Why Al Qaeda is a bigger threat than ISIS – Distinction between Group and Ideology (part 2)

How the categories of “group” and “ideology” can help to compare the main points of strength and the main weaknesses of bin Laden’s group with al-Baghdadi’s. In this second part, a focus on ISIS to understand how its recent staggering success doesn’t mean the group is invincible

When al-Baghdadi became leader of what is now known as ISIS it was 2010, and the group he found himself at the head of was on the verge of decline; so much so that foreign analysts were no longer considering it in their studies, and aspiring mujahideens were no longer considering it as a group to possibly join. Without going deep into the though interesting strategies that al-Baghdadi adopted to make the group surge again, it is to be underlined that all ISIS has been doing since 2010 is the product of a specific ideology, that retrieved and improved the one that had been formulated by former leaders.

If Al Qaeda’s ideology was – as said – a global, abstract and universalistic one, ISIS’s ideology has since the beginning been the opposite. Though both ideologies take the moves from the concept of jihad meant as just, armed struggle to be conducted against the infidels, they are then built differently around it. For al-Baghdadi’s group the jihad against the kafir is not a global one, with no space and borders, but a localized one, to be conducted on a specific territory and against a specific enemy. If Al Qaeda, in fact, used to conduct its attacks against the “far enemy”, ISIS has always had a more delimited (and also more rational) approach aimed at conducting jihad against the “near enemy” – namely the governments of Syria and Iraq.

To explain why and how such an ideology took form, another parallel with Al Qaeda is necessary. Bin Laden’s ideology was the result of an exasperate lack of territoriality; while al-Baghdadi’s ideology is exactly the product of a definite territoriality. Even before gaining control of what is now the area of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, in fact, ISIS has always been present and active in a specific territory only; and this element made it necessary for the group to take into account that specific reality, that specific context with all its dynamics, and to adapt its message to it. The shift to self-declared State has just made this territoriality more steady and therefore difficult to cancel, but is actually nothing new for a group that has always shown a high awareness of its operative environment.

Such a definite ideology couldn’t but give rise to a precise political project, and it did.

ISIS’s aim has since the time of al-Zarqawi (when the group was known as AQI) been the establishment of an Islamic State in Iraq. With al-Baghdadi, the objective has been adapted to the new situation emerged in Iraq (where Sunnis were ever more excluded from power) and Syria (where in 2011 the civil war broke out), and the project thus became the creation of an Islamic State in the Sunni area across these two states. From this stronghold it would then be expanded until the borders of what once was the Umayyad Caliphate. A political project, therefore, that is both anachronistic, because of the rhetoric of restoring the power of the ancient Islamic Caliphate, and modern, because of the way in which the Islamic State, its organization and its rule are conceived.

This situation has both advantages and disadvantages .

Being ISIS’s ideology so deeply connected to what was and is the Iraqi and Syrian environment, it is not possible for it to spread such as Al Qaeda’s message and ideas did. If Al Qaeda’s ideology was so abstract and global that it could be easily adopted by other jihadist groups whatever their area of belonging, with ISIS we have the opposite situation: its ideology is too specific to be transferred to groups acting in a different context and interacting with different actors and enemies. If a group takes on ISIS’s ideology, it can’t but take on its specific political project too – the recreation of the ancient Caliphate – and can’t but build its actions around that precise objective.

This difficulty for ISIS’s ideology to spread, creates the most relevant difference between ISIS and Al Qaeda: ISIS has an ideology but is not an ideology (something that on the contrary Al Qaeda became after 2001). ISIS is a group in the strictest sense of the term and therefore has a detailed, coherent and centralized organization; a relevant capacity to control all the group’s actions, that are in fact conducted coherently with the group’s ideology and project. There are no sub-groups under its umbrella but only loyal fighters, so that the problems of coordination and control that the Jihadist Nebula has created to the Al Qaeda core group are unknown to ISIS.

This element is fundamental in granting to the group capacity of action (that same capacity Al Qaeda has been losing since 2001); and this image of an active, successful jihad is what leads such a high number of fighters to join its ranks. Recruitment comes thus to mark another difference between bin Laden’s group (now al-Zawahiri’s), that has seen decreasing the number of wannabe jihadists joining it, and al-Baghdadi’s group, that never ceases to attract jihadists from all over the world. Moreover, as opposed to Al Qaeda, ISIS recruits fighters not through fatwas but rather through videos and messages that present the group’s achievements and the group’s political project, of which wannabe fighters are invited to take part. This high capacity of recruitment, possible through the proposal of a concrete objective that Al Qaeda was never able to formulate and that gives aspiring mujahideens the sense of being sacrificing everything for something real, adds to ISIS’s strength.

And though, ISIS’s recent success shouldn’t lead us to think that it is immune from vulnerabilities. If being a group proper gives ISIS capacity of action, control, and rule, as well as power of attraction, it also makes it less resilient than Al Qaeda is. Being a group means being a concrete, delimited, specific entity; that means an entity against which fighting is possible and comparatively easier than fighting against ideas and views. If ISIS is a definite actor, that we can describe and localize, then to be destroyed is not an ideology but the group and what it has achieved. The elimination of the Caliphate (unlike the elimination of Al Qaeda’s Afghan safe haven) would bring about the elimination of ISIS, in the moment in which ISIS as group, the Caliphate it built, and the ideology it elaborated are all part of a same, single reality. Being ISIS a group with an ideology and not an ideology in itself, if that group is cancelled its delimited and specific ideology –being nontransferable – would lose the reality on which it depends and would simply die with it.

The fight against ISIS is not easy at all, but it has more possibilities of success than the fight against Al Qaeda. If the latter – we said – is weak as group but resilient as ideology, then ISIS is exactly the opposite; and this goes to our advantage because it means that in front of us we have an enemy we can fight.

Determination and disposal to do that actively are part of another story.


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Hi! My name is Marta Furlan. I am from Italy and was born in Milan in 1993. I speak five languages, my main areas of interest are the Middle East and Islamist terrorism and my great passion is traveling. I'm majoring in Foreign Languages for International Relations at the Catholic University. Last year I attended a summer course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on the role of Israel in the Middle East, and have recently had been working in South Africa at the Chamber of Commerce in Johannesburg. I am currently completing my thesis on the development of jihadist terrorism by Al Qaeda in ISIS. Follow my blog if you have a strong interest in International Relations, especially Middle East.

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