Although the Islamic State, otherwise known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS or the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant or ISIL, was a former member of the global militant Islamist or jihadist organization al-Qaeda and has carried out 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 the Islamic State, citing its brutality and notorious intractability as reasons. The terrorist organization founded by the late Osama bin Laden described ISIL as too extreme. Although perplexing, this rejection demonstrated the irreconcilable difference between ISIL and al-Qaeda.
Difference Between ISIL And al-Qaeda Due To Conflict In Leadership Origins And Leadership Principles
The feud between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda existed even during the earlier days of the two organizations. 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 ISIL predecessor The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad, was a notorious criminal.
The dissimilar personal backdrops of Bin Laden and al-Zarqawi created distinctions in how they operated their respective organizations. 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 jihadists. Bin Laden raised funds and channeled financial support to Islamist 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 organization emerged in 1988—much earlier compared to ISIL, 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 wealthy and influential Arabs. His prior social status and educational 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.
Ideological Differences: Inward Strategy Of The Islamic State Versus The Outward Approach Of al-Qaeda
ISIL 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 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 ISIL 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 that the Islamic State had a more modern approach than al-Qaeda. This was evident from the extensive use of the Internet and social media to disseminate jihadist propaganda.
The strategic plan of ISIL is also worth mentioning. Despite being under the global al-Qaeda network, Islamic State leaders maintained a position that contradicted the resolve of Bin Laden. Although both organizations wanted to promote unity in the Muslim World, the two had different ideologies that create distinctive approaches.
For the Islamic State, the only way to unite the Muslims across the world is to purge the entire community by eradicating fellow Muslims who are unaligned with the religious and sociopolitical ideologies of the organization.
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.
ISIL eventually pursued its vision. While al-Qaeda developed and implemented an outward-looking strategy that involved destabilizing the West and building a strong relationship with the Muslim communities before creating a caliphate, the emerging Islamic State developed and implemented an inward-looking strategy centered on establishing a state that promotes a strict implementation of Sharia Law.
Nevertheless, unlike al-Qaeda, ISIL focused on expanding its armed capabilities to expand its territories around Iraq and Syria. In June 2014, the organization introduced itself to the world after capturing Mosul, the largest city in Iraq.
Organizational Difference Between ISIL And al-Qaeda: The More Rigid Structure Of The Islamic State
Things have changed during and after the 2003 United States-led 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.
Note that Middle East governments grew insecure and it resulted in a period of sociopolitical vulnerability. ISIL saw this as an opportunity to build its stronghold not only in Iraq and Syria but also in other countries affected by the Arab Spring.
ISIL was aggressively expanding across Iraq and Syria around 2013. The US government pulled out the majority of its forces from Iraq in 2011. This gave ISIL 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 the Islamic State endangered the existence of al-Qaeda. Although it had a brash origin, it successfully evolved into a sophisticated organization capable of introducing and maintaining a semblance of statehood and governance across its territories in Iraq and Syria through bureaucracy. ISIL 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 ISIL 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 organization has maintained authority and self-sufficiency mainly through resource production and sales of oil and water reserves.
Conclusion: Understanding The Difference Between The Islamic State And al-Qaeda In A Nutshell
The similarities between the Islamic State or ISIL and al-Qaeda center primarily on the desire of the two Islamist organizations to advance the doctrinal interest of Islam and the Muslim community. The two organizations also believe in the use of arms and violent strategies to advance their cause or their goals and objectives.
Furthermore, for both ISIL and al-Qaeda, their leaders uphold the need to advance their own brand of Islam across established Muslim communities and the world. Of course, remember that not all Muslims agree with these ideologies.
Nonetheless, the difference between ISIL and al-Qaeda centers primarily on their level of modernity. The Islamic State is more advanced and innovative than al-Qaeda in terms of its ideologies and strategies.
Take note that ISIL wants to advance its own brand of Islam by purging the Muslim community of what the organization 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 Islamic State also follows an outward approach. But the organization does this by fortifying its internal affairs.
From their inward approach to Islamization and based on their sophisticated organizational structure, it is evident that the Islamic State knows that they need to solidify its internal affairs and capabilities to advance its pro-Islam and anti-Western sentiments. Remember that the end game of ISIL is to establish and head a worldwide caliphate.