For years now, the global jihadist movement centered in the Middle East has been split into two broad factions, represented by the al-Qaeda franchise on the one hand, and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) on the other. The latter is rooted, in part, in the Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad group founded by the Jordanian Bedouin Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which was once a rival of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.
In the original vision of bin Laden and his lieutenant, the Egyptian cleric Ayman al-Zawahiri, sensational terror events, including those targeting civilians (as in the East Africa embassy bombings of 1998 or the 9/11 attacks), would provoke a general confrontation between the Muslim world and the west. The clash would eventually—somehow or another—lead to the restoration of the heroic Caliphate of old.
The goal (not that bin Laden would have ever described it in these terms) was to exacerbate the contradiction between the two worlds. Like the terrorist actions of some nineteenth and twentieth century anarchists, the point was to spark similar actions everywhere to somehow arrive at the goal.
But bin Laden seems to have given little thought to a particular strategy of actually conquering and holding territory. In contrast, al-Zarqawi, whose organization evolved into the current “Islamic State,” was from the outset devoted to establishing a caliphate short-term through military conquest in the name of Sunni orthodoxy. This project required the exploitation of religious differences and fanning of religious hatreds. “The Shiites,” al-Zarqawi once declared, “are a more pernicious enemy than the Americans, and the best strategy for… Sunnis is to strike their religious, military, and other cadres.”