With ISIS taking responsibility for the downing of the Russian airline, the terrorist attacks in Paris and making specific threats against U.S. cities, and al-Qaida taking responsibility for the attack this week against foreigners in a hotel in Mali, I am once again being asked about the similarities and differences between these two radical Islamic terrorist organizations.
Al-Qaida (“The Base”) is a global Islamist jihadi terrorism group founded by Osama bin Laden around 1989, for the sole purpose of attacking and humiliating the U.S. until all Americans leave Saudi Arabia and Muslim Middle East lands.
Initially it was made up of Arab volunteers who fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s with the help of the CIA. Today it includes many foreigners, including Americans who are training in Syria in their Khorasan Brigades to perpetrate suicide attacks on U.S. soil, U.S. commercial airlines, and U.S. interests worldwide (the hotel in Mali this week).
Among their beliefs:
- They are convinced that a Christian-Jewish alliance is conspiring to destroy Islam.
- As Salafist jihadis, they believe that the killing of noncombatants is religiously sanctioned.
- Al-Qaida opposes man-made laws, and wants to replace them with a strict form of Shariah.
- Al-Qaida regards liberal Muslims, Shias, Sufis and other sects as heretics and attack their mosques and gatherings.
Despite the killing of Bin Laden, the rise of ISIS and recent losses in Syria, al-Qaida is still growing and raising money. It commands a multinational, stateless army (Jabhat al Nusra in Syria) as well as a worldwide network of Islamist, extremist, jihadi cells. The two terrorist groups that claimed responsibility for the hotel bombing in Mali, “Al-Mourabitoun” and “al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb,” are both al-Qaida franchises.
ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Sham), aka IS (Islamic State), aka ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and Levant), aka DAESH (Arabic acronym for ISIL), was founded in 1999 by Jordanian radical Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad, “The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad.” In 2004, al-Zarqawi swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden and the group became known as al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI).
In 2006, AQI merged with several other Iraqi Sunni groups. Their main objective was to establish an Islamic State in Iraq while killing or enslaving all Shiites, Christians and Sunnis who refused to accept Al-Zarqawi’s strict interpretation of Shariah law imposed in areas under AQI control.
Al-Zarqawi was killed in June 2006. His successors, Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, changed the group’s name to The Islamic State in Iraq (ISI).
When they were killed by the U.S. in 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the new leader, expanding the territory controlled by ISI in Northern Iraq.
By 2013 ISI had control of large swathes of Syria, too. Al-Baghdadi again changed the name to The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL). In Arabic, ISIL equals DAESH.
As ISIS continued to capture territory in both Iraq and Syria it used barbaric tactics to terrorize and eliminate whole villages if Shiites, Christians, Kurds and Yazidis. Still under the patronage of al-Qaida, al-Baghdadi was warned several times by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as head of al-Qaida, to stop the depraved brutality.
Al-Baghdadi ignored him. So, In February 2014 al-Zawahiri ordered the disbanding of ISIS. When al-Baghdadi ignored the order, al-Qaida renounced any relations with ISIS.
Free to do as he pleased, al-Baghdadi was now in control of over half of Syria and a third of Iraq.
In June 2014 ISIS, now renamed “Islamic State” (IS), self-proclaimed itself to be a worldwide Caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi its Caliph.
As a “Caliphate,” it claims religious, political and military authority over all Muslims worldwide. The very concept of it being a “Caliphate” and the “Islamic State” has been rejected by Muslim leaders worldwide.
So to summarize:
- Both al-Qaida and ISIS are extreme Islamist terrorist groups.
- Both adhere to the Salafi stream of Islam which wants to take believers back to the “pristine” early days of the faith before it was “polluted and corrupted” by foreign cultures and ideas.
- Both believe that violence and terror are the only ways to achieve their goal of worldwide Sharia and re-establishment of a real Caliphate and Islamic State.
- Al-Qaida’s main goal is attacking the U.S. homeland, and US interests and personnel around the world (First World Trade Center bombing, 9/11, the Cole, Khobar Towers, the Mali hotel, etc.)
- ISIS’ main goal is to establish a large Islamic State in the Middle East by capturing and “ethnically cleansing” non-Sunnis from most of Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, North Africa and Israel (aka: the Levant) and renewing the Caliphate that was abolished by Kamal Ataturk in Turkey in 1924.
- ISIS’ secondary goal is killing all the Shiites within its state and either killing or converting all non-Muslims to their extreme interpretation of Islam.
- Al-Qaida is currently planning a wave of attacks against the U.S. that al-Zawahiri hopes will be greater, in both spectacle and casualty count, than 9/11.
- ISIS has for some time been talking about major attacks in the U.S., using both radicalized home-grown jihadis, like in Paris and Belgium, and Americans and Canadians just back from training and fighting with them in Syria.
With no love lost between them, ISIS and al-Qaida seem to be competing as to who will succeed in attacking the U.S. with greater results.
I agree with several analysts who do not rule out the possibility that they just might put aside their differences and coordinate a series of operations against the “Great Satan” together. We’ll see…
So while there are significant differences between them, the one thing that al-Qaida and ISIS fully agree on is their hatred for the West in general and the Great Satan and Little Satan, the U.S. and Israel in particular.