You can’t tell the players without a program, and it’s no wonder that people feel confused by the plethora of names the terrorist groups use. To make matters worse they keep splitting, and sometimes they change their names just for the hell of it. So here’s a guide you can stick on your wall.
In the beginning there was Al-Qaeda, starting in about 1989. There were lots of other terrorist start-ups in the Arab world around the same time, but eventually almost all of them either died out or joined one of the big franchises. Al-Qaeda is the one to watch, since the success of its 2001 attacks on the United States on 9/11 put it head and shoulders above all its rivals.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and foreign jihadis flocked into the Sunni Arab parts of the country to help the resistance, their leader, a Jordanian called Abu Musaib al Zarqawi, sought to affiliate his organization with Al-Qaeda to boost its appeal. In 2004 Osama bin Laden agreed to allow them to use the name Al-Qaeda in Iraq, although there was little coordination between the two organizations.
It was Al-Qaeda in Iraq that got the Sunni-Shia civil war going by persistently bombing Shia mosques and neighbourhoods, even though it knew that the more numerous Shia would win that war. It was profoundly cynical but strategically sound, since terrified Sunnis would then turn to Zarqawi’s organization for protection.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq formally changed its name to Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in 2006, but it didn’t really begin to flourish until a new leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, took over in 2010. Soon afterwards the Syrian civil war broke out, and Baghdadi sent a Syrian member of ISI, Abu Muhammad al Golani, into Syria to organize a branch there. It was called the Nusra Front.
The Nusra Front grew very fast—so fast that by 2013 Baghdadi decided to reunite the two branches of the organization under the the new name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But this meant that Golani was being demoted to manager of the Syrian branch, so he declared his independence and asked to join Al-Qaeda, whch leaves its affiliates largely free to make their own decisions.
Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri (by now bin Laden was dead), backed the Nusra Front because he felt that creating an Islamic state, as Baghdadi intended, was premature. Baghdadi thereupon broke relations with Al-Qaeda, and in early 2014 the Nusra Front and ISIS went to war.
Thousands of Islamist fighters were killed, and after four months it was clear that ISIS could hold eastern Syria but could not conquer the Nusra Front in the west of the country. The two rival organisations agreed a ceasefire—and two months later, in June 2014, ISIS used its battle-hardened forces to invade Iraq.
The Iraqi army collapsed, and by July ISIS controlled the western third of Iraq. Counting its Syrian territories as well, ISIS now ruled over 10-12 million people, so Baghdadi dropped the “Iraq and Syria” part of the name and declared that henceforward it would just be known as Islamic State. The point of not naming it after a specific territory is that it can be expanded indefinitely with no further name changes.
Soon afterwards Baghdadi declared himself caliph, and therefore commander of all the world’s Muslims. Ths was an extremely bold step, since those Muslims who hear the call of “Caliph Ibrahim” and do not submit to his authority—even fighters in other jihadi organisations like the Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda—are technically “apostates” and liable to death in the eyes of those who do accept his claim.
That includes all of IS’s fighters, who now have the legal right, at least in their own eyes, to kill most Sunni Muslims in addition to the Shias, Christians, Jews, and assorted other unbelievers they already had the right to kill. There is a potential genocide in the making if Islamic State expands further in Syria, where easily 75 percent of the population fits into one or another of those categories.
Some jihadis in other countries, most notably Boko Haram in Nigeria, declared their allegiance to “Caliph Ibrahim” and Islamic State at once. Other stayed loyal to Al-Qaeda—the Nusra Front, Al Shabaab in Somalia, and the Al-Qaeda branches in Yemen, Egypt, and the Maghreb – and rejected his claim. But Al-Qaeda may declare a rival caliphate once Nusra has finished conquering Idlib province and established a firmer territorial base in Syria.
So there you have it: two rival franchises competing for the loyalty of all the other jihadi organisations. There’s not really much difference between them ideologically or practically, but the franchise wars will continue. I hope that helps.