Four ways in which ISIS outmuscles Al-Qaeda

Four ways in which ISIS outmuscles Al-Qaeda
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 ISIS is a hybrid terrorist actor far different from Al-Qaeda because of its state-building approach, as well as its strategy and means to reach its goals.

On June 29th 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. In a couple of month, ISIS expanded its control over a large part of Iraq and Syria, from Raqqa in Syria to the south of Baghdad.  This fast-growing entity rapidly eclipsed Al-Qaeda from all media coverage, while amplifying security concerns of the international community. Therefore, it is crucial to understand what the nature of this threat is, how ISIS and Al-Qaeda differ, and why this new actor overtook Al-Qaeda. Here are four ways in which the two terror organizations differ.

1. A state-building approach

Contrary to Al-Qaeda, ISIS represents a different model of terrorist actor, halfway between a traditional terrorist organization and a state.  The term “state” is symbolically crucial, because ISIS wants to be seen as a state, as highlighted in the first issue of its magazine, Dabiq.  ISIS wants to be perceived as a state, but it also wants to act like a state by establishing a clear power over its territory through developing a well-organized administration, as well as assuming political and judicial duties.

In contrast, Al-Qaeda is not characterized by a control of territory nor the development of a structured administration. Indeed, the global war on terror dismissed any territorial dimension to the organization. Meanwhile, ISIS transformed Al-Qaeda’s hierarchical structure into a mobilized international network.

However, ISIS is “more than a terrorist organization”. Not only does it claim a territory, but it has established within this area the first real jihadist state.  Indeed, Al-Baghdadi has established a complex and detailed-oriented bureaucracy with two prime ministers in charged of twelve ministries. Building state capacity is the core strength of ISIS, as illustrated by the local administration.

Additionally, the implementation of a strict form of sharia law is clearly central to ISIS’s governance. In order to maintain daily order and repress dissent, the Islamic police and judicial system cooperate.  Indeed, sharia law has instilled a combination of municipal administration and aid-based services such as electricity, water, free healthcare and Islam-oriented schools.  Furthermore, the group taxes its population in order to gain incomes. For example, the non-Muslim community must pay a tax called jizya, equivalent to US$250.

2. Internationalized vs territorialized strategy

While both ISIS and Al-Qaeda share the same ideological goal to establish an Islamic caliphate, their strategies are highly different from one another.  As highlighted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, Al-Qaeda’s strategy is to develop a decentralized network and worldwide affiliations, as well as promoting lone wolf attacks to carry out destabilizing attacks on the West.  

Al-Qaeda believes that religious authority must be implemented first in order to hold control over a territory. Therefore, the establishment of an Islamic caliphate is a long-term goal.  Cambanis argues that: “Unlike Al-Qaeda’s vague vision of a borderless world run by extremist jihadists, the Islamic State has a plan to build a viable state right now.”

On the other hand, rather than encouraging jihadists to perpetrate attacks abroad, ISIS devotes its effort to state-building and calling Muslims across the world to participate in its territorial success. It is only when it can claim control and sovereignty over this territory, that it can then expand its borders.   Indeed, it is clear that ISIS’s strategy is to control territory and govern in order to establish the basis of the society, and, only then, to establish a religious authority.

3. Mastering social media

Both groups are using media and violence differently. First, Al-Qaeda operatives use social media to secretly communicate through hidden websites and chat rooms to join their struggle against the West.

On the contrary, ISIS is the first organization to efficiently implement itself on the Internet and maximize the use of social media through an open spreading of its propaganda thanks to highly popular networks such as Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. For example, the “Salil al-Sawarim I” video, released on March 17, 2014, was watched by 56,998 Internet users within 24 hours.

Those high-quality videos portray an Islamic utopia to attract young foreign fighters through showing material success, an element which was not present in Al-Qaeda’s global jihad.  Consequently, ISIS has overtaken Al-Qaeda through its coordinated release of immediate information, but also through its creativity, hijacking famous hashtags such as #Brazil2014 during the World Cup in order to maximize its visibility on the web.

4. Hyper-violence as a cornerstone?

ISIS is also perpetrating an ethnic and religious cleansing against Shias and minorities, as well as implementing strong physical penalties, such as crucifixions and amputations.  ISIS is far crueler than any terrorist organization. The beheadings of American hostages embody this extreme level of violence.

In Al-Qaeda’s perspective, the organization cannot quite reach this level of cruelty for fear of losing support and being delegitimized in the eyes of the Islamic world.  Indeed, Muslims are already deeply concerned by Al-Qaeda’s methods, and this concern serves to restrain the group’s overall strategic direction.  Conversely, ISIS does not care about its image among the Muslim community as much because its oil resources, representing 15% of Iraqi GDP , guarantee its financial autonomy.  This is something that Al-Qaeda was and is unable to do, even today.

ISIS is a hybrid terrorist actor.  The implementation of fear to reach its political goals highlights ISIS’s ambiguous nature of being a hybrid terrorist organization/state. However, it acts like a state in that it first controls  territory, and then proceeds to establish a well-structured administration.   Al-Qaeda was never able to assure its control over a predefined territory.  ISIS is different from Al-Qaeda because the latter is focused on globalized jihad, whereas ISIS’s primary concern is a jihad focused on control of a specified territory .

Summarily, ISIS embodies a new phenomenon, which is typified by establishment of state control.  This has enabled the organization to rapidly overtake Al-Qaeda, which is restrained because of is concern with Islamic perceptions, as well as its inability to use efficiently social media.

About Author

Jason Dozier

Jason specializes in crisis management and the organizational development of terrorist groups. He currently works for the Embassy of Malta in Paris where he serves as Executive Assistant to the Ambassador. Jason holds a Master’s in Terrorism, Security and Society at King’s College London concentrating on a comparative analysis between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. He also obtained a Bachelor in International Relations from the Institute of International Relations in Paris.