What Is the Difference between ISIS and al-Qaeda?

Image via The Guardian

Must ISIS be treated differently from the terrorist organizations of the past?

Five or ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable that al-Qaeda would hold such a small fraction of the discourse on terrorism.  Al-Qaeda was mentioned little – if at all – in an election cycle heavily concerned with combating terror. The group has been almost fully supplanted in our collective psyche by the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. However, the two groups operate in wholly distinct ways, each posing a completely different sort of threat to the US.

Considering ISIS to be simply a newer group in the same vein as al-Qaeda – as it seems that many politicians and Americans have been so far wont to do – is fundamentally inaccurate and could lead to significant errors of judgment in our attempts to combat these groups or prevent attacks.

The West seems to view ISIS attacks – or, more accurately, attacks carried out in ISIS’ name – as though they are simply a replacement to al-Qaeda.  They are fundamentally dissimilar. Though ISIS evolved from an arm of al-Qaeda, the groups share little. ISIS and al-Qaeda have philosophical and moral differences, of course, with al-Qaeda going as far as to publicly distance itself from ISIS in 2014.

ISIS – which after growing out of al-Qaeda in Iraq has gone on to capture significant areas of Iraq and Syria – declared itself a caliphate in 2014 a move signaling that it considers borders invalid and itself the only true nation of Islam.  It has carried out truly horrifying acts, from beheadings to a complex and codified system of sexual slavery, all of which it considers to be not only allowed but also necessary under its literal reading of Islam.

These moves have resulted in a level of state building that al-Qaeda never attempted.  While al-Qaeda worked largely in small, dispersed cells, ISIS must continually develop this central organization in order to keep control and expand its physical area.  ISIS must carry out these acts: to abstain would be heretical.

In this, their objectives differ drastically.  Al-Qaeda often aimed for political victories over the West, specific, quantifiable, and achievable retreats of Western military forces, for example, which would be called for following an attack.  ISIS wants nothing of the sort.  ISIS’ objectives are entirely religiously informed.

Under their strict interpretation of Islamic Law that they, as a caliphate, must be constantly in a state of holy war to expand their all-important physical borders.  These stipulations go as far as to dictate the maximum length of ceasefire that can be called in their conflict.  Rather than pushing for concessions from the West, ISIS eagerly anticipates their battle with the ‘armies of Rome’ that has been said to be a sort of prologue to the apocalypse.

A large-scale ground invasion of Syria by the West is exactly what ISIS wants.  The consequences of this battle for them are irrelevant, it has been foretold that they will lose, so heavy casualties are, in fact, preferred.

Westerners who buy into ISIS’ doctrine also prioritize this all-important ground war.  Few train to return and attack in the West.  Though there have been numerous ‘ISIS’ attacks, these are not plots hatched by some central leadership, nor are they carried out by teams or persons who traveled here from Syria to cause terror.  In fact, no attacker in the US has thus far been found to have direct links to the group. Those who can manage the trip want to stay and fight.  Those who do attack here are more often those who have been ‘inspired by’ or have pledged allegiance to ISIS but have been unable to travel to ISIS-controlled lands.

Understanding this dynamic is key to preventing future attacks.  Moves to tighten airport security and ban Muslims miss the threat altogether, while needlessly discriminating, inconveniencing, and turning many who feel targeted by these policies further against us.  These strategies were honed over the last two decades, when the primary threat of terror in the US came from al-Qaeda, and they are designed to interrupt the methods employed by that group.

We expend resources attempting to keep threats from entering the US when it would appear that few or no ISIS members, who are already in Syria or Iraq, have an interest in coming here at all.  By conceiving of ISIS as simply a new iteration of the terrorist threat we have become accustomed to, we miss the crucial fact that most ISIS attackers were in the US long before they began to plan an attack.

We would be far better served with strategies aimed at those who are already here.  This would not only better prevent the type of attacks that have so far been perpetrated in ISIS’ name but would furthermore help prevent terrorism of all radical doctrines, not simply those based in Islam.  Our anti-terror strategies are becoming outdated.  We must adapt, and recognize what is now a fundamentally different threat.

Vaughn Campbell studies international relations at Brown University. He has written also for The Brown Daily Herald.

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