Foreign Policy Essay

The Islamic State’s Married Ideology: Something Borrowed, Something New

By Prachi Vyas
Sunday, July 2, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The Islamic State and al-Qaeda are often, correctly, portrayed as bitter rivals: They compete for recruits and money, and in Syria their forces have repeatedly turned their guns on each other. Yet the line is blurrier when it comes to international terrorism. Prachi Vyas of GWU's Program on Extremism examines an array of American jihadists and describes how many Islamic State enthusiasts are inspired by al-Qaeda ideologues.


In late June 2015, 18-year-old Akram Musleh arrived at Chicago O'Hare Airport, obtained a boarding pass, and went to the international terminal. Before he could board his flight to Turkey—a common thoroughfare for individuals attempting to join the self-proclaimed Islamic State—U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials pulled Musleh aside for questioning. He explained to officials that he was going to Turkey to marry his fiancée, but FBI agents found no record of friends or family in the region. What they did find, however, was a journal in his baggage filled with quotations from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Abdullah Azzam, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Osama bin Laden.

In theory, one would expect Islamic State leaders guiding the group’s development—living and dead—to be glorified, even immortalized, by sympathizers of the self-proclaimed Caliphate. As the group itself contends, its ideological underpinnings derive legitimacy from a strand of zealous religiosity that departs from their predecessor, al-Qaeda, in both ideology and methodology.

The ideological strain that compels Islamic State sympathizers to act in furtherance of the group’s objective is a fluid one, infused with ideas and philosophies long established by al-Qaeda leaders of the past.

In practice, however, emerging evidence refutes the logic in such thinking, painting a more nuanced portrait in which Islamic State ideologues share the stage with al-Qaeda. Take the aforementioned Musleh case, for example. Though he identified with the Islamic State, Musleh carried around a journal in which he had copied down excerpts of sermons and lectures given by three prominent ideological leaders of al-Qaeda: Awlaki, bin Laden, and Azzam. The ideological strain that compels Islamic State sympathizers to act in furtherance of the group’s objective is a fluid one, infused with ideas and philosophies long established by al-Qaeda leaders of the past.

On Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram (a messaging app), references to Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric and senior official in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula killed in 2011, are commonplace in the feeds of known and alleged Islamic State sympathizers. Adnan Farah, part of the 10-person network of Islamic State sympathizers in Minneapolis, posted pictures of Awlaki to his Facebook page. Abdi Nur, another member of the Minneapolis cluster who left for Syria and remains at large, quoted Awlaki on social media well before leaving the United States to join the Islamic State.

One of the most deadly examples of this remains the December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. The attackers, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, were a married couple who, Bruce Riedel notes, “marinated in extremist ideology” long before pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, back when Farook was deeply immersed in Awlaki’s teachings. Although the shooting, which killed 14 people and injured 22 others, is widely viewed as Islamic State-inspired, the federal indictment sheds light on an al-Qaeda-enamored Farook, who listened to Awlaki’s sermons, read his writings in al-Qaeda’s magazine, and carefully studied the al-Qaeda “playbook” while planning an attack.

Another space where this phenomenon clearly manifests is in the court documents of individuals in the United States charged in connection to the Islamic State. In the Program on Extremism’s database of U.S.-based Islamic State-related offenses, 42 cases between March 2014 and April 2017 referenced at least one ideologue belonging to either the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. Upon closer examination, these documents divulge a surprising degree of overlap between the two groups. Specifically, ideologues belonging to both are mentioned—even idolized—and, in the most vexing of cases, their respective ideas meshed together by an Islamic State-aligned, al-Qaeda-inspired individual.

In examining the criminal complaints, affidavits, indictments, and search warrants in these 42 cases, it becomes apparent that studying the personal effects documented in these records—items like CDs, journals, pictures saved to computers—can help counter-extremism researchers fill the gaps in understanding an individual’s radicalization process. In this context, they show the continued relevance of al-Qaeda, despite the Islamic State’s ideological divergence.

Take, for instance, 31-year-old Dayne Atani Christian, who was arrested in July 2016 on charges of conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State. Evidence from the criminal complaint and affidavit show that Christian was attempting to radicalize another individual by encouraging him to watch Awlaki’s lectures and sermons. During a discussion with his co-defendant around the time of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Christian used a sermon praising bin Laden to justify the attack; quoting the sermon, Christian proclaimed it was a time of “war with the kuffar [non-believers],” and as such, the deaths of the club-goers was simply “blood for blood.”

Perhaps the Islamic State, aware of its commonalities with al-Qaeda, is happily borrowing from its predecessor’s prestige to buttress the credibility of its own agenda. Many of al-Qaeda’s leaders have the benefit of their martyr-status legacies, which may afford them a rose-colored appeal and better visibility with aspiring American jihadists. While it isn’t shocking that the Islamic State relies on al-Qaeda figureheads and their propaganda in order to mobilize its own sympathizers, it is important for evidence of this trend to come to light to better understand the Islamic State’s ideology and recruitment strategy.

Perhaps the Islamic State, aware of its commonalities with al-Qaeda, is happily borrowing from its predecessor’s prestige to buttress the credibility of its own agenda.

References to the aforementioned six leaders containing a distinct ideological undertone occurred a total of 61 times. Of those references, 59 percent belonged to al-Qaeda and 41 percent to the Islamic State. From CDs and journals to social-media posts and text messages, the majority of the 42 individuals reference al-Qaeda ideologues—Anwar al-Awlaki, Osama bin Laden, and Abdullah Azzam. In a purely numerical sense, mentions of Islamic State ideologues—in this case Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—trailed those of al-Qaeda.

The vast majority of al-Qaeda references were in alignment with Islamic State ideology, particularly in matters of justifying attacks on the West, what constitutes a kuffar and various methods for killing them, and the duty of Muslims to partake in jihad. Given the schism between the two groups, the alignment was at times tenuous and clearly forged in order to suit the individual’s frame of reference.

Mufid Elfgeeh, 32, came under FBI scrutiny when he tried to recruit and send two individuals (who were cooperating with the FBI) to Syria in order to fight alongside the Islamic State. According to the affidavit, Elfgeeh opined to the individuals that the Islamic State was above the need to take credit for attacks, despite the fact that the group frequently claims attacks in the absence of any corroborating evidence. Elfgeeh further elaborated that Osama bin Laden himself said that the Islamic State “is the only group who takes action based on truth without consideration for recognition,” a swaggering mischaracterization of the Islamic State’s record.

Thirty-four percent of references involved Awlaki, owing mainly to YouTube videos of his sermons and CDs of his lectures—two mediums through which jihadi ideology has been articulated and disseminated with ease. Awlaki was a highly charismatic Islamic preacher, and his enduring popularity can be at least partially attributed to his dual accessibility: His arsenal of English-language videos are still easily accessible in virtual circulation, but perhaps more importantly, Awlaki was able to make religious doctrine digestible for Westerners who understood Islam only on a surface level. As Jarret Brachman and Alix Levine point out, Awlaki seamlessly repackaged al-Qaeda’s message using “colloquial Western references” and “folksy stylizing,” transforming it into something his followers could individually recognize and replicate.

On the other hand, just 28 percent of ideological references within the cases pertained to Baghdadi, the globally recognized leader of the Islamic State—and those instances predominantly occurred when an individual had pledged bay’ah (an oath of allegiance) to the Islamic State. Ideology does not play a role in bay’ah; it is merely a reflex that accompanies membership in the group, and requires only a binding subscription to the “prophetic methodology” put out by the Islamic State’s official press and pronouncements, not a careful dissection of Baghdadi’s own Salafi-jihadi musings.

Arafat Nagi, a 44-year-old New Yorker, exemplifies this trend. Nagi accounted for the highest number of references made to Baghdadi (six), but notably, not one bore any substantive relevance to Islamic State ideology, suggesting a shallow ideological grounding at best. Four were tweets praising Baghdadi, one was a bay’ah to him, and the sixth was Nagi expressing his desire to meet Baghdadi if he made it to Syria. According to a media report, Nagi engaged in verbal altercations about his jihadi beliefs, a topic on which he was effusive, but it is difficult to determine the extent to which such views are rooted in his admiration for bin Laden as opposed to Baghdadi.

In fact, the former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden came in third behind Awlaki and Baghdadi, garnering 20 percent of mentions. Adnani, the spokesperson and chief propagandist of IS until his death last August, trailed after him with 11 percent of mentions. In last place were Azzam (5 percent) and Zarqawi (2 percent), the respective ideological forefathers of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Of course, a survey of 42 individuals does not represent a large sample of Islamic State sympathizers, but a smaller scale does not render the phenomenon irrelevant. Evidence shows that sympathizers in the United States still revisit the teachings and philosophies espoused by al-Qaeda leaders as a touchstone in their trajectory toward radicalization.

With so much of the national-security spotlight on countering the Islamic State, it is important to note that jihadists in the United States have shown a tendency to simplify their ideological consumption by fusing the most accessible aspects of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. In the case of these 42 individuals, the majority pursued ideological inspiration in the teachings of Awlaki, and in al-Qaeda as a whole. Reconfiguring counter-narratives to specifically address al-Qaeda propaganda—such as targeting Awlaki’s popular The Hereafter Series, or the group’s English-language magazine Inspire—could be an effective countermeasure.

With so much of the national-security spotlight on countering the Islamic State, it is important to note that jihadists in the United States have shown a tendency to simplify their ideological consumption by fusing the most accessible aspects of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

In the digital arena, policymakers and organizations focused on counterterrorism should place increasing pressure on Internet companies like Google, which announced in 2016 that it would not censor search results for Awlaki’s name, to reconsider its censorship policies. They should also urge YouTube to revisit what truly constitutes “content that incites violence” and follow through on its promise (made back in 2010) to remove some of Awlaki’s videos. In both instances, policymakers and academics can point to sound, credible research linking exposure to online extremist content to the larger radicalization trajectory.

The Islamic State owes much of its appeal among sympathizers to its stringent adherence to, and entrenched ideological grounding in a range of Islamic texts and treatises that the Islamic State has dubbed the “prophetic methodology.” But when those serving in an Islamic State leadership role are not the only ones providing ideological guidance to the thousands of followers the group has recruited, a potential Achilles heel emerges. Islamic State sympathizers will naturally retreat to al-Qaeda in the event that the former dwindles; as U.S. intelligence officials observed to the Washington Post, radicalized individuals will often ascribe loyalty based on the “most ascendant brand” among extremist groups, rather than measured ideological preference. As such, the latent threat from al-Qaeda, even in the era of the Islamic State, must be addressed head-on.

Actively undermining al-Qaeda in conjunction with the Islamic State may prove to be quite damaging to the latter’s recruitment strategies. In a climate in which the Islamic State has been struggling to stanch increasing losses of territory, foreign fighters, and funding, it is crucial that policymakers, law-enforcement officials, and academics exploit this trend to erode the Islamic State’s allure among U.S.-based sympathizers.