January 27, 2016

ISIS Vs. Al-Qaeda: What's The Difference And Does It Matter?

On January 27, 2016, Daniel Byman, professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, held a book talk on the differences between ISIS and Al-Qaeda and their policy implications for the United States, hosted by the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) and the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.

While Al-Qaeda primarily targets the United States and Europe as their “far enemy,” Byman pointed out that ISIS prioritizes the creation of an Islamic state in the Muslim world. 

In its fight against the United States and its allies, Al-Qaeda relies on terrorist attacks as a means to either push for their retreat from the Muslim world or at least to “make them show their real face” as in the case of the Iraq war in 2003. Al-Qaeda further provides local jihadist groups with funding, weapons, and training to fight against U.S.-backed regimes and U.S. forces in the region. Its propaganda tries to convince Muslims over time to follow Al-Qaeda’s vision of “global jihad.” 

As a result of its different priorities, ISIS pursues another set of strategies to achieve its objectives. In contrast to Al-Qaeda, its main target is not the “West” but rather Shi’a and other religious minorities as well as “apostate” Sunnis in the Arab world. Seeking to control land, consolidate, and expand by using its army to conquer more territory, it applies methods of conventional warfare when sweeping into new areas or defending existing holdings. Suicide bombings are used as part of these warfare tactics to undermine morale in the security forces. Byman further underlined that the group efficiently promotes a “badass ideology” via social media and promises financial and sexual rewards to attract fighters. 

Against the backdrop of these differences in terms of their main enemies, priorities, strategies, and tactics, Byman concluded that the threats ISIS and Al-Qaeda pose to the United States vary as well. Arguing that Al-Qaeda, a high-skilled but relatively small group, can be effectively contained by U.S. counterterrorism measures, he warned that the large number of ISIS fighters and its state-like organization pose different challenges to U.S. policy. While a potential defeat of ISIS on the ground could result in a destabilizing governance vacuum in the Middle East, he claimed that military losses of ISIS could nonetheless undermine its appeal and ultimately discredit jihadist groups in general. 

The book talk closed with a vibrant Q&A session, touching on possible U.S. foreign policy strategies to address violent extremism in the region.