In early 2021, the jihadi movement was the most splintered it had been since prior to 9/11 when al Qaeda was one among many jihadi groups. The movement had three main poles: al Qaeda and its branches from Afghanistan to West Africa; the Islamic State (ISIS) and its external provinces from North Africa to South Asia to East Asia, and Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), mainly in northern Syria. Al Qaeda and ISIS are still engaged in global jihadism, regional military campaigns, and local politics. The two differed on religious interpretations, such as when a Muslim can be considered an apostate, or takfir – and what punishment or excommunication was justified. They also split over the right conditions to create an Islamic state.
ISIS’s primary goal has been to capture and govern territory. Al Qaeda’s goal is to convert people to gradually build a global caliphate but controlling territory has not been a priority in its short-term strategy. In contrast, HTS has focused mainly on local jihadism and backing a civilian polity in northwest Syria. Although its predecessor was once aligned with al Qaeda until 2016/2017, HTS has since become more independent within the jihadosphere. Most other jihadi groups have sided with either al Qaeda or ISIS since their own discord in 2013-2014. Both al Qaeda and ISIS are in transition phases. Neither entity was at its peak, yet neither were degraded, and they had differing challenges.