Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri has been leading al-Qaeda since Osama bin Laden's death in 2011. (Photo by Hamid Mir.)
TAMPA, Fla., Sept. 21 (UPI) -- While the Islamic State enjoys regular media attention to its brutal atrocities, a report by Tampa-based Special Operations Command Central maintains al-Qaida is still the bigger player in Islamic extremism.
The 40-page report determined the senior Sunni radical faction may not be in the geopolitical spotlight, however is likely to outlast their Iraq-based offshoot and pose a more long-term threat to the West and its security interests in the Middle East.
The authors include Jason Fritz, Bridget Moreng and Nathaniel Barr of Valens Global. In their report, they analyze both of the groups through a historical and operational lens, noting how they spread their message and puritanical interpretation of Islam. Despite the Islamic State, also known as Daesh and by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, being an offshoot of al-Qaida, the two factions operate in very distinct ways.
"There are significant differences between the two groups," the authors write, "for one, IS is more technology-savvy than al-Qaida; it understands social media's ability to mobilize people to its cause on an unprecedented scale, a dynamic that has helped IS connect with a younger demographic."
While the authors say IS is faster and more militant, al-Qaida is more engaged with the communities it hopes to annex into its belief system.
"Al-Qaida favors covert actions, unacknowledged affiliates, and a relatively quiet organizational strategy to build a larger base of support before it is ready to engage in a larger scale of conflict with its foes," the authors continue, "IS, in contrast, believes that the time for a broader military confrontation has already arrived."
Both IS and al-Qaida have engaged in military action against the West and its growing influence in the Middle East. However, the two groups are also pressured to compete with one another for local political legitimacy.
The actual size of each group is hard to is measure, with estimates from several organizations varying greatly. The CIA estimates there are between 20,000 and 31,000 active members of IS inside Syria and Iraq, while the jihadists themselves claim to have 100,000. Both numbers are higher than the estimates for al-Qaida, with terrorism scholars estimating their total numbers from around the world to be between 19,000 and 27,000.