ISIS and al-Qaeda: Same Ideology, Different Methodology


ISIS and al-Qaeda: Same Ideology, Different Methodology

17 Nov 2016

Our data indicates that ISIS affiliates around the world tend to cause a greater percentage of civilian deaths than al-Qaeda's. This extract from the Global Extremism Monitor quarterly analyses the trend.

This is an extract from the Global Extremism Monitor quarterly. Click here for the full report.

This year, there has been much discussion of which group poses more of a threat: al-Qaeda and its global affiliates or ISIS. Some have suggested that the former poses a greater long-term danger than the latter.

While this subject is still a matter of debate, the Monitor's data for the quarter points to a significant trend concerning ISIS and al-Qaeda targets around the world. Our figures both reflect each group's approach to entrenching itself, and the effect their militancy has in countries where they operate.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) in Syria, the rebranded Jabhat al-Nusra that disassociated itself from the al-Qaeda network of Ayman al-Zawahiri, is part of the group's broader agenda to secure 'hearts and minds' against the backdrop of ISIS' indiscriminate barbarism. Al-Qaeda has done this by ingratiating itself with populations and issuing propaganda presenting itself as 'moderate.'

Our data indicates a tendency by ISIS affiliates around the world to cause a greater percentage of civilian deaths. All of the 80 people killed by ISIS' Afghan affiliate in the quarter were civilians, while for ISIS-linked groups in Bangladesh and Egypt the figures were 92 per cent and 65 per cent respectively.

By comparison, affiliates with links to al-Qaeda, like JFS, have mostly targeted security personnel, rather than civilians. According to our data, all victims of attacks by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) were security forces personnel. For Ansar Dine, an affiliate operating in the Sahel, security forces accounted for 96 per cent of its victims.

Somalia's al-Shabaab, one of the globe's most active al-Qaeda affiliates, has a number far lower than this, around 60 per cent. This nevertheless still indicates a focus on security personnel, as does the group's targeting of military and government facilities in most attacks.

Boko Haram is somewhat of an anomaly, both according to the data, but also in light of its troubled relationship with ISIS' central command and brand. An ISIS propaganda magazine revealed the appointment of a new commander for the group in August. The appointment of Abu Musab al-Barnawi was disputed by former leader Abubakar Shekau, and the group appears to have split. Boko Haram's victims were more evenly divided between civilians and security forces. Around 55 per cent of the deaths it caused were from security forces personnel working to defeat Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin.

Al-Qaeda's leadership has made no secret of its modus operandi. Securing popular support is essential for its global longevity and influence, an objective that cannot be achieved if civilians suffer. ISIS has a far more brutal approach both in practice, and in terms of its rhetoric and propaganda. As a result, it has been responsible for a higher rate of civilian deaths.

Whatever tactics these groups employ, the extreme ideology both adhere to permits their followers to kill those who do not agree with them, even if they are other Muslims. These groups do not tolerate others' views; they disregard opposing, or even minutely differing, beliefs. Just as JFS presents itself as a bulwark against supposedly more dangerous enemies in Syria, al-Qaeda affiliates are aware of the opportunity to solidify their support, as ISIS-linked groups continue to try and break into new territories. As ISIS terrorises civilians, al-Qaeda presents itself as being on their side.

There is a pressing need to understand the dynamics between the two groups and their affiliates. In the short term, this will help better inform counter-extremism efforts. In the long term, attention should be paid to the lessons learnt from fighting al-Qaeda since the 1980s. This will give insight into the tactics ISIS may adopt as it incurs territorial losses. Furthermore, al-Qaeda's 'hearts and minds' strategy could see the jihadi group enduring for years to come. Despite al-Qaeda's staying power, however, our data on government statements shows that the group has not been discussed anywhere near as much as ISIS. Only ISIS appears in a 'top ten' of what governments have been talking about this quarter. ISIS' violence and domination of the news cycle must not lull governments into a false sense of security when it comes to other groups that believe in transnational, violent jihad.

See the Data

Browse the Global Extremism Monitor findings on our interactive data map