Al Qaeda and IS: The Significance of Difference

20 Jul 2015


Over the last year, Islamic State (IS) has experienced an exponential increase in its global presence, forging links with regional militant organizations across North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It is most likely that the organization aims to adopt a similar approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as members of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban recently pledged allegiance. Although the ferocious Islamist organization finds its roots in Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Al Qaeda leadership denounced the Iraqi-Syrian affiliate in February 2014, as its violent tactics were deemed too radical and insubordinate. This split is significant, as it illustrated important differences in the two organizations’ objectives and strategies. Whereas the two Sunni jihadist groups are often considered two sides of the same coin, it is important to realize that IS and Al Qaeda are competitors rather than allies or different branches of the same core. Failing to recognize this distinction will lead to inadequate counterterrorism measures and flawed security policies.


In the first ten years of the War on Terror, Al Qaeda was rightfully considered the leader of the global jihadist movement. This Islamist superiority came to an abrupt end when the tactics of Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) proved much more effective in establishing an Islamic caliphate than Al Qaeda's ever were. ISIS’ victories on the battlefield, consistently growing recruitment base, and considerable augmentation of funds soon resulted in fierce competition between the jihadist movements. This rivalry plays a significant part in ISIS’ dedication to extreme violence and the strategy of exporting its ideological brand.


Indeed, of particular importance are Al Qaeda and IS’ different strategic models. At first glance, IS’ wilayat (provinces) expansion strategy resembles Al Qaeda’s franchise endeavour of the mid-2000s. However, there are some important differences that clearly set the two organizations apart. Having its roots in the Soviet War in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda’s main aim has always been to terminate Western involvement in the Islamic world by rallying Muslims to carry out large-scale attacks against Western or Western-allied secular targets. Without Western support, these ‘apostate’ states would then be up for grabs to enhance the utopian future goal of a global caliphate. However, local franchises often failed to achieve Al Qaeda’s global objectives and instead used the organization’s funding and networks to focus on domestic fights. With the exception of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, such national struggles often lacked any central strategy or command and transnational objective.


ISIS, on the other hand, aims to promote structured domestic strife in order to secure territory and local funds. Its centrally directed strategy of local fighting, instilling limited forms of governance and continuous expansion represents a direct strategy aimed at the growth of the caliphate. The organization’s sophisticated media apparatus leaves no opportunity unused to demonstrate to its adversaries, supporters and possible recruits the scale of actual achievements on the ground; aiming to coerce compliance by instilling a sense of fear rather than legitimacy. It is safe to say that ISIS learned a lot from AQI’s defeat in Iraq. In a way, the organization is trying to find a balance between its calculated brutality and its strategic imperative to maintain and acquire local support.


After 9/11, the biggest challenge of the US’ security apparatus was to adapt to a new type of threat: an unconventional adversary engaged in a different type of warfare. After almost 15 years of fighting the novel jihadist threat, governments have developed sophisticated counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies. However, in their attempt to tackle IS, it is important that they recognize the new nature of the threat and acknowledge that the organization’s strategies and objectives are inherently different from its predecessor, Al Qaeda. Simply adhering to outmoded counterterrorism tactics and redirecting them at a new target will not be sufficient. An approach aimed at targeting the organization’s leadership, tackling its financial infrastructure and winning local hearts and minds will not deter this novel regional pariah, because IS’ nature goes far beyond that of a conventional terrorist organization. It has developed into a pseudo-state that exercises significant control over vast amounts of territory, demonstrates considerable military capabilities, has an efficient bureaucratic command structure, secured self-sufficient local funds, operates in urban environments and has a major transnational combat base. Rather than refocusing its old counterterrorism and counterinsurgency apparatus, the West’s strategy should evolve in order to diminish IS' sophisticated threat. In doing so, the West should embark upon a grand-scale diplomatic effort that promotes a global interdisciplinary containment endeavour, stretching beyond the contemporary regional-military coalition.


The US should recognise that despite the Obama administration’s innovative rhetoric and withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, the fundamental dynamics of US foreign policy has remained largely unchanged. Contrary to the values and objectives articulated in the President’s celebrated 2009 Cairo Speech, strategic policy towards the region continues to entail support for vicious regimes, aid and weapon sales to friendly regimes, and unconditional support for the State of Israel. As Der Spiegel’s deftly pointed out, it is local sentiments of fear, desperation and disenfranchisement from the political order, rather than extremist ideology per se, that drives foot soldiers to join the ranks of IS. As long as such local dynamics – and the West’s meddling in them - are excluded from any strategic counterterrorism effort, IS’ expansion endeavour will thrive, exploitation of sectarian divides will continue to ravage the region, and civilians will continue to die under the banner of ideologically informed transnational Jihad.  



This article was first featured on War, Peace and Development

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