ISIS And The Others: Comparing ISIS and Al-Qaeda Central

Starting from the Cold War era with Mujahedeen and continuing with the promotion of ‘Clash of Civilizations’ rhetoric, we are fairly familiar with religious fundamentalism and guerilla tactics as its instrument.

If not, at least we – X and Y generations – still carry the trauma of 9/11 attacks with us and all the news about Boko Haram, Hamas, Al Qaeda stimulate these collective memories and lead us to react in a kind of paranoiac way far from critical thinking. As 2014 from, the hot topic on the news and the new phenomenon among terrorist groups is The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or The Islamic State of Iraq and The Levant, namely ISIS. According to the UN General Assembly, terrorist acts are ‘Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them’.[1]ISIS is only one player of the terrorist acts mentioned above and it shows various common attributes with other terrorist organisations. However, whether intentionally or unintentionally, oversimplification of classifications or typographies made to explain the nature of these groups only refresh catastrophic events of the past and prevents custom-built solutions to current events. It is absolutely true that ISIS is a radical islamist organisation politically motivated and extremely violent. Yet, it is critical to understand its difference from the other examples in order to not struggle desperately by old-fashioned and inconsequential explanations.

In this paper, I will try to reveal what distinguish ISIS from other terrorist groups by comparing it with Al-Qaeda the predecessor of ISIS. For this, I will account for the emergence of ISIS on the news at such a rapid pace. Then, I will analyse differences between them such as their priorities, target groups, references to religious doctrines, relations with youth, military know-how and the U.S. factor in both cases.

To begin with, ISIS is an offshoot of Al-Qaeda. It originates from Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which was set up by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was killedby a Joint US force in 2006. Both ISIS and Al-Qaeda follow Wahhabi Saudi ideology. However, ISIS does not recognise the leader of Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda faults ISIS in principle which is the thing that makes the incidents in Yemen more complicated aside from the country’s own domestic issues. What’s more, while Al-Qaeda was established by the help of alliances such as Saudi Salafis, radical Egyptian Islamists and the U.S., ISIS was born as a reaction to Saudis after they promoted the U.S. intervention in Iraq. All in all,the defeated sides of the 2003 Iraq intervention came together under the cause of opposing the presence of ‘the West’ in their homeland.

The main components that constitute ISIS are the remnants ofIraqi Baathist regime under Saddam Hussein, Sunni Iraqi citizens and Syrian Sunnis. To clarify, after Iraqi institutions were destroyed and the Baath Party was abolishedby Americans, a vacuum started to prevail and triggered the emergence of extremist groups that are made up of those who used to be the dominant in the region. Today, the brutal power struggle executed by ISIS has its roots from the days when Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime was crushed and the Shia-Sunni sectarian civil war spread more profoundlyacross Iraq. The Shia regime brought to power by the U.S. was unfamiliar to Iraqis as they were being ruled by Sunni leaders for a long time. Afterwards, Shia supremacy reinforced by Iran began suppressing and isolating Iraqi Sunnis in a vengeful way. This marginalisation was disregarded by the United States and it caused the former Iraqi PM Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to sustain his discriminatory acts. As 2010 of, Baghdadi started to direct AQI and he restructured its military force by recruiting professional officers of the Republican Guards of Saddam Hussein that have been already dissolved.

On the other other side, Syrian Sunnis started to express outrage against the minority Alawite sect which alienates and dominates them. Due to lack of political dialogue, the anger of both Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis brought them together under ISIS leadership, albeit their ideological differences. Basically, ISIS combines rebellious Sunnis by pledging them money of the oil trade and smuggling as well as promising political status. Moreover, their incentives also attract other jihadists from Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan.[2]Briefly, ISIS derives from the same Islamic school with Al-Qaeda but rather it is a reactionary organisation against the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the domination of Bashar al-Assad rule in Syria.

To point out the differences between ISIS and Al-Qaeda, first of all, ISIS does not give priority to the West but to the Shia-Sunni split. To clarify, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) -the predecessor of ISIS- obtained the majority of its supporters by exploiting the Sunni-Shia conflict and implementing numerous suicide bombings against the Shia as a kind of show-off to Sunnis. The aim of the ex-leader Zarqawi was to benefit from the sectarian war and to provide manpower for AQI. On the other hand, bin Laden was rather in favour of going for the attacks on the Western countries instead of inciting the sectarian hatred. In other words, Al-Qaeda Central was cultivated by ‘far enemy’ motive and Salafi jihadists successor to it did not follow the same motive up. The ‘near enemies’ which concern ISIS are pro-western Muslim governments as well as Haider Al-Abadi and Bashar al-Assad regimes which means that it considers the West as secondary importance. Therefore, consolidation of the organisation against the Shia at home is the primary goal. It is obvious remembering ISISs indifferent response to 2014 incidents in Gaza when it implied killing Shiites is more important than killing Jews.[3] To sum up, ISIS gathers supporters by local victories unlike Al-Qaeda that looks for overseas achievements.

Secondly, ISIS aims at different audience and Muslim countries treat it differently in this way. To exemplify, Baghdadi who extremely focuses on the Sunni-Shia cleavage aggravated another long-standing conflict in the region at the same time. Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia supported ISIS against Shia-dominated Iran, in other words, ISIS is provided with much more military force thanks to its playing the Sunni card. Saudi Arabia dispensed more than 30,000 fighters to ISIS, on the other side, Al Qaeda has been mobilised only to approximately 3,000 fighters.[4]It shows that ISIS’ preference of operating at regional scale speaks to more ambitious allies while transnational jihadism proceeded by Al-Qaeda addresses to the Ummah and does not attract people at home.

Thirdly, ISIS distinguishes itself from Al-Qaeda since it shows indifference to legitimise its violence based on giving references to religious doctrines. Event though beheadings, massacres and ethnic cleansing by ISIS against Shia, Yazidis and Kurds are displayed on the news as purposeless barbarity, it enjoys these victories and their gainings such as new supporters and prestige. According toFawazA. Gerges (2014), ISIS represents the third wave of jihadism with it rural characteristic. While the first and second waves were carried out under the leadership of religious and social elites who are university graduates, ISIS consists of poor, unintellectual and rural Sunni people from especially Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Specifically, it invests in former Baathist army officials instead of religious scholars and the major Salafi clerics did not recognise ISIS caliphate.[5]Therefore, it is evident that ISIS does not give weight to doctrinal explanations in order to justify its atrocities.

Additionally, ISIS places importance to statebuilding, governance and to contribute in its own capacity as if it was a mass party. On the contrary, Al-Qaeda labels its acts as military operations in the cause of holy war. The point is that ISIS does not construct any intellectual legacy or ideological framework to sustain itself. For instance, it destroys Shiite shrines, tombs and mosques but does not build anything afterwards. So to speak, it can flourish only if there is political chaos and it would lack legitimacy as long as it does not adopt the ways such as religious justifications made by Al-Qaeda.

Fourth, the relationship ofSunni youth around the worldwith ISIS is more intense than the one with Al-Qaeda Central. ISIS pledges a sort of salvation and a utopian project particularly to them. Its violent methods to gain victories are illustrated as senseless in the Western media but that is the very thing that appeals to young people. Among Muslim residents abroad, many of them join ISIS as they seek identity and power under the romanticised concept of caliphate. Moreover, being disappointed by the Arab Spring, Arab youth makes up potential human resources. Adversely, Al-Qaeda is a reserved organisation applying much more selective patterns for recruitment. For example, it puts non-Arab fighters on inferior positions at its hierarchical structure.[6]Also, use of social media by ISIS to display beheadings on Youtube opposes with the ‘defensive movement’ concept of Al-Qaeda. To sum up, ISIS is more attractive to Sunni youth than is Al-Qaeda and marking it as irrational is not an effective way of delegitimisation in this case. All these brutal acts promote ISIS’s ability to reach its aims.

Fifth, ISIS differs from Al-Qaeda regarding its military know-how. Because ISIS cooperates with Baathists and Republican Guards, it benefits from experienced military officers. At first, the alliance was considered uneasy because Baathism contains secularism and Arab nationalism that contrast with jihadism. However, there are several factors that enable ISIS  to get along well with Baathists and therefore, renders it privileged compared to Al-Qaeda. One reason is that both Baathist officers and ISIS leaders ( as ex-members of AQI ) had been sent to the same prison – Camp Bucca- in Iraq by US forces. These military officers were at their formative years during the imprisonment and it might have encouraged them to seek power by the ISIS alternative. Another reason is Faith Campaign that combines teachings of Quran with diluted secular ideology. It was carried out by Saddam and influenced especially the last generation under his reign. In brief, ISIS is mixture of both Baathists and Islamists, thus, it can easily reinforces its military capability without relying on foreign support.

Finally, the U.S. factor affects the process ISIS goes through in a different way. Today, there is no U.S. army on the ground and it has a negative impact on attempts to recreate Awakening Councils under Al-Abadi. The Awakening movements implemented with the help of U.S. forces between 2006 and 2008 were based on cooperation among local Sunni sheiks and Al-Maliki governmentagainst AQI. It proved very effective in the end and now, the U.S. encourages incumbent Al-Abadi to rejuvenate the movement. However, Iraq is not capable of coordinating coalition forces by itself. For example, tribes had been authorised to conduct patrols as well as to use some of the money in their territory in exchange for their intelligence networks. Sheiks were secure thanks to the U.S. troops and to the systematic territorial methods applied to guarantee one for all, all for one understanding among them. Currently, the U.S. is not so committed to Iraq and the Iraqi government lost its credibility among Sunni community because of its broken promises. After the U.S. forces started to withdraw from Iraq, the Iraqi government had been supposed to integrate Sunni militiamen into the police or security services and to pay them. Yet, almost all sheiks had to flee Iraq not to be killed. Therefore, it is difficult for them to trust again on the government though Iraq has relatively more inclusive government today. Under these circumstances, ISIS does not have to confront with either the U.S. or Iraq in the contrary to Al-Qaeda’s fate. Moreover, the failure of Al-Abadi to appoint moderate ministers such asRiad Abdul Razak Gharib instead of members of Badr Organisation (Shiite militia) to his cabinet shows ongoing reluctance to deal with the sectarian issue. In a nutshell, ISIS enjoys the void in Iraq as well as Syria without being interrupted at all.

Nowadays, we keep hearing about ISIS on the news and it still distresses the world , for example, about its possible harm to Palmyra ancient city. In spite of intense attention to ISIS, newswriters and interested people consider it as the same organisation with others such as Al-Qaeda Central. However, there emerges many ambiguities and prejudgements due to this approach and the case of ISIS needs to be distinguished from the previous ones. The group originates from Al-Qaeda in Iraq but currently it is not on the same page with Al-Qaeda except for the cause of Salafi jihadism. ISIS was established in Iraq in the time of Camp Bucca (2003-2009) that gathered desperate people both from Baathists and Al-Qaera in Iraq. Afterwards, it made us of Syrian Civil War and it maintains attaining huge support from Muslims living in Western countries as well as Sunni Arabs in the region. To compare ISIS with Al-Qaeda, the former is concerned with exploiting the Shia-Sunni split while Al-Qaeda gives priority to overseas achievements such as 9/11.Secondly, ISIS operates at local level and it helps him get more durable and concrete supports thanks to Saudi Arabia that has been confronting with Shia Iran over sectarian supremacy. Thirdly, while Al-Qaeda was careful about justifying its ‘defensive movement’ by referencing to religious doctrines, ISIS directly goes for military and administrative issues without worrying about its lack of ideological framework for the future. Fourthly, ISIS attracts many young people by showing off on the battleground and on Youtube unlike Al-Qaeda that applies more strict recruitment procedures. Another difference is that Al-Qaeda used to be dependent on foreign aid to build its military organisation. On the other hand, ISIS shelters ex-members of Republican Guards and other Baathist military officials who has military know-how. The last but not the least, the lack of US support on the ground and of a determined Iraqi government to integrate Sunnis halt efforts to rejuvenate Awakening Councils. To take an action with the current mindset seems like dancing with the ghosts because many things have changed since the dissolution of Saddam Husseins Iraq. ISIS thrives in chaos by benefiting from state-absence and by paving for potential recruits via its media presence as a kind of prestige. Regarding Al-Qaeda which runs without any purpose of constructing its institutions,ISIS’s aim of building its own state makes huge difference in itself.

Gamze Cidetli



Al-Monitor, (2015).Selefiler niçin Şiileri baş düşman olarak görüyor? – Al-Monitor: the Pulse of the Middle East. [online] Available at:[Accessed 25 May 2015].

BBC News, (2015).Q&A: Iraq’s Awakening Councils – BBC News. [online] Available at:[Accessed 15 May 2015].

Comparing Al Qaeda and ISIS: Different goals, d. (2015).Comparing Al Qaeda and ISIS: Different goals, different targets. [online] The Brookings Institution. Available at:[Accessed 27 May 2015].

Council on Foreign Relations, (2015).The Islamic State. [online] Available at:[Accessed 27 May 2015].

DailyTimes, (2015).Why ISIS attracts so many foreign fighters. [online] Available at:[Accessed 28 May 2015].

Gerges, F. (2014).ISIS and the Third Wave of Jihadism. [online] Current History. Available at:[Accessed 22 May 2015].

KIRKPATRICK, D. (2014).ISIS’ Harsh Brand of Islam Is Rooted in Austere Saudi Creed. [online] Available at:[Accessed 20 May 2015].

Sugg, B., →, M., Fink, N. and →, M. (2015).A Tale of Two Jihads: Comparing the al-Qaeda and ISIS Narratives. [online] IPI Global Observatory. Available at:[Accessed 9 May 2015].

The Economist, (2014).Engaging the enemy. [online] Available at:[Accessed 29 May 2015]., (2015).United Nations Global Issues. [online] Available at:[Accessed 14 May 2015]., (2015).The Status and Future of the Awakening Movements. [online] Available at:[Accessed 19 May 2015].

[1], (2015). United Nations Global Issues.

[2] Sugg, B., →, M., Fink, N. and →, M. (2015). A Tale of Two Jihads: Comparing the al-Qaeda and ISIS Narratives.

[3] Al-Monitor, (2015). Selefiler niçin Şiileri başdüşman olarak görüyor? – Al-Monitor: the Pulse of the Middle East.

[4] Gerges, F. (2014). ISIS and the Third Wave of Jihadism.

[5] KIRKPATRICK, D. (2014). ISIS’Harsh Brand of Islam Is Rooted in Austere Saudi Creed.

[6] DailyTimes, (2015).Why ISIS attracts so many foreign fighters

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