ISIS vs Al Qaeda: What’s the Difference?

Terrorists group in the Middle East have existed for decades. However, there’s been a transition from a focus on AL Qaeda to ISIS, but what’s the difference between the two? For those of us less knowledgeable in foreign affairs, there may not be an obvious difference. However, if you look at the goals and ideology of the two groups they are quite different. Luckily, through ISIS’ magazine and bin Laden’s letter to the US the ideology of the two groups is relatively easy to identify and compare. ISIS seeks to create a global society that they control, eliminating all that disagree with them, while Al Qaeda was open to people converting to Islam and mostly just wanted to be left alone by the US military.

Al Qaeda quieted down significantly in 2011 when Osama bin Laden was killed, but the group does still exist and has committed acts of terror as recently as 2016. However, the group has largely been eclipsed by ISIS. While it may seem as though one radical Islamic group has just replaced a similar one, the two are actually pretty different in their goals. Al Qaeda’s main reason for hating the west was the attacks that happened in the Middle East. He mentioned the attacks in Palestine and Somalia as well as the stealing of Al Qaeda’s oil and wealth. bin Laden also mentions that the U.S. has military bases all over the world which “corrupt” their lands and ensure the continuation of pillaging of their treasures. bin Laden holds U.S. citizens responsible for the actions of their government because they were free to elect those in power and they pay the taxes that buy bombs and weapons. bin Laden says, “Thus the American people have chosen, consented to, and affirmed their support for the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, the occupation and usurpation of their land, and its continuous killing, torture, punishment and expulsion of the Palestinians. The American people have the ability and choice to refuse the policies of their Government and even to change it if they want.” bin Laden is perhaps giving the American people too much credit for their ability to change their government, but nonetheless he saw all Americans as responsible for what America did. In response to the attacks America had carried out in the Middle East, bin Laden wanted to call Americans to convert to Islam. He also wanted Americans to “be a people of manners, principles, honour, and purity; to reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling’s, and trading with interest.” Those demands are mostly in line with beliefs in Islam. bin Laden used violence to convey his message to the west, as he saw the west using violence all around him and said “America does not understand the language of manners and principles, so we are addressing it using the language it understands.” Unfortunately for the west, this language he thought they understood was violence. Al Qaeda serves as a prime example of violent interventions radicalizing civilians into terrorism, as the group was largely motivated by U.S. military invasions. It is important to remember that while this group is not so active today, in Al Qaeda’s heyday they committed horrible acts of violence including the 9/11 attacks and the bombings of US embassies. The rest of the letter lists parts of American life that bin Laden found immoral. bin Laden thought the U.S. was the worst civilization in human history, and yet he still hoped to convert Americans to Islam. Considering the violence he saw the west, particularly the U.S. inflicting on Muslims, this conversion narrative is somewhat surprising. This conversion narrative is also very different from the ideas of ISIS.

ISIS’ ideas have no room for conversion or pleas for those against them to change their ways. ISIS can in many ways make Al Qaeda seem tame. bin Laden actually worked with the founder of ISIS, Zarqawi, but they split because Zarqawi was too radical for bin Laden. Zarqawi would attack Shia Muslims in an attempt to start an Iraqi civil war instead of fighting the U.S. military, which was concerning to bin Laden and other members of al Qaeda who did not want to kill Muslims. It is not surprising then that the man too violent and extreme for Al Qaeda went on to start his own terrorist organization. In ISIS’ magazine they published an article on page 30 titled “Why We Hate You and Why We Fight You.” This article, similar to bin Laden’s letter, lays out the reason that ISIS hates the west. For ISIS, their main reason is that the west does not believe in Allah or follow Islam. Their second reason is that the west permits things against Islam. This section vaguely critiques practices in the west being against Islam, even mentioning YOLO, or you only live once as being problematic and denying the day of judgement. Reason 3 is atheism and 4 is mocking Islam. Not until reasons 5 and 6 does ISIS mention the drone attacks or invasions of Muslim land. For ISIS, the main reason the west is bad is their lack of faith in Islam and the fact they do things against the Islam religion. They even say, “some might argue that your foreign policies are the extent of what drives our hatred, this particular reason for hating you is secondary.” It seems some people have carried Al Qaeda’s ideas of hating the west for military violence over unto ISIS, but for ISIS this reason is not the main problem. ISIS seeks not to convert people to Islam, but to destroy all people who disagree with them, which includes some Muslims. For ISIS, Christians can only exist if they pay a tax in humiliation to ISIS, but ideally there just won’t be anyone left to disagree with them. ISIS aims to create a global caliphate. Unlike Al Qaeda who mostly wanted to be left alone from violence, ISIS seeks out violence hoping to radicalize more people to their cause to further their goals of essentially world domination. Since ISIS seeks to start a state, they do some charitable works which they advertise in their magazine, such as cancer treatment for children, street cleaning, and homes for elderly. These claims should be taken with a grain of salt. It would make sense in ISIS’ ideology of creating a global state that they would begin taking on some roles traditionally done by governments. However, the magazine is certainly a recruitment tool and propaganda for the organization. It is certainly possible that for those who agree with ISIS, life under their regime might be pleasant, but it is also not possible to know if they are actually providing these community services, or just having a photoshoot to look like they are. Just a few pages back from the pictures of happy elderly people and children allegedly being cared for by ISIS are photos of rows of dead bodies. ISIS is trying to appear both like a group people would like to live under the rule of, but also as a group with no tolerance for those who disagree with their particular form of Islam.

A child ISIS’ magazine claims they are treating for cancer

When comparing these two groups, there are some obvious differences. ISIS is in some ways more violent than Al Qaeda. ISIS has committed lots of fairly large acts of terror including the Orlando Night Club Shooting and the attacks in Paris. ISIS has committed 143 attacks in 29 countries killing 2,043 people, and those numbers do not include all the attacks they have carried in Syria and Iraq. ISIS does not seek to remain in a certain area or protect particular lands or spaces in the way that Al Qaeda did. Instead, ISIS wants to someday control all the land and be one supreme global state of particular Muslims. ISIS has no qualms about killing Muslims who disagree with them and will never become peaceful until they’ve taken control of all lands globally. Al Qaeda may have quieted down if they were just left alone by U.S. military forces, but ISIS will never go away quietly. Both groups disapprove of western lifestyle, complaining about mass consumption, consumerism and YOLO. They both very much dislike the west, but ISIS also dislikes anyone that disagrees with them, Muslim or not. In this way, Al Qaeda may have had an easier time recruiting people, as they appear to simply want people to practice Islam. To help with recruitment, ISIS has really taken advantage of the Internet in a way Al Qaeda did not, though Al Qaeda hit its peak in a time when the Internet was not as mainstream as it is now. ISIS publishes magazine of propaganda and creates videos to use as recruitment tools. This helps ISIS spread far away, to places they may have never been, such as Orlando, Florida.

The transition from a world of terror dominated by Al Qaeda, to one dominated by ISIS was gradual. However, today ISIS is constantly in the news and continuing to attack places in many different countries, while Al Qaeda is rarely mentioned and seems to be small and hidden. Understanding the differences between the two groups can be very helpful in understanding policy positions to respond to the groups. What would work to stop Al Qaeda will not necessarily work for ISIS. The two groups are distinctly different and seek different goals. In the age of the Internet, ISIS is able to recruit more quickly and easily than ever before on Twitter, Youtube or their own online publications and websites. It does not seem that the group will stop anytime soon. Their end goal is to create a global caliphate, and unfortunately for the rest of this, this long term goal likely means they will not stop wreaking terror in the near future.