Al- Qaeda & Islamic State: A critical comparison of the use of violence they exert

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Intelligence and Security, Middle East, Migration, Terrorism, Organized Crime & Security

By Evdoxia Papastefanidi, International Relations Expert


“By ‘violent extremism’ we do not just mean the terrorists who are killing innocent people. We also mean the ideologies, the infrastructure of extremism, the propagandists, the recruiters, the funders who radicalize and recruit or incite people to violence” (Obama, 2015). This is what President Barack Obama defines as violent extremism: the ideology, the aims, the method, the strategy, the whole background behind the actual action. The understanding of the term and how the terrorist organizations work, in terms of the use of violence, is crucial precondition in order to establish effective counterterrorism measures. Al- Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS), a traditional and a new opponent of the West and the broader region in conflict, have been set as the top priority issue in the global counterterrorism agenda. While there is a discourse on the consequences of their acts such as the spread of fear or propaganda, the massive killings, the humiliation of human dignity and violation of every fundamental human right, there is a common confusion on identifying their main differences. Undoubtedly though, AQ, IS and a plethora of Islamist terrorist groups are the outcome of continuous marginalization tactic, followed by regional rulers and policy makers, of specific social and religious groups. This article will analyze the aims, the targets, the means, the tactics and the strategy that these two organizations espouse under the general framework of terrorism violence while will critically compare the groups’ approaches to the use of violence they pursue.

Aims and Targets

Because of their past affiliation we can say that their aim is common: the establishment of an Islamic state which would be governed under the Sharia Law, based on the Prophet’s word and without any western, or other, influence. Institutionalized by the principles of Islamic fundamentalism, inspired by Sunni Wahhabism; characteristics which widely considered by various extremist groups to be the only functional for a well- governed Islamic state to be based on. This aim is very common within terrorist organizations despite their possible differences, as far as the means of the violence they use are concerned. M.R.Habeck (2008) has categorized all these organizations to follow a “grand strategy” aiming to establish a Caliphate without taking into account the different means to this goal. However, there is an essential difference as regards the state composition per se.

The vision of Osama Bin Laden for a “Pan- Islamic” and not for a “Pan- Arabic” State (Gunaratna, 2002), a state based on the common religion, supporting a multinational entity, without national or sectarian discrimination, was not welcomed by Zarqawi who differentiated his vision. As a leader of AQ in Iraq (AQI), Zarqawi shared his vision with the central leadership, disagreed though to the basic enemy: the Shia population who were represented to the greatest level by the regional national governments such as in Iraq and the Alawite sect in Syria. For these reasons, Zarqawi was exerting violence on Shia Muslims, a tactic strongly condemned by AQ (US House of permanent select committee on Intelligence, 2006). Even after the pressure he accepted by the AQ leadership, he seemed willing to change some of his tactics; however it was uncertain what would happen if Zarqawi resign of his post or if the AQI leadership would change (Ibid). After the split between those two terrorist organizations and the creation of IS, the above mentioned hypothesis became a fact. For the new and well-structured terrorist organization the aim remained the same, the establishment of a regional Caliphate, however with different priorities on their agenda.

For AQ, the goal was clear; an Islamic state which will contain the Muslim population without taking into account the nationality, the doctrines and the sect. The main enemy is the West and whoever its ally is, or supports its policies. On the one hand the short term goal is to topple the secular governments which are strong allies to the US as they are unable to do or unwilling to support the idea of the creation of an Islamic state.  On the other hand, the withdrawal of the American troops from the “holy land of Saudi Arabia” (Gunaratna, 2002). After the total weakening of the Western influence they will be able to create a Caliphate from Spain to Indonesia (US House of permanent select committee on Intelligence, 2006).

For the IS, the long term goal remains the same compared to the AQ’s one, however, with different enemy. The IS considers the Shia Muslims the greatest enemy and along with them, everyone opposed to their ideas and vision is considered “unbeliever” thus “justifiable targets of violence” (Holbrook, 2015, p.98). In addition, setting as a short term goal the coercion or elimination of every different idea at the same time, it actualizes a part of its long term goal; IS has already the control of some parts of its future Caliphate willing to implement a more stable and bigger regional Caliphate. An effective way of identifying and prioritize the group’s enemies is clearly explained at the “Method of Mohammad” where we can come up with three categories of potential enemies: “near-far” enemy, “greater- lesser unbeliever” and “apostates- unbelievers” (Habeck, 2008, pp.70-71). It is clear that there is a deviation between the two terrorist organizations since AQ can be categorized in the second category, and be considered as greater unbeliever the US and their allies and the IS in the third category considers Shia, Alawites and in general all non- Sunni Muslims as apostates.

The use of terrorist violence

Violence is the main characteristic of each and every terrorist organization globally. It could be argued that violence is the necessary condition, the driving force and, indeed, the most efficient tool to recruit followers for most of these terrorist groups. In this case, the overuse of violence implied by the IS was the main cause of split of AQ (Turner, 2015). Both of the groups have used a plethora of tactics but there are some specific ones that are most preferable for different reasons.

Suicide attacks

Having perpetrating more than 350 attacks of suicide terrorism by AQ and its affiliates (GTD- Global terrorism database), the tactic of suicide attacks is considered the most preferable and efficient by the terrorist organization. Even if it is initiated by this group as a tactic, due to its extensive use, AQ has managed to influence both other terrorist organizations and its affiliates to employ the same tactic (Schweitzer, 2006). Despite the fact that this tactic was largely used by Ayman Al Zawahiri’s terrorist organization called al- Jihad, Abdullah Azzam, the mentor of Osama Bin Laden, is considered as the abettor of suicide terrorism and an inspiration to the next young generation of suicide bombers (Moghadam, 2009). Moreover, Martyrdom- to kill or to be killed in the name of Allah- consists of the highest honor for a suicide bomber and for the terrorist organization which prepares the perpetrator (Gunaratna, 2003). A suicide attack succeeds in two different goals. Firstly, and most importantly, is the damaging of properties, killing and injuring individuals (Schweitzer, 2006). Secondly is the spread of fear, panic and shock to the audience (ibid). This method is considered extremely essential and efficient in which Al-Qaeda dedicates time and recourses both to recruit volunteers and to further prepare and support them psychologically before each suicide attack is committed  (ibid).

Inspired by AQ as a past affiliated group, IS has espoused the tactic of suicide attacks as the ultimate means to spread fear, intimidate, coerce and provoke international reaction. Well- known by the public due to their regional chaos they cause by mostly acting in Syria and Iraq, IS has managed to expand its influence and action abroad. The group has established a significant global network which enables it to both inspire and coordinate suicide attacks in regions outside its periphery (Yourish et al, 2016). Specifically, the Russian plane attack in Egypt and the Paris attacks indicate the group’s ability to perpetrate attacks outside the Iraqi and Syrian soil, causing significant loses and global turmoil. According to Gambhir (Gambhir in Yourish et al, 2016) the group is based on three pillars in order to commit terrorist attacks: firstly, the regional factor, the inciting regional conflict where IS itself plots and perpetrates the attack. Secondly, the well- established relation that the group has developed with other jihadist groups that have the potential of carrying out attacks in the MENA region; and thirdly is the aspect of inspiring or supporting group’s individual sympathizers to commit such attacks in the West. Therefore, it seems that in 2015, IS expanded not only in terms of territory but also in terms of influence. Its territorial expansion has a dual meaning: On the one hand, is the actual territory that the group has occupied and controlled. On the other hand, it is clear that the more territory it controls, the more powerful it becomes in the eyes of sympathizers. Thus, it gains further support by other jihadi groups. It has actually managed to spread its influence within the declared Caliphate and beyond giving the sense of ambiguity on what extent IS itself commits the attacks or other groups/individuals willing to imitate IS in terms of use of violence.

Non-Conventional Weapons

A crucial aspect, in terms of use of violence, is IS’s willingness to transform its traditional means into even more dreadful. In terms of violence, fear and disorder there is nothing more alarming than the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and Nuclear Weapons (NW). IS has warned about a future terrorist attack by using chemical or radiological materials on the European soil (European Parliament, 2015). A future attack has been suggested to be an improvised explosive device containing WMD materials (ibid). This scenario is highly likely to take place if we take into account that IS has seized enough radioactive material to develop its own weapon due to its continuing expansion and control over hospitals and governmental facilities (Withnall, 2015). The threat is severe enough to attract the attention of NATO and intelligence services such as the Australian and Indian which maintain an ambiguity posture on the group’s radioactive and biological weapons stockpile (ibid). Such an attack, however, will not be the first one for the group as it has already used mustard gas in Iraq against Kurdish forces; even though that fact has widely been questioned (Entous, 2015). IS has obtained the agent either by the Assad regime in Damascus peripheral chemical weapons stockpiles or by Saddam Hussein’s remaining stockpiles in Iraq which haven’t been destroyed (ibid). As it is easy to be manufactured, mustard gas is a good start for a state or non-state actor to develop a chemical capacity of warfare (Dearden, 2015). Therefore, there is significant evidence of the existing chemical-type activity in Iraq and a potential same kind of attack in the West if we consider one essential fact:  IS’s willingness to cause significant loss and damage to the West, even more severe than AQ has caused in the past. In terms of indiscriminate use of violence combining with spread of fear and propaganda, IS has nothing to lose by employing chemical or biological weapons. As the evidence indicate, the more damage they cause the more fighters they recruit. The main counter arguments emerges are how IS prioritizes its enemies; to what extent IS is actually willing to employ such a weapon against its ‘far enemy’ rather that its ‘close enemy’; what about the backlash of its attack and why not to prefer a weaker enemy (Kurdish) to retest and improve its WMD potential?

On the other hand, AQ maintains a chemical weapons capacity for totally different reasons. In an interview Osama Bin Laden gave after 9/11 attacks strongly supports the group’s right of defense itself by deter a potential American WMD of Nuclear attack (Dawn, 2001). Based on an argument undertaken by several nuclear states, AQ leadership claimed that has acquired nuclear or chemical capability in order to protect itself for its main enemy. Furthermore, the Encyclopedia of Jihad provides the reader with knowledge on how to construct chemical and biological weapons (Salama and Hansel, 2007). What is easily understood is that WMD capacity has a specific meaning and rationale for AQ even though either the group itself or its affiliates have never actually attacked by these means. Until today though, AQ remains its commitment to obtain chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) agents and “actively pursued the materials required to weaponize such agents” (ibid).


In the literature available about IS, the term: indiscriminate violence is always present and indeed, the means used regarding terrorism violence indicate the brutality of the IS actions. The terrorist organization is well-known to the global community on taking hostages, beheading them and recording the action in order to spread fear to the audience watching. Beheading hostages, as a tactic used by the IS, originates from the word of the Prophet and it seems that is followed strictly by the extremists to implement His words (Furnish, 2005):

Sura 47:3. “When you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely; then bind the prisoners tightly.”

Furthermore, decapitation as a tactic is still used by some states such as at the Wahhabi Saudi Arabia where the Kingdom is governed based on a strict interpretation of the Qur’an; and in general the sword as a symbol is used on many states’ flags and it is also used by other terrorist organizations as a traditional and most efficient means of jihad (Jones, 2005). Aside from this favorable tactic, other tactics frequently used by IS torture, crucifixion, group assassinations, tactics which usually take place on public places.

Combination of state and non- state characteristics

Although IS has adopted tactics of indiscriminate violence, it has managed the establishment of an actual state, governed by the Sharia law; a common and ideal target for many terrorist organizations as has already been mentioned. In this state, IS has accomplished to function positively and effectively as regards to governance, acquiring, in some cases, support from the public even though in some cases they are opposed to the group’s violent actions (Weiss and Hasan, 2015). Specifically in the case of IS it is essential to take into account that it acts more like a state actor rather than an extremist organization not only because it has an effective domestic administration but also because it acquires military equipment such as guns and tanks, it controls territories and it recruits and trains fighters as they are soldiers more than they are terrorists (Lister, 2014).

According to D. Holbrook (2015), Zawahiri emphasizes more the ideological aspect as a tactic to persuade, attract, control and act rather than the military aspect due to the lack of military equipment and organization skills compared those of IS. However, before we make any conclusions, we have to take into account the closeness and success between the AQ and Al Nusra affiliation. Al Nusra at the moment has north Syrian territories under its control and an efficiently organized domestic governance system such as IS does too. Moreover, according to  Cafarella (2014), Al Nusra is very close to create a “proto- state” with AQ to have control of that territory; besides, a Caliphate is a long term goal for AQ, but a “regional Islamic Emirate in Syria” could have been a beneficial short term goal. This achievement could also motivate other affiliated with Al Qaeda groups to act similarly for the implementation of the terrorist organization’s long term goal (ibid).  We always have to keep in mind that the leadership of a terrorist organization gives an oath (bayah) to Al Zawahiri to show loyalty and commitment (Stern and Berger, 2015). Furthermore, Cafarella (2014) highlights the close collaboration between Al Jawlani and Al Zawahiri and she characterizes it as a successful affiliation contrary to other affiliations that have failed in the past. A good example of the successful in-between relationship of the two leaders is the mediating role that Al Zawahiri played when the IS claimed its affiliation with Al Nusra; he supported and protected its affiliation by condemning Abu Bakr’s initiative to approach Al Nusra and called for abolition of the IS leadership (Hosken, 2015, p.164).

As far as the use of violence is concerned, Al Nusra uses common tactics with AQ: suicide attacks or car, truck and motorcycle bombs detonating remotely, and furthermore, they have acquired limited military equipment such as arms, rockets and guns (Inside ISIS Documentary, 2014). If the relationship between those two is actually so close as it seems to be, then AQ indeed controls territory in the region and acts more like a state actor like IS does, with the main difference that AQ does so indirectly while IS directly.

The strategy

In order to achieve their aims, terrorist use plenty of strategies, in most cases a combination of them with multiple targets. Kydd and Walter (2006) have highlighted the five strategies they consider the most important on which this part of the article is based on: intimidation, provocation, attrition, outbidding and spoiling. Kydd and Walter (2006) argue that a good example of attrition, as a main strategy, is well used by Al Qaeda towards the US and its allies. The strategy is also pursued by the IS combined with intimidation towards the Shia community when gradually wearing down the Shia sect as it is considered the main enemy and further targeting to intimidate them through the tactic of beheading (Stern and Berger, 2005).

Moreover, the IS has adopted the strategies of intimidation, towards the global community by wide use of the mass media to spread fear, and also the strategy of provocation towards the great powers to attract them in the region and cause a military clash (Hosken, 2015). This can also be considered AQ’s approach as well, by using a provocative rhetoric towards the West to drag them into a military intervention in the region. Furthermore, the IS also uses the strategy of intimidation towards the Sunni Muslims mainly for punishment in public places with lashings, hand lopping and dismemberments; a strategy used by state actors as well (Lister, 2014). Both the IS and Al- Nusra (as it is the offshoot of AQ in Syria) use the strategy of attrition towards the common enemy on the battlefield “by targeting military and government officials, reinforced by assassinations”, a strategy targeting to demoralize the opponent (ibid) and also has been seemed a very effective one especially in Iraq and the Iraqi troops, on which the impact of attrition strategy is high and they fail to face and fight the IS fighters (Cockburn, 2015).

Furthermore, it could be argued that a common strategy of impression is pursed by both sides towards the potential followers. AQ and the IS use propaganda as a means to impress and recruit foreign fighters and both sides also use extreme violence to impress and gain more affiliates around the globe. Stern and Berger (2015, p.178) are referred to a “battle of supremacy” and it is quite clear that the two sides fighting for the prestige.


Strategy US and its allies Shia Global Community Great Powers Sunni Common Enemy Potential Followers
Attrition Al Qaeda Both
Intimidation ISIS ISIS ISIS
Provocation ISIS Both
Impression Both

Table 1. Summary of the strategy and targets of Al Qaeda and IS, (Author, 2016).

To conclude, the civil war in Syria, isolation of specific sects as a main strategy of past governments in Iraq, fragile states such as Yemen and Libya, are breeding ground for the flourishing of terrorist groups. All these different sides on the battlefield are fighting for one and common target: the power and dominance of the region after the overthrow of the existing “moderate” governments. AQ and IS, representing the old and the new trend of terrorist violence respectively, seem to play a key role to the new status quo. As Jenkins (2006) puts it, the main difference between the two sides, in terms of terrorist violence, is that AQ has a more moderate approach, which can be considered as the old one, where “terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead” whereas IS represents the new trend of terrorist violence, where “”terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead”.


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