A Brief Overview of the Relationships between Islamic State and Other Terrorist Groups

By: Kelsay Calvaruso

Source: Wikimedia Commons/VOA

Islamic State (IS) has been in the center of current events for some time now, but what are its relationships with other terrorist organizations like?  The following is a list of just a few major terrorist organizations and a description of their relationship with IS[1].

Before proceeding, it is important to identify IS and its goal.  Islamic State is a Sunni Islamist fundamentalist group rooted in Salafist jihadism with the stated goal of establishing a hardline Sunni Islamic caliphate.  The group’s territory currently covers parts of Syria and Iraq.  This territory is approximately the size of Great Britain.  Funding for IS comes primarily from the oil fields in its occupied territory.

Al Qaeda

Islamic State was originally known as Al Qaeda in Iraq.  The relationship between Al Qaeda, which is also a Sunni Salafist organization, and Al Qaeda in Iraq became strained after the latter began to assert itself over Al Qaeda in Syria.  The breaking point came when Al Qaeda in Iraq ignored orders to back off the Syrian faction.  It also ignored orders to kill fewer civilians in Syria.  IS broke from Al Qaeda in February 2014.  Today, Al Qaeda and IS are competing for influence over Islamic extremist groups around the world.

Boko Haram

Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to Islamic State and now calls itself IS’s West African Franchise.  As such, it is also a Sunni Salafist organization.  It is based in Nigeria and set on expanding the caliphate to its neighbors.  IS was initially hesitant to accept Boko Haram’s allegiance, but eventually welcomed the group into the fold.  There has been speculation that this hesitance was because of distrust of the Boko Haram leadership and/or a sense that Boko Haram was disunited.


Hezbollah is a Shia group with links to Iran and has been actively involved in fighting IS.  Its focus was previously directed towards supporting the Assad regime in Syria, but the group later refocused onto the threat of IS in Syria.  Hezbollah works with other Shia militias to combat IS in battle, with the support of Iran.


Hamas is a primarily Sunni organization, but it has ties to Iran.  Iran has provided funding and arms to Hamas for promoting its agenda, and it has punished Hamas when the latter acted counter to its wishes (for example: Iran removed funding when Hamas supported Syrian rebels instead of the Iran-backed Assad regime.).  The organization identifies as Sunni, largely because its supporting population in the Gaza Strip is predominantly Sunni.  However, Hamas has recently taken action against Salafists in Gaza.  In retaliation, IS supporters have attacked Hamas members.  In the past, IS representatives have responded to questions about why they aren’t supporting Hamas against Israel by saying that the time is not right for a confrontation with Israel.  However, IS has recently threatened to topple Hamas in Gaza.  This is largely because Hamas has ‘failed’ to establish strict sharia law in Gaza.  This anti-Salafist mentality is counter to IS’s teachings, and IS has said sharia law will be established there in spite of Hamas.

As you can see, the relationships between these organizations can be complex and change rapidly.  It is important to understand these relationships in the context of the current situation.  This can help you understand who might be helping whom and when an enemy could turn into a wartime ally.  These relationships also affect the relations of states.  For example, the US was fighting IS next to Iran, with Hezbollah and other Shia militias, in the middle of sensitive negotiations on sanctions and a nuclear deal.  Iran’s role in the conflict could not be ignored and was thus a factor in those negotiations.

[1] Note: The Taliban is not listed here because its goals are primarily within Afghanistan.  Thus its interest here is solely for its relationship with Al Qaeda.  This includes funding from Al Qaeda as well as troops.  The two groups were formerly allies but rumors have surfaced in recent years of a split between the groups.  However, others have denied these rumors, and no official split has been announced.

unnamedKelsay is a master’s candidate at the Patterson School studying International Security and Commerce.  She has a special interest in the intelligence community, geopolitics, and terrorism studies.  Feel free to contact her with any questions, comments, or opportunities at kelsay.calvaruso@gmail.com


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