Who Is Stronger, ISIS or al-Qaeda?

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A new audio tape emerged of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Where are the greatest threats of ISIS and al-Qaeda globally? (Photo: AFP/Getty Images; Illustration: Clarion Project)
A new audio tape emerged of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Where are the greatest threats of ISIS and al-Qaeda globally? (Photo: AFP/Getty Images; Illustration: Clarion Project)

The Islamic State released an new audio tape with a message from its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi August 22, 2018 suggesting he is alive and well. To mark the occasion Clarion asks, who is stronger ISIS or al-Qaeda?

Western sources have yet to confirm if the voice on the tape belongs to al-Baghdadi, whom the Russians reported had most likely died in a Russian airstrike outside of Raqqa, Syria last year. However, American officials disputed that claim, saying al-Baghdadi was alive and believed to be hiding in the dessert area somewhere along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

In the 54-minute address, al-Baghdadi references current events, such as the current Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha celebrated this year between August 21 and 25 and America’s sanctions against “its ally” Turkey.

In the address, he calls upon the fighters and supporters of Islamic State to “continue the jihad” and urged them to be patient with the process, contending the “scales of success and defeat” were not subject to any particular country or city. In addition, he says success does not depend on having superior aircraft or missiles that can cross continents or smart bombs.

He says, “America is going through the worse time in its entire existence,” and U.S. dominance in the world is waning.

Al-Baghdadi’s last known audio recording was released on September 28, 2017. His only recorded live appearance was in Mosul, Iraq in 2014.


What does al-Baghdadi’s new audio tape tell us about the real threat of ISIS? Is there a similar threat from al-Qaeda?

Al-Bagdadi may have an “inspiring” message for his followers, but how real is the threat from ISIS?

The number of active operatives in any terror group is hard to estimate — firstly, because it is very difficult to gather this information and secondly, because these operatives are constantly on the move (to avoid detection).

Below we present estimates based on currently available data. We contrasted ISIS’ numbers with those of al-Qaeda, a group that many think no longer poses a threat. What we can say definitively is that both of these terror organizations are still very active, and it is way too soon to declare a victory over either of them.

Using the available data, it appears ISIS and al-Qaeda have a similar number of operatives globally — approximately 40,000 each.

Both groups are active in Syria and Iraq with tens of thousands of fighters each (although ISIS has more operatives in this region due to their fighters still remaining from their failed caliphate).

The organizations are near equal in size in North Africa, particularly in Egypt and Libya. ISIS’ main advantage over al-Qaeda is in Afghanistan, where the organization hopes to re-establish its caliphate (after failing to do in the Philippines).

Al-Qaeda has a significant advantage over ISIS in Yemen and Somalia.

Global numbers of ISIS and al-Qaeda (Clarion Project)


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Ran Meir

Ran Meir is Clarion Project's Arab affairs analyst and a Shillman Fellow. He can be reached at [email protected]

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