Dormant? No. Al-Qa'ida want their brand back

* Open Source Intel shows Al-Qa'ida was usurped by the Islamic State in online popularity during 2014

* The Charlie Hebdo terrorists told passers by, before the attack, that they belonged to "Al-Qa'ida in Yemen"

Will the Charlie Hebdo attack lead to more competition between jihadist groups?

It seems funny to say this but most of my adult life has been shaped by al-Qa'ida. On 15th September 2001 I started a degree in International Relations. It was four days after 9/11. On the first day of lectures, our professor threw out the entire first week's curriculum, in favour of discussing a completely new world taking shape before our very eyes.

The event was still so raw, just the night before I hung an American flag out of my dormitory window.

Four years later there was another reminder. My Graduation ceremony took place on 6th July, 2005. The next morning, I woke to find that London had been attacked and more than 50 people had been killed. I then spent the next few years in a professional capacity looking at the threat from groups like al-Qa'ida. It was fascinating and frightening in equal measure.

Since 2001, and until this year really, it felt like al-Qa'ida was everywhere. In the movies, on tv, and for me, a chunk of my working life. It was a truly global brand. Discussing these issues with colleagues one afternoon, I nudged them to think about life after al-Qa'ida: "If you think of al-Qa'ida as a global brand like Coca-Cola, what happens when Pepsi comes along? What will that group look like?"

Pepsi did arrive. 

June 10th, 2014 was the day Mosul, a city in northern Iraq, fell to IS, and suddenly the group was catapulted to the centre of global media coverage, where it has remained since. Using Open Source Intel techniques, we can definitively say that June 10th was the day that IS overtook al-Qa'ida in terms of internet popularity, searches and coverage.

How is it possible to be so specific? Let's have a look at their global search results, by numbers:

(Blue is al-Qa'ida, the Red is Islamic State)

*Results include associated naming conventions; e.g. ISIS, Al-Qaeda

Al-Qa'ida vs Islamic State: Search Engine Queries (2014)


Al-Qa'ida's decline was endemic for years, as the next graph shows.

Al-Qa'ida vs Islamic State: Search Engine Queries (2004-Present)


Al-Qa'ida vs Islamic State: Search Engine Queries (9 Dec 2014 - 9 Jan 2015)


During the Charlie Hebdo attack, the attackers wanted the world to know al-Qa'ida was behind the attack - taking time, before the bullets started flying, to tell a passer-by who was responsible. Perhaps the terrorists had predicted that the Media would initially point the finger at the Islamic State, and they wanted to be sure al-Qa'ida and not IS, got the credit.

What can we learn from al-Qa'ida's seeming decline for several years, and its sudden reappearance on the world stage?

1. Long periods of inactivity or relative quiet do not mean that a group has died or the threat has decreased. As you'll note from chart two, the Islamic State group were around in 2004. That's right, they are ten years old - despite its appearance as a modern phenomenon.

2. The Islamic State had (temporarily?) overtaken al-Qa'ida as the world's number one terrorist group. It is highly likely that al-Qa'ida did not take to this kindly. Despite being jihadists, each group has a different view on how to fight the enemy. Highlighting these divisions, one al-Qa'ida group recently denounced the Islamic State's Caliphate in a recent press release.

3. Branding is as important for terrorists as corporations. For years al-Qa'ida leaders sought to replicate successful commercial models to manage their own global network of operations and manage their image and brand name carefully.

Sadly, it looks like they are also aware of the principle of market share.