How al-Qaeda Survived the Islamic State Challenge

The Islamic State’s (IS) emergence—with its control of territory, social media proficiency, and unprecedented ability to mobilize supporters—threatened al-Qaeda’s position of dominance within the global jihadist movement. For a time, the majority of analysts believed that IS would eclipse al-Qaeda, if it had not done so already, and that IS’s rise threatened to make al-Qaeda irrelevant or even defunct. The conventional wisdom held that al-Qaeda could only remain relevant by either carrying out terrorist attacks abroad or else trying to replicate IS’s brutality and ostentatious growth model. But al-Qaeda defied conventional wisdom. It not only survived the challenge posed by IS, but emerged stronger by pursuing a strategy of deliberate yet low-key growth. Al-Qaeda was able to “rebrand” itself by contrasting with IS’s over-the-top shows of brutality, and thus gain more room to operate within the region. This article maps the evolution of al-Qaeda’s model for growth over the past decade, and illustrates how the group has repeatedly overcome challenges through a combination of shrewd planning and strategic patience.

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