dabiq, written in English and released following the Paris attacks, includes an entire article critiquing al-Qaeda for allegedly forming alliances with former agents of the Yemeni government.

The attack in Bamako took place in the context of ongoing political conflict in Mali, where transnational militant groups operate among a range of local groups. The attacks came after leaders recently called for violence in response to a peace accord signed in June.

“It does seem from the outside that roots of these attacks are Malian, and they’re rooted in what’s happening in that country,” says Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University.

Nevertheless, the rivalry among jihadists could be one of the dynamics driving future violence across the world. “The most dangerous scenario isn’t two big things," says Watts. "It’s 15 little things running wild all over the world." There is mounting evidence of the potential for a competition in which ISIS, al-Qaeda, their affiliates, and individuals inspired by the those groups attempt to match or surpass one another's acts of killing. In the short term, one group may succeed in attracting more recruits and funding, more praise from their online acolytes. But in the long term this is a contest with no winners, only losers, the victims.

Meet the Kurdish Women Taking the Battle to ISIS

18-year-old YPJ fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live ina world where women are dominated by men.We are here to take control of our future..I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME Zinar base, Syria "I joined YPJ about seven months ago, because I was looking for something meaningful in my life and my leader [ Abdullah Ocalan] showed me the way and my role in the society. We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our own future. We are not merely fighting with arms; we fight with our thoughts. Ocalan's ideology is always in our hearts and minds and it is with his thought that we become so empowered that we can even become better soldiers than men. When I am at the frontline, the thought of all the cruelty and injustice against women enrages me so much that I become extra-powerful in combat. I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path."
VIEW GALLERY | 16 PHOTOS
18-year-old YPJ (Women's Protection Unit) fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our future. I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobani. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been martyred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path."Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
18-year-old YPJ fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live ina world where women are dominated by men.We are here to take control of our future..I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME Zinar base, Syria "I joined YPJ about seven months ago, because I was looking for something meaningful in my life and my leader [ Abdullah Ocalan] showed me the way and my role in the society. We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our own future. We are not merely fighting with arms; we fight with our thoughts. Ocalan's ideology is always in our hearts and minds and it is with his thought that we become so empowered that we can even become better soldiers than men. When I am at the frontline, the thought of all the cruelty and injustice against women enrages me so much that I become extra-powerful in combat. I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path."
YPJ fighters on their base at the border between Syria and Iraq. Young female fighters are indoctrinated to the ideology of their charismatic leader, Abdullah Ocalan, head of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), who promotes marxist thought and empowerment of women.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
18 year-old YPJ fighter Saria Zilan from Amuda, Syria:"I fought with ISIS in Serikani. I captured one of them and wanted to kill him, but my comrades did not let me. He kept staring at the ground and would not look at me, because he said it was forbidden by his religion to look at a woman." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME "It's been one year and four months since I joined YPJ. When I saw Martyr Deli on TV after ISIS beheaded her, I went to her burial ceremony the next day in Amuda. I saw Deli's mother sobbing madly. Right there I swore to myself to avenge her death. I joined YPJ the day after. In the past, women had various roles in the society. but all those roles were taken from them. We are here now to take back the role of women in society. I grew up in a country, where I was not allowed to speak my mother tongue of Kurdish. I was not allowed to have a Kurdish name. If you were a pro-Kurdish activist, they'd arrest you and put you in jail. But since the Rojava revolution, we have been getting back our rights. We were not allowed to speak our language before, and now ISIS wants to wipe us off completely from the Earth. I fought with ISIS in Serikani. I captured one of them and wanted to kill him, but my comrades did not let me do so. He kept staring at the ground and would not look at me, because he said it was forbidden by his religion to look at a woman. I have changed a lot. My way of thinking about the world has changed since I joined YPJ. Maybe some people wonder why we're doing this. But when they get to know us better, they will understand why. We are emotional people."
20-year old YPJ fighter Aijan Denis from Amuda, Syria: "Where I am now, men and women are equal and we all have the same thought, which is fighting for our ideology and the rights of women. My three sisters and I are all in YPJ. "Newsha Tavakolian for TIME I joined YPJ in 2011. One day when I was watching TV, they were showing pictures of women who had been killed. I was really impressed by that and decided to join the army myself. Where I am now, men and women are equal and we all have the same thought, which is fighting for our ideology and the rights of women. My three sisters and I are all in YPJ. They all operate RPGs. I wish to become so skilled that I will be allowed to do the same."
YPJ members take part in daily combat training at their base in Serikani. Syria.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
Three YPJ fighters sit in an armed vehicle at their basein eastern Syria, days after returning from the front. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
YPJ members, including some who were wounded fighting against ISIS in Kobani, Syria, at the all-women Asayesh Security Base in Derek, Syria. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
16 year-old YPJ fighter Barkhodan Kochar from Darbasi, Syria. "The war influenced me a lot. Before joining YPJ, whenever I asked my family about politics, they'd say 'that's not your business, you're just a girl'. But when I saw how the women of YPJ gave their lives for what they believed in, I knew that I wanted to be one of them." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME "I joined YPJ in 2014, because I wanted to defend my homeland. The war influenced me a lot. Before joining YPJ, whenever I asked my family about politics, they'd say 'that's not your business, you're just a girl'. But when I saw how the women of YPJ gave their lives for what they believed in, I knew that I wanted to be one of them. I feel much more empowered as a woman now. As a 16-year-old girl, I think that I have a very important role in my country and I will keep on fighting until the last drop of my blood is shed."
A billboard showing fallen YPJ solders,reading, “Withyou we live on and life continues.”Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
In Western Kurdistan, the Syrian autonomous region Kurds call Rojava, young people are taught the ideology of the PYD (the Democratic Union Party of Syria), an affiliate of PKK (Kirdistan Workers' Party). Many of these young people will soon be drafted into YPJ and YPG armies to fight ISIS.  Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
in Syria, graves of YPJ members who were killed fighting ISIS. In the foreground, female fighters are buried together.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
A picture of 17 year-old Cicek Derek, who died in the besieged city of Kobani, Syria, where her fellow fighters were unable to retrieve her body. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
Rojin, the sister of 17 year-old YPJ fighter Cicek Derek who died fighting in Kobani, Syria. "When my mother told Cicek, please stay with your mother', she answered 'I left to fight for all the mothers of the world. I cannot stay here." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME"My sister was very naive and sensitive when she left us. But four years later, when she came back to bury the body of her friend who had been killed in Kobane, she was smart and tough and I could see lots of self-confidence in her eyes. When my mother told her 'please don't go back, stay with your mother', she answered 'I left to fight for all the mothers of the world. I cannot stay here'. When she came back for her friend's burial, she briefly visited the house. She kept taking pictures in every corner and with all of us, as if it was her the last party of her life."
A scarf belonging to 17-year-old YPJ fighter Cicek Derek, who was killed in Kobane, Syria, was all that could be brought back to her family. Her body remains in kobane, Syria.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
A wedding dress outside a bridal shop in a town near Qamishlou, Syria. YPG graffiti can be seen on the walls of adjacent buildings. YPJ and YPG members are neither allowed to marry, nor can they have sexual relationships, according the their ideology. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
20 year-old YPJ fighter Beritan Khabat from Derek, Syria. She joined the YPJ four years ago to protect her homeland and put an end to the suppression of women. "I fought with ISIS in Jezza and Serikani. Women of YPJ are not scared of ISIS." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME Beritan believes that in her society women should be armed with guns and fight for their rights. She says that they have created a new idea for the men of the world. telling them that women too can be good fighters. "I fought with ISIS in Jezza and Serikani. And the first time I heard the sound of bullets next to my ears was in Talala town, while I was fighting with ISIS for the first time. The first time I thought about facing ISIS, my whole body was shivering and the whole thing seemed more like a joke to me. But when I thought deeply, I realized that I was going to fight with a radical group, and this empowered me so much that all my fears faded away. Women of YPJ are not scared of ISIS".
18-year-old YPJ (Women's Protection Unit) fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live in a world where women are dominated by men.
... VIEW MORE

Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
1 of 16
All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.