Before ascending to the highest positions of ISIS and al-Qaeda, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri belonged to a common ideological precursor, the Muslim Brotherhood. The trajectories of these three extremist leaders highlight the significant ideological overlap between today’s most notorious violent Islamist groups—ISIS and al-Qaeda—and the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood movement.
As the progenitor of the modern Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood (i.e. the Brotherhood) has had a profound influence on the belief system that fuels al-Qaeda and ISIS. These groups share ideological underpinnings based on the writings of the late Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb. The Brotherhood has also served as a bridge for young Islamists—including bin Laden, al-Baghdadi, and al-Zawahiri—to more violent jihadist groups. Although their execution strategies may differ, at their core, all three groups maintain a shared Islamist vision of establishing a global caliphate.
The Brotherhood maintains no formal ties with ISIS and al-Qaeda, and on the surface the three groups may appear dissimilar, as al-Qaeda and ISIS both advocate violent jihadism, while the Brotherhood officially seeks to transform societies from within. “The Murtadd [apostate] Brotherhood,” the March 2016 cover story in ISIS’s Dabiqmagazine denouncing the Brotherhood’s supposed apostasy, is an example of ISIS’s public disapproval of the Brotherhood.
Despite periodic public denouncements, the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) has found that the three groups share more than deep ideological underpinnings, and their similarities far outweigh their differences.