Ever since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011, reports on ISIS have dominated the mainstream media. While it is easy to view the Islamic State movement as a new phenomenon - an unintended by-product of the Arab Spring - its origins extend to the Al-Qaeda movement of the 1990s.
The vast majority of ISIS’ tactics have either been directly borrowed from Al-Qaeda, or have at least been inspired by them. For example, the use of extreme violence, the exploitation of the media to communicate that violence to a wide audience, and of course the belief in a global campaign, are all tactics rooted in the campaigns of Al-Qaeda.
ISIS’ declaration of a caliphate is exceptional, but the Jihadi desire to exercise territorial control certainly is not. Indeed, Osama bin Laden was, at one point, the unofficial leader of a territory that included North Waziristan and the Hadhramaut.
There are various similarities between Al-Qaeda and ISIS. However, one of the key differences is the role of social media. A new generation of violent young radicals use Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat to communicate their agenda worldwide. Social media is a powerful tool for both radicalising sympathisers and, perhaps more worryingly, maintaining radical connections over long distances.
A further disparity between the two is the immense financial power of ISIS. The Al-Qaeda core of the 1990s never managed to raise more than $30 million. While nobody can quite be certain about the value of ISIS’ resources, acquired through central bank seizures, the appropriation of gold reserves, the selling of oil, and the looting of Syria’s ancient treasures, what we can be certain of is that the monetary power of ISIS is considerably greater than that of Al-Qaeda.
The final and perhaps most ominous difference between the two groups is the scale of the foreign terrorist fighters present among ISIS’ ranks. While the problem of foreign fighters is certainly not new, they have never before appeared on such a scale. In March this year, the United Nations Security Council conservatively estimated that there were around 25,000 foreign fighters actively involved in ISIS. This is an extremely startling figure considering that the Al-Qaeda core of the 1990s never managed to recruit more than a few thousand.
So what do these similarities and differences mean for governments and policy makers who are seeking to combat the growth of radicalism in the Middle East?
Initially, I would argue that since there are considerable similarities between ISIS and Al-Qaida, it is important for policy makers to retain a sense of perspective. Some of the tactics that were so successfully used against Al-Qaeda should now be incorporated to fight ISIS. For example, international action to restrict Al-Qaeda’s finances after 9/11 was an incredibly successful policy which could be employed against ISIS. Thanks to a global response against Al-Qaeda, it become almost impossible for the organisation to use the formal banking system, making it more difficult to raise money, and then to move that money.
Combating the role of foreign fighters must also be a priority. Understanding what makes young Muslims want to leave the relative comfort of their own homes in order to travel to war torn Syria, Libya or Iraq and fight as a Jihadi is crucial to any counter-radicalisation strategy. Currently there is no robust narrative that policy makers are able to base their judgements upon. An analysis of the causes of radicalisation would help to develop more effective action plans for limiting the numbers of ISIS sympathisers in the West.
Moreover, greater international bipartisanship must be initiated in order to both track and arrest those individuals who do decide to travel and fight. As this phenomena evolves, transnational data sharing must play a larger role in the hunting and arresting those persons who do decide to travel to become terrorists.
Finally, as I have already discussed, the role of social media must be addressed. The government desperately needs a counter-strategy to undermine ISIS’ propaganda. More efforts also need to be made in order to regulate and remove material that promotes violent extremism.
Ultimately, we need to equip ourselves with a clear understanding of ISIS, and its origins, in order to effectively confront this ruthless terrorist organisation.