Will ISIS replace al Qaeda as the referent for jihadists worldwide? A better question may be: Has it already replaced al Qaeda? But for now, let’s stick for will.
First, it should be noted that al Qaeda’s international popularity has always been grossly overstated. And what little support the group received from Muslims globally has diminished over time.
This is not to say that violent jihad has not been appealing over the last decade to many young men worldwide. Recruits from Arab countries and a number of Westerners have travelled to Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Mali, Syria, and back to Iraq to wage war. But, this is not al Qaeda’s jihad of international terrorism. Local jihad offers recruits the experience of actual soldiering, of fighting against actual soldiers. This is real war, not the paltry substitute of terrorism. I imagine that the average wannabe jihadist fantasizes not about blowing himself up in a Western city, but rather carrying a Kalashnikov into battle alongside his fellow mujahidin. In many ways, the American invasion of Iraq undercut al Qaeda’s international terrorist strategy by providing militants a theater for guerrilla war.
Like other young Muslim men, bin Laden was stirred by the soldiering fantasy following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, was a product of the post-Soviet era, its core made up of the last of the Afghan Arabs. Though bin Laden’s crew tried to gain a foothold in in the fighting in Chechnya and Bosnia, it increasingly turned toward terrorism during the ‘90s. Though ideology played some role in bin Laden’s pivot to the United States, opportunity—or rather lack of opportunity—was probably more important. The US was in many ways an easy target for a secret army in search of a public war. Thus the “near enemy” idea was born. Bin Laden was also influenced in turning away from “local” jihad by Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose own terror campaign against the Egyptian government provided a textbook case of how to alienate supporters and fail at jihad.
After 9/11, al Qaeda may have influenced many local jihadist groups—i.e. “affiliates” or “franchises” such as al-Shabaab, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda in Arabian Pennisuala, the al-Nusrah Front, and, al Qaeda in Iraq, now the Islamic State, a.k.a. ISIS—but its model for international terrorism has not necessarily been widely adopted. Guerrilla war is in again. (This isn’t to say that these groups don’t use terrorism in their campaigns. They do. But this isn’t a strategy international terrorism. Just terrorism as a tactic of guerrilla war.)
There’s also the organizational strength that waging a successful guerrilla insurgency provides armed groups, thus increasing its appeal on the international scene. Controlling territory allows one to acquire resources and space to train recruits, for making propaganda videos, etc. Furthermore, the transnational chaos of civil war facilitates the construction pipelines through which volunteers can be channeled into the organization from abroad.
So, if ISIS can keep it up—and there’s no indication that the wars in Syria and Iraq are going to end anytime soon—it will become the new al Qaeda.
But the reason for ISIS’s success—the fact that it is a guerrilla army—will ultimately cause its downfall, both as the referent for wannabe jihadists and as an effective fighting force. It is not likely that ISIS will maintain its current territorial holdings for long, particularly not in Iraq. The group appears to be making the same mistakes its predecessors made in 2005-06, alienating its Sunni supporters among through its brutality. With Iran and the US allied against them, its only a matter of time until ISIS is dislodged from Iraq. In Syria, on the hand, ISIS will likely stay put for the time being. It is a pretty effective proxy for the regime, after all.
An ISIS in decline will likely revert to its previous MO, suicide bombings against civilian targets. In other words, it will look more like al Qaeda, only more psychotic. And with wide swaths of Iraq likely to remain ungoverned or barely governed—along with the now nonexistent border and a Syrian sanctuary—an ISIS in decline may look to the “far enemy” for a way to keep its war alive.