Al-Qaeda's spiritual leaders say the organization is on the verge of "collapse" while ISIS thrives. The former al-Qaeda branch—booted last year for disobeying Osama bin Laden successor Ayman al-Zawahiri—is attracting money and recruits that have helped it spread from Afghanistan to west Africa, even as an al-Qaeda group in Pakistan sold its laptops and cars to pay for food and rent last year, a former member tells the Guardian. Zawahiri "operates solely based on the allegiance. There is no organizational structure," says jihadi scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Abu Qatada, a preacher deported from the UK to Jordan to face terror charges in 2013, agrees Zawahiri is "isolated" and lacks "direct military or operational control." He blames ISIS, which he calls a "cancerous growth" within the jihadi movement.
The Guardian reports al-Qaeda's downfall began with Zawahiri's ascension after bin Laden's death. Zawahiri was forced to hide out near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border while fighters that would eventually form ISIS came together in Syria and Iraq. "What is leadership," asks an al-Qaeda associate, "if your leader is in Afghanistan and your soldiers are in Iraq?" Insiders say ISIS, which won't accept another jihadi group in its territory, is winning the propaganda war as well as the war on the ground. The New York Times reported last week that ISIS militants beheaded 10 members of the Taliban. A former intelligence analyst tells the Guardian the US considers ISIS and al-Qaeda to be the same entity and sees the rivalry as "a squabble within." But ISIS is "basing itself on skills and organizational capabilities and objectives that are much more accelerated and capable than what al-Qaeda's ever had."