Although the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, otherwise known as ISIS, was a former member of the global militant Islamist or jihadist organisation al-Qaeda and has carried similar horrid activities in the Middle East, it remains considerably distinctive.
Remember that in February 2014, al-Qaeda publicly announced it was severing ties with ISIS, citing its brutality and notorious intractability as reasons. In other words, ISIS is too extreme for the terrorist organisation founded by the late Osama bin Laden. Although perplexing, this rejection demonstrates the inevitable and irreconcilable difference between ISIS and al-Qaeda
Difference between ISIS and al-Qaeda due to conflict in leadership origins
But the feud has existed even during the earlier days of the two organisations. Their respective founders had distinctive personal backgrounds that shaped their leadership styles and directions. Bin Laden of al-Qaeda and his immediate subordinates were wealthy, highly educated, and well-connected. On the other hand, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the ISIS predecessor The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad, was a notorious criminal.
The dissimilar personal backdrops of Bin Laden and al-Zarqawi created distinctions on how they operated their respective organisations. Top leadership in al-Qaeda worked behind the scenes. Thus, Bin Laden and his senior cohorts were political leaders. However, al-Zarqawi maintained that true authority should come from those who are on battlefield frontlines rather than behind the scenes. Thus, unlike Bin Laden, he was more of a military leader.
Eventually, al-Qaeda went on to pursue the goal of creating a global network of jihadist. Bin Laden raised funds and channeled financial supports to Islamists factions across different parts of the globe—especially to those so-called occupied Muslim territories. Meanwhile, the group of al-Zarqawi focused on building an Islamic State in Iraq.
Al-Qaeda subsequently emerged as the more popular and notorious jihadist movement in the international community. Of course, it is important to take note of the fact that the organisation emerged in 1988—much earlier compared to ISIS, which first emerged in 1999. But the popularity of al-Qaeda stems from the charismatic appeal of Bin Laden who earned considerable support across the Arab world, especially among the wealth and influential Arabs. His prior social status and education background created the social connections he needed to advance the interest of his movement. Thus, unlike al-Zarqawi who maintained an impetuous personality, he seemed a more capable and level-headed leader of the emerging jihadist movement.
Difference in ideologies: inward strategy of ISIS versus the outward approach of al-Qaeda
ISIS swore allegiance to Bin Laden in 2006. While under the global network of al-Qaeda, the group was responsible for building an insurgency faction in Iraq by merging with other insurgents and controlling the flow of resources. By this time, observers from the international community called the group as the al-Qaeda in Iraq.
However, this inclusion in the greater al-Qaeda network further highlighted the stark difference between the two factions. Take note that the core members and fighters that constituted al-Qaeda were veterans who trained and fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s. Meanwhile, the emerging ISIS or al-Qaeda in Iraq was initially populated by fighters who came of age during the sociopolitical crisis in Iraq and Syria. This generational gap means ISIS has a more modern approach than al-Qaeda. This is evident from the extensive use of the Internet and social media to disseminate jihadist propaganda.
The strategical plan of ISIS is also worth mentioning. Despite being under the global al-Qaeda network, ISIS leaders maintained a position that contradicted the resolve of Bin Laden. Although both organisations wanted to promote unity in the Muslim World, the two had different ideologies that create distinctive approaches for doing so. For ISIS, the only way to unite the Muslims across the world is to purge the entire community by eradication fellow Muslims who are unaligned with religious and sociopolitical ideologies of the organisation. However, al-Qaeda maintained that these unaligned Muslims were not the problem. Rather, it is the apostate institutions in Muslim countries and the Western sociopolitical clout that should be eradicated.
ISIS eventually pursued its plight. While al-Qaeda developed and implemented an outward-looking strategy that involved destabilising the West and building a strong relationship with the Muslim communities before creating a caliphate, ISIS developed and implemented an inward-looking strategy centred on establishing a state that promotes a strict implementation of Sharia Law. Thus, unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS focused on expanding its armed capabilities to expand its territories around Iraq and Syria. In June 2014, the organisation introduced itself to the world after capturing Mosul, the largest city in Iraq.
Organisational difference between ISIS and al-Qaeda: The more rigid structure of the Islamic State
Things have changed during and after the 2003 United States-lead invasion of Iraq and several sociopolitical crises in the Arab World, especially the Arab Spring that began in 2010. Instability had spread across several states in the Middle East. The governments were insecure and during this period of sociopolitical vulnerability, ISIS resorted to build its stronghold not only Iraq and Syria but also in other countries affected by the Arab Spring.
ISIS was aggressively expanding across Iraq and Syria around 2013. The US government pulled out majority of its forces from Iraq in 2011. This gave ISIS a better traction. In June 2014, the group took over the Iraqi city of Mosul—an event that caught the world by surprise.
The rise of ISIS endangers the existence of al-Qaeda. Although it had a brash origin, it has successfully evolved into a sophisticated organisation capable of introducing and maintaining a semblance of statehood and governance across its territories in Iraq and Syria through bureaucracy. ISIS has undeniably become rigidly structured unlike the nomadic style of al-Qaeda and other radical Islamists.
Apart from its armed military group, critical to the operation of ISIS is the establishment of several social institutions, notably its own economic activity, a well-oiled media and publicity arm, and a platform for sociopolitical development. The organisation has maintained authority and self-sufficiency mainly through resource productions and sales of oil and water reserves.
Conclusion: The difference between ISIS and al-Qaeda
The similarities between ISIS and al-Qaeda revolve primarily on the desire of the two Islamist organisations to advance the doctrinal interest of Islam and the Muslim community. Both believe in the use of arms and violent strategies to advance their cause. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda also believe that they should advance their own brand of Islam across established Muslim communities and the world. Of course, not all Muslims agree to these ideologies.
Nonetheless, the difference between ISIS and al-Qaeda centres primarily on their level of modernity. The Islamic State is more advanced and innovative than al-Qaeda in terms of their ideologies and strategies. Note that ISIS wants to advance its own brand of Islam by purging the Muslim community of what the organisation deems as impure. This is innovative because it does away from the usual outward anti-Western approach of jihadist movements such as al-Qaeda.
It is important to highlight the fact that ISIS also follows an outward approach. But the organisation does this by fortifying its internal affairs. From their inward approach to Islamisation and based on their sophisticated organisational structure, it is evident that the Islamic State knows that they need to solidify their internal affairs and capabilities to advance their pro-Islam and anti-Western sentiments. Remember that the end game of ISIS is to establish and head a worldwide caliphate.