Al Qaeda and ISIS/ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) – may appear, at least superficially, to be similar, but there are some important differences as well.
What they have in common is their shared philosophy, that of totalitarianism. (Indeed, these were not always two separate movements as we shall see.)
However, as history has shown us, totalitarianism and evil go hand in hand.
Totalitarianism is Seen as Justice
Totalitarianism holds – and has held throughout history – a strong appeal to people dissatisfied with their lives. Its promise of an end to poverty and insecurity, combined with the achievement of an idealistic new beginning, was embraced in both Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia.
In his chapter about the heroic Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt, in 100 Great Thinkers, Jeremy Harwood says, “…existing society had sown the seeds of its undoing, notably by allowing the usurpation of the state by the bourgeoisie in pursuit of its own narrow interests at the expense of democracy, freedom and liberty.”
Frightened people are drawn to Totalitarianism in times of crisis.
Totalitarianism demands that the citizen must be completely subject to the absolute authority of the ruling government.
According to Audrey Borowski, who holds a Master’s degree in Islamic Studies from Oxford University, these two terrorist organisations have different and even opposing ideologies as well as significant similarities.
In her article, Al Qaeda and ISIS – From Revolution to Apocalypse, Borowski explains that both are “reconstructed forms of Islam, making radical ruptures from the past.”
Both groups distance themselves from established culture and traditions, and both embrace technology and use it to their advantage.
Their differences, however, caused the split between the two organisations, and led to a divergence in the ways in which they operated.
Why al Qaeda Disowned ISIS
Audrey Borowski begins her article: “The past fifteen years have witnessed the spectacular resurgence of global terrorism, notably under the shape of Al Qaeda, and, more recently, the Islamic State.”
ISIS militants formed a military alliance with al Qaeda, a group aiming to be a global, militant, Sunni Islamist organisation. (For one perspective on the formation of ISIS, see the Resources section, for Truth in Media’s account of the Origins of ISIS.)
According to the article Mail Online article, “So Wicked that Even Al Qaeda Disowned Them,” the main reason for the separation between the two movements is that ISIS is too brutal even for al Qaeda. This was borne out by a 21 pp letter written by bin Laden and found in his Pakistan hideout after he was killed. Bin Laden feared the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria posed serious damage to al Qaeda’s reputation. The Mail Online says:
“It warned of the rise of a new and ruthless group of Islamic extremists capable of such extreme brutality that Al Qaeda should sever all links with them.”
A further issue is disagreement regarding the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, which ISIS was keen to implement while al Qaeda regarded this as a long-term goal. The Mail Online says:
“Perhaps… the greatest threat Islamic State poses to the world is that this so-called caliphate becomes a training ground for international terrorism, and unleashes an army of extremists against the West to kill and maim far from the bloodsoaked deserts of Iraq.”
ISIS and al Qaeda – Brutality but in Different Guises
ISIS, also known as Islamic State, Daesh and ISIL, operates through a conventional army, by seizing territory. This terrorist group declared a caliphate in northern Syria and Iraq, and uses conventional weapons like rifles and grenades. ISIS focuses on targeting young people – presumably, because youth are most likely to be impressionable. People are also attracted to ISIS because it has gained territory in its pursuit of an Islamic state.
“They are a brutal, savage group known for public beheadings and mass executions. They are the face of a new war of terror,” says Ben Swann in “Truth in Media, The Origins of Isis.”
Al Qaeda, on the other hand, is not territorial. Its modus operandi is that of major attacks that have a spectacular impact on international media, for example, the Bali bombings and the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in the United States.
Al Qaeda operates in a manner that is more strategic, and may choose to show restraint rather than alienate less extreme Muslims from their cause.
Al Qaeda’s Justification for the Surge in Global Terrorism
Al Qaeda claims its attacks are justified because of the humiliation and oppression heaped upon the Islamic global community, says Audrey Borowski, who explains:
“It considers the use of violence primarily as reactive and retributive, as a bid to reclaim humanity for the downtrodden and refound civilisation through sacrificial acts. Its thinking is firmly entrenched in the here and now, operating within globalized modernity, whose codes and concepts it has re-appropriated.”
Borowski believes that al Qaeda seeks to transform the world from within and to oppose what they consider to be “…the arrogant and inhumane West,” and she cites, as an example, Osama bin Laden’s accusations towards the West of hypocrisy and double-standards. Borowoski includes a quotation from bin Laden:
“It is not acceptable in a struggle such as this that he (the crusader) should attack and enter my land and holy sanctuaries, and plunder Muslims’ oil, and then, when he encounters any resistance from Muslims, to label them terrorists.”
Al Qaeda believes in, and asserts its right to avenge perceived oppression, and in doing so, claims it will bring about the redemption of humanity.
Borowski describes both movements as being a blend of “Islamic fundamentalism, Nike and Twitter… that promises leading roles to wannabe new age romantic heroes.”
This willingness to exploit technology and the media helps attract many converts and garners financial support for their cause.
Audrey Borowski says: “Within this violent, globally-redemptive framework, Jihad (Defence of the Faith) has been configured as the quintessential ethical practice, each act of terror, acquiring a sacred dimension as resistance to evil.”