ISIS? Al Qaeda? How They Differ And Why It Matters

 ISIS  Al Qaeda

 By: Jim Sharp
First things first; and I want to make myself very clear on this point: ISIS and Al Qaeda (as well as all their off-shoots and affiliate groups) are lethal. All have the capability to carry out attacks across the globe, and they will continue to do so as long as they have the means available to them. They will never voluntarily give up on their idea of jihad, and there is no economic, diplomatic or humanitarian leverage that can be exerted to make them do so.

There has been a lot of recent discussion about whether the two groups would ever consolidate their efforts, and what the results of that consolidation might look like for the rest of the world. Might ISIS and Al Qaeda join forces? It’s possible, but not probable. Don’t get me wrong – they already support each other from the perspective of general ideology. If the Al Qaeda leadership weren’t so widely separated physically (to prevent a drone strike or raid from taking out more than one of them at a time), they would be chest-bumping each other every time an ISIS-inspired attack succeeds.

Even with the recent edict from Hamza Bin Laden (one of Usama bin Laden’s sons seen by many counterterrorism authorities as being groomed to be the new global figurehead of Al Qaeda; someone able to rally the troops back to a banner whose leadership continues to be pared down) urging all jihadists to unite, the possibility of the two groups joining forces operationally, aligning their leadership, deciding on common goals and tactics, or agreeing jointly on targets is (again) possible, but not likely.

First, the more people you have in leadership positions, the harder it becomes to reach a decision. In-fighting and internal power struggles would not help either group, and they know that just as well as we do. Second, it’s hard to imagine the leadership of one group voluntarily subordinating itself to the leadership of the other.

Do it now

Third, and perhaps more importantly, there is an accidental but effective division of labor. ISIS – once infamously characterized by President Obama as the “JV team,” is probably better characterized as short-attention-span terrorism. Their operational model is based around immediacy. If they cared about such things, you could almost imagine the phrase, “do it now,” tacked on the wall of whatever bombed-out building ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi is using as a headquarters/hideout.

Do it now – before the young, recently-radicalized new recruit to terror has had a chance to think about it and change his or her mind. Their recruiting efforts - which will be discussed in detail later - target those lone, disillusioned, frustrated, disenfranchised (and often recently converted to Islam) individuals seeking a “right now” solution to their problems. Do it now; while your rage and frustration are still powerful enough to override your common sense. Do it now; before you brag about your intentions to a friend who either reports your plans to the authorities or tries to talk you out of it.

Do it now – with weapons of opportunity. Use what you have. If you don’t have a bomb, use a gun. If you don’t have a gun, use a knife. Why make a truck bomb when the truck itself can be your weapon? Don’t go out and buy or steal weapons or materials; you’ll only draw attention to yourself and get caught.

Do it now – attack targets of opportunity. Any crowd will do: kids on a school playground, people at a crowded bus stop, fans waiting in line (outside the “secured” areas) to enter a sports stadium -- take your pick.

Regardless of what you hear from members of the media and many of our own elected officials, the goal of ISIS is not to incite fear or apprehension. They don’t really care whether or not they scare or “terrorize” us, as long as they cause casualties. Fear comes with the territory; it’s a by-product of their particular brand of terror. We’ve seen it too many times to believe otherwise … in the minds of these terrorists, everyone is a legitimate target.

And we are not just targets in a physical sense. Not every ISIS “soldier” carries a gun, and ISIS does not recruit potential terrorists solely for the purposes of fighting on the ground in ISIS-controlled areas or committing a terrorist atrocity in his or her homeland. Many of the recruits traveling to ISIS-controlled territory are Westerners. Young, tech-savvy and well educated, these people have grown up with digital technology the way my generation grew up with CHiPs, Space Invaders and 8-track tapes.

We’re the targets

Their intention is to become part of ISIS’s Cyber-Caliphate; the self-proclaimed global Islamic state that is not defined by geographical borders, but by the expansive world-wide reach of digital media. No matter where on the planet you are, if you have a device that can connect to the Internet, this cyber-caliphate can communicate with you and you with them. We’re not talking just about social media, either. ISIS’s Cyber-Caliphate is believed responsible for numerous hack-attacks against American and Western entities.

In the United States, much has been made about the influx (current and planned) of refugees from war-ravaged Syria, an ISIS stronghold and the location of their self-proclaimed capitol city, Raqqa. The feeling among many people is, with no reliable method of conducting any real background checks, current or potential terrorists might enter the country under the cover of being afforded asylum as a refugee. Might that happen? Yes, it might, but, there might also be a young man already in the United States, staring right now at a computer screen in his small apartment watching a slickly-produced and professionally edited ISIS propaganda video or reading the latest issue of Inspire (Al Qaeda’s propaganda e-publication), and seeing in those images and words a solution to all the perceived wrongs and slights that have befallen him.

Why has this propaganda proven so lethally effective? Because the people producing it are, or at least were, part of the target audience. That target audience is young. They’re Western. Their American Dream has not worked out the way they anticipated, and in all this propaganda they see all the “faults” and “wrongs” and “prejudices” of a system they perceive as working against them. The fact that this same system has allowed thousands of people just like them – from similar or even identical backgrounds and circumstances --- to succeed and prosper is never mentioned. But since you cannot attack a system, go ahead and attack the people who are part of that system. Anybody will suffice. Do it now.

A case study

An ideal case study is Junaid Hussain. He grew up in Birmingham, England in a Pakistani family that had immigrated to Great Britain. He was jailed in the United Kingdom in 2012 for hacking into British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Gmail account, but, upon his release from prison (and while under investigation for another offense) he fled in 2013 to ISIS-controlled Syria. There, he became the driving force behind the cyber-caliphate. He is thought to have been responsible for hacking the Twitter feeds of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), Newsweek and others, as well as the hacking and defacing of several prominent French websites during the 2015 terror attacks in that country.

Before his death in August of 2015 (courtesy of a drone strike), he was also believed to have been in close contact with one of the terrorists who attempted to attack the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas in May of that year. An example of the cyber-caliphate’s ability to connect with young people can be found in a tweet attributed to Hussain: “You can sit at home and play Call of Duty, or you can come here and respond to the real call of duty.”

Al Qaeda’s ‘deeper’ game

And if ISIS represents the do-it-now facet of terror, Al Qaeda might best be characterized as career counselors for jihadists. What? You haven’t heard much about Al Qaeda recently? That’s understandable, and perhaps intentional as well. It’s understandable because attacks linked to ISIS are more frequent, plus, ISIS’s public relations team works overtime to make sure they stay in the public eye.

Publicity serves the ISIS cause. It may be intentional, because, while ISIS seeks publicity, Al Qaeda works behind the scenes. Every successful ISIS attack, and even the unsuccessful ISIS attacks, serves Al Qaeda’s purposes by diverting our attention and our resources. That’s not to say Al Qaeda is somehow directing ISIS activities or manipulating them for their own purposes, but that is the way it’s working out.

Al Qaeda plays a deeper game. They think and plan in the long term. The 9/11 terror attacks, for example, were initially conceived as early as 1996, with the Islamist jihadists who committed the attacks not entering the United States until early in 2000.

Even their propaganda is different. While ISIS exhorts its supporters to act immediately, Al Qaeda will guide a potential terrorist through all the necessary steps for planning and committing an attack. Inspire magazine, published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), will walk you through the steps necessary to build a pressure-cooker bomb. They’ll usher a potential jihadist through the intricacies of assassination, creating a false identity or remaining anonymous on line. They are seeking committed jihadists – people with the mindset and the means to stay with a plan for weeks, months -- or even years, and their potential targets are – in their eyes – worth the wait. Al Qaeda still seeks the high-profile targets they have always sought: iconic buildings, military facilities or personnel, elements of critical infrastructure, government facilities, mass casualty scenarios, high-profile individuals, etc., etc., etc.

Knowing that their operatives are engaged for extended periods of time in activities for which our intelligence-gathering organizations look, publicity is not in their best interest. They do their best to keep their plans, their communications, their funding and procurement and locations – all the elements that comprise the terrorist “chatter” we hear about so often – off our radar. And although it is unintentional, that is why every ISIS attack or plot serves Al Qaeda. Every financial, law enforcement, intelligence or military resource we commit to the fight against ISIS is that much less we have to commit to fighting Al Qaeda – and Al Qaeda knows it. Al Qaeda wants the spotlight, but not until they are ready to bask in its glow, and, so, they are more than pleased to see us shine more and more light on the (very real) threat posed by ISIS.


What difference does it make, right? Isn’t terrorism, well, terrorism, regardless of the organization responsible? To a point, that’s true – especially if you are the one being attacked or targeted. At the time of the explosion and as they were running for cover, the victims of the September, 2016 improvised explosive device (IED) terror attacks in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood probably could not have cared less about who constructed and planted the device, or with which group (if any) they were affiliated.

The same could certainly be said for the victims of the jihadist knife attack that occurred that same weekend at a mall in Minnesota. If a man wielding a knife has already injured several people, and is now turning his attention to you, his motivation is not as important in the moment as your survival.

Where it makes a difference is in interdiction. By discovering the motivations, behavioral patterns, support mechanisms and operational methodologies currently in play, we know what to start looking for to prevent a repeat performance. When we determine the factors that isolate, motivate, and ultimately animate a terrorist, we take one more step towards their ultimate defeat.

[Editor’s note: For a different take on the linking of jihadi groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, read the Homeland Security Today report, Jihadi Groups Continue to Form an Unholy Alliance, by Godfrey Garner and Pat McGlynn]

Jim Sharp is vice president and chief training officer at Aegis Emergency Management with a 30-year career in emergency response and emergency management professions. An experienced Incident Commander and Emergency Operations Center Manager, he is also one of fewer than 400 FEMA-certified Master Professional Continuity Practitioners in the country. Prior to starting his own firm in 2010, he spent the previous 10 years with an Illinois jurisdiction as their Emergency Management Agency's Field Training Officer, Public Information Officer and, eventually, Assistant/Acting Coordinator. He has trained literally thousands of people – civilians and first responders -- on topics that include the National Incident Management System, continuity of operations, CERT, pandemic preparedness incident command and many more.