Gwynne Dyer: From Al-Qaeda to ISIS, a guide to name-changing terrorist groups

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      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.




      Apr 30, 2015 at 12:24pm

      The one thing that all of these factions have in common? They are all Muslim and Islam makes it extremely easy to justify killing other humans who do not share their beliefs. In fact their beliefs makes murder incredibly sexy and attractive.

      Way to go Muslims!!!


      Apr 30, 2015 at 1:11pm

      Yet another lame,vacuous opinion piece by Gwynne today. He certainly didn't earn his weekly beer money with this one!
      I wonder why he doesn't ever comment on the ongoing race riots in the US, such as the most recent one in Baltimore? It's not that it lacks political content but whayever he says might in his beer money getting cut off. Better to keep on the topic of Terrorist nomenclenture and not risk anything. Thanks for giving me your thumbs; every thumb counts in my book!


      Apr 30, 2015 at 5:10pm

      I read Gwynne Dyer's articles because I find them interesting and informative, even if I don't always agree with his conclusions.

      Bit of a puzzle as to why someone who thinks Mr Dyer's work is consistently 'lame' and 'vacuous' would waste the time reading it, still less commenting. Unless of course it's a way to get one's own opinions published to an audience recruited by someone talented?


      Apr 30, 2015 at 11:13pm

      Touche-William R. I am on the record as agreeing with Dr Dyer's opinions on many occasions. I have been a faithful long time reader of his articles and books but I have a problem with some of the establishment friendly narratives he propagates to his readers. I also question the influence it has on his loyal followers as found in the article's discussion. I admit he has, over the years, recruited his readership and earned his credibility with them. I have in the past confessed that I do piggyback on some of his articles much to the annoyance of his readers because many of his followers seem to be incapable of tolerating or entertaining dissenting opinions.
      This is an open forum and dissenting opinions are not forbidden. I am aware that dissenting opinions or alternative narratives to Dyer's are heavily thumbed down and dismissed out of hand as if there is only one truth and it comes from the masters pen. That is the kind of reaction you get from thoughtless uncritical close minded regressive authorian-minded people who prefer to defer to authority rather than entertain doubts over even suspend judgment on controversial matters. You are free to ignore my opinion or lash out at me for not showing Dr Dyer the respect you think he deserves. THIS IS NOT A TALENT CONTEST!


      May 1, 2015 at 5:27am

      Peto you are so wrong so much of the time, that's why you get all the thumbs down. Dyer writes about international affairs for an international audience, why would he write a piece about race relations in the USA?


      May 1, 2015 at 6:11am

      Can't the bad guys think up new names for themselves? One's named after food shish-kebab, another after a rock group procol harum, and another after a long defunct 70's TV show isis. What's next, shazam!? Spelling may be a bit off...hope they don't decapitate for the error.


      May 1, 2015 at 6:59am

      "I have a problem with some of the establishment friendly narratives he propagates to his readers."

      From time to time the establishment (by which you mean the United States government) is doing the right thing (or at least less wrong then the other guys). Dyer gives them credit for that rather then finding some excuse or conspiracy theory to criticize everything they do.


      May 1, 2015 at 7:20am


      There are two lunatics who are obsessed with Dyer who only comment on his stories. P.Peto and I Chandler. I suspect they are the same person and the meds don't appear to be working.

      Dennis R

      May 1, 2015 at 10:30am

      At least Gwynne's piece gives me some insight into the "chess pieces" on this board, and it informs me not only how flipping ignorant the West truly is about the dynamics over there, but how really corrupt our own politicians are in how they relate this to us.


      May 1, 2015 at 1:04pm

      Thanks Guys: Nothing like brow beating Chandler and I out of the forum so you all can read and savor your biweekly Dyer fix's in peace and contentment.
      So a.c.macauley ,U.S. race riots which is widely commented on in the alternative media is not international political fare whereas riots and class conflict in other countries is not?
      And doconnor, I know you are fond of resorting to elite "stupidity " instead of conspiracy theories but consider this.
      If you are a realist and have a Machiavellian view of human nature, if you accept the existence of the unaccountable “deep state” or of corporate malfeasance or the machinations of Intelligence Agencies or the criminal “underworld” or the notion of “class warfare” or in verified accounts of past secret plots by various historical players then you have good reason not to be trusting or suspicious and inclined to believe in the possibility of “Conspiracy Theories”. It is more prudent to be skeptical than to be blindly trusting of those that have power over you or to attribute their actions to stupidity.
      McRetso, where are you? Why not join the chorus?