Islamic State and al Qaeda — spotting the differences

Unlike al Qaeda, the IS is a unique contemporary phenomenon


Mohammad Ali Babakhel July 28, 2016
Unlike al Qaeda, the IS is a unique contemporary phenomenon. PHOTO: AFP

The Islamic State’s (IS) latest claim of responsibility for the killing of 80 protestors in twin suicide attacks in Kabul gives birth to multiple questions. With a big bang, the IS not only targeted a sectarian community, it also simultaneously challenged the Taliban, the Afghan security apparatus and international forces. The year 2016 has brought with it an acceleration of sabotage activities, proving the expanding presence and operational capabilities of the IS in Asia, Africa and Europe. Globally, from January to July 24, 2016, the IS either claimed responsibility for, or was suspected of, being behind a total of 75 suicide attacks. Hence, it carried out a monthly average of 10.7 suicide attacks this year. In 2015, on the other hand, it claimed responsibility for only 19 suicide attacks — an average of 2.7 attacks per month.

Owing to its targeting of new peaceful areas, innovative techniques, capability to dispatch multiple attackers to carry out simultaneous attacks in a country, effective use of cyberspace, destruction of cultural heritage, deployment of the younger generation of expatriates in the West, its fight-and-die strategy and inculcation of radicalism among young women, the IS has gained huge media attention. The dispatching of multiple attackers for suicide missions depicts that it has no shortage of ‘human bombs’ in its arsenal. Previously, organisations like al Qaeda and the LTTE remained confined to a particular country or region and actively pursued a constrained agenda. The IS, however, is a unique, contemporary phenomenon. It rapidly expanded its network and struck those places that were once known as the most peaceful areas in the world. Al Qaeda masterminds had to work hard to hire and transport talent from Arab and African countries. The IS, on the other hand, hires from dozens of countries and primarily uses human fodder against specific targets.

Following the imprints of the Taliban, which destroyed the Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan, the IS too resorted to cultural terrorism and destroyed the Nineveh Museum in Mosul, the second-largest museum in Iraq. The 83-year-old archaeologist Khaled al Asaad, who refused to lead the IS to the hidden Palmyra antiquities, was beheaded publicly. The group also proved a strong rival to al Qaeda and within short time won global acclaim at its cost. By striking cities like Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Istanbul, Kabul, Brussels and Damascus, the IS dispelled the impression that it was restricted to a specific area. The downing of a jetliner in Egypt carrying Russian vacationers and the recent killing of innocents in Nice by a truck driver are innovative approaches that the group has employed. The IS also has pretentions of being a legitimate state or government that provides services in territories under its control. With territorial control, it has tried to make itself more towering than al Qaeda. It often tries to distinguish itself from al Qaeda on the grounds that it controls territory and offers statehood.



The IS seems to be an amalgamation of both centralised and de-centralised apparatus. There is a marked difference between its strategies and that of al Qaeda, which practised the policy of hit-and-run whereas the IS wants to establish a caliphate. Another difference is in the level of enthusiasm for the leaderships of al Qaeda and the IS. Globally, extremist elements now prefer to look towards 44-year-old Abu Bakr alBaghdadi rather than the 65-year-old Ayman alZawahiri. The IS took advantage of the administrative chaos in Iraq; its planners tried to attract former Iraqi military officers and experienced jihadists to its fold. By incorporating former combatants of Saddam Hussain’s military as well as jihadists, it played smart, hence it’s an amalgamation of indigenous and foreign ‘talent’.

Although its strategy and targets are different from those of al Qaeda, it follows the tradition of al Qaeda regarding the location and movement of its leadership. From media reports it can be assumed that its leadership moves between Syria and Iraq. Raqqa, usually referred to as the ‘capital’ of the IS, has proven to be a breeding ground for extremism. The demographic profile of Raqqa is a mixture of tribes and settled Bedouins, majority of whom are Sunnis. Later, the IS consolidated control over Iraq’s second-biggest city, Mosul, which also attracted attention of the international media. The videos of public executions — particularly of James Foley — tarnished the image of Raqqa. The kidnapping of police officers, targeting of police training academies and beheading of foreign journalists are preferred activities of its denizens.

In different parts of Iraq, the IS is confronted with military threats from certain militias, the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi Army, some tribes and the US-led coalition. It also controls certain areas of Syria. The sympathisers and foreign combatants hired by the IS often reach Syria via southern Turkey. Under an organised effort, the group also runs online publications that multiply its popularity among the youth. In its current set-up, the IS is fighting primarily like a conventional army while al Qaeda focused mainly on macro-level terrorist events. Though cruelty seems to be a common factor, the IS is more brutal. Regarding funding, al Qaeda remained dependent mostly on donations whereas the IS is reportedly more reliant on proceeds earned from illicit activities. Both the IS and al Qaeda are inspired by the same school of regressive religious thought. Their jihadist perception is another commonality. The al Qaeda leadership had remained restricted to personalities of elitist origin, while the IS is more a practitioner of collective leadership and believes in popular appeal. With its present selection of targets and strategy, it is trying to instil fear. Al Qaeda primarily targeted the US and the West, while the IS started its battle from home and gradually expanded its influence Westwards. Al Qaeda was primarily reliant on mass media, while the IS is trying to use social media to its optimum level.

Today, there are 57 members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. With its propagation of a caliphate, the IS has not only challenged the concept of the nation-state, but also questioned the legitimacy of sheikhdoms. Al Qaeda primarily remained focused on militaristic objectives while the IS seems keen on the promulgation of Islamic laws and implementation of its own interpretation of the Islamic way of life. The IS is a reality and a threat — the denial of its far-reaching influence can be tantamount to suicide. States must tackle it as a mounting challenge. Clarity in policies will reduce the hazards that the IS poses to the common folk. Blame games will only multiply fear, chaos and mistrust.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2016.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.

Our Publications

COMMENTS (2)

Arijit Sharma | 4 years ago | Reply For non-Muslims, they are all the same.
Hasnain khan | 4 years ago | Reply A very good analysis, and comparison between the two non-state actors. But the very rapid growing of IS across the world is very dangerous for the security and prace of the world,which needs very immediate remedies from the great powers in coordination with the countries which r suffered and suffering from these terrorist activities!
Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ