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The Successes of the Islamic State in Comparison to Al Qaeda: Near Enemy Focus and Social Media Persuasion

The article below was published in the Spring 2018 edition of Active Measures, IWP’s student journal. 

The Islamic State is currently the most successful jihadist group in the Middle East because, unlike Al Qaeda (AQ) that focuses on anti-Westernism, they present themselves as religious crusaders. This is important because by not expressing an anti-Western goal, the group is opening up its ideological target audience to include Westerners. By not focusing on the far enemy and instead embracing the near enemy, the Islamic State has achieved the ability to recruit a wider and more diverse audience. This is because the demographic interested in the establishment of a religious caliphate is much broader, and more inclusive of Westerners, than an exclusively anti-Western goal. Through the medium of online propaganda, the Islamic State is able to convey its message to a global audience at virtually no cost. Its videos, social media, and blog posts reach untold thousands of fellow travelers or jihad-curious men, women, and children, creating an unprecedented problem for those wishing to stifle its activities. The result is new, often unpredictable, forms of attack, such as the so-called ‘lone wolf’ incidents as witnessed in downtown New York and London in 2017.

In contrast to AQ’s use of social media, by providing transparency of goals through social media, ISIS is able to promote Islamist views around the globe and recruit Westerners into their ranks like never seen before. In contrast, AQ relies upon hidden forums and other secretive online media platforms. On these sites, AQ’s ideological adherents debate issues of concern both to the organization and the broader jihadist movement. The result is, perhaps, a more focused ideological message, but one with limited popular purchase and, consequently, public adherence. Put differently, AQ influences a far more selective audience than ISIS, and the results are evident in the relative exposure of these groups’ activities. It is difficult to think of recent AQ successes, whereas multiple ISIS exploits come to mind, such as the recent vehicle attacks in Barcelona, London, and New York.

Where AQ was known for massive, set-piece attacks such as embassy bombings, the attack on the USS Cole, and the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, ISIS, following its initial successes in Syria and Iraq, diffused its influence into true ‘sleeper’ cells or even individual converts. When an attacker pledges allegiance to ISIS, the world listens. AQ, on the other hand, has been relatively silent—at least as far as global media coverage is concerned. ISIS’ public ‘successes’ (if one may use such a term for these heinous acts) build its influence, foster converts, and propel its organization to spread both its message and influence. Al Qaeda uses minimal, controlled media outlets to discuss goals, and major ideological debates are behind password-protected forums. Hence, the near enemy focus has allowed ISIS to access and exploit the Western social networks and utilize social media tactics to publish their successes more persuasively and to a larger audience than AQ. Ideologically, the broadcasting of their success leads to more success as their message is spread. The Islamic State smartly creates a domino effect as they encourage Western recruits to continue to broadcast the successes of ISIS from a true Westerner’s perspective on the inside, proliferating their recruitment. Overall, this is why the Islamic State has become the leading force in the global jihad.

Short History on Derivation of Jihad

While jihad constitutes only a small part of the teachings of the Quran, it is a largely contested topic amongst Islamic scholars because of the radical interpretation taken by groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. Jihad is literally translated to mean “struggle” and is supposed to symbolize a Muslim’s struggle to remain in the path of God. This concept of struggle is described as “pertain[ing] to the difficulty and complexity of living a good life: struggling against the evil in oneself in order to be virtuous and moral, making a serious effort to do good work and to help reform society.”[1]

When Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina, he wrote about Mecca’s “unbridled materialism, avarice, and corruption, a condition of ignorance and unbelief called jahiliyyah.[2] This is the part of Muhammad’s teachings that terrorist groups use to condemn the West by describing them as being in a state of ignorance and materialism. In this time, Muhammad and his followers were fighting for their lives to reform the community to lead good, religious lives.

It seems that the jahiliyyah at this time was directed towards the corrupt elites, but the broadness of the term allows it to be exploited by groups such as AQ and the Islamic State to call Muslims to a fight against a greater enemy to cleanse the faith of impurities. In conclusion, “Islamic law stipulates that it is a Muslim’s duty to wage war not only against those who attack Muslim territory, but also against polytheists, apostates, and People of the Book who refuse Muslim rule.”[3]  It is easy to see from this explanation how the ancient call to protect the Muslim community can be manipulated to represent the struggle for a global jihad and fight against those who put down Muslims globally.

Short History of ISIS’ Split from AQ

While jihadist groups may seem similarly radical on the surface, they have different nuances in interpretations and priorities that have caused fractures to the global network and created multiple unique jihadist movements. These movements’ ideologies, however, evolved over time and continue to evolve as these groups strategically compete internally for supremacy and externally to accomplish their greater goals.

At the beginning, two separate leaders formed two distinct groups that would become, in modern times, the Islamic State and AQ. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded Jamaat al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (JTWJ) in 1999 as a distant precursor to the Islamic State. AQ was founded by Osama bin Laden in the 1980s during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union.[4]  The two groups did not formally unite until 2004, when Zarqawi finally pledged an oath of baya to Bin Laden and became an official AQ affiliate.

It is important to understand, for this context, that the oath of baya cannot be pledged by an organization but only by the leader. When Zarqawi died in 2006, his branch ties to AQ died with him. His successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, decided to change the name of the organization to reflect their separation from Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and established the Islamic State of Iraq “to increase the group’s local appeal and embody its territorial ambitions.”[5] The name was later changed in 2011 to include the broadened conquests into Syria. Thus, the modern Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) emerged and began its expansion of power and legitimacy in the global jihad.

The division between these two groups has a lot to do with their growing ideological foundations. A place to begin the analysis would be at the surface of how the group prioritizes their goals to the world. The argument in ideologies between the Islamic State and AQ begins at their interpretations of the takfir, or the process of removing a Muslim from the Islamic community because they have deviated in some way. While both groups exploit this concept to justify their jihad against non-Muslims and Muslims alike, the “takfir doctrine as practiced by ISIS is so extreme that even Al-Qaeda theorists have questioned its legitimacy.”[6]

Al Qaeda has vocally spoke out against the Islamic state’s use of brutality to all they deem apostates, even fellow Muslims, on the grounds of the “sanctity of Muslim blood.”[7] They claim that “Al Qaeda considers Shi’a Muslims to be apostates but sees their killing to be too extreme, a waste of resources, and detrimental to the broader jihadist project.”[8] Another reason why Al Qaeda has vocally condemned ISIS is because of their migration into Syria from Iraq. Al Qaeda sanctioned the Islamic State’s actions as the Al Qaeda of Iraq, but when they moved into Syria they were running in contradiction and against another Al Qaeda affiliate. When told to return to Iraq, the group instead severed all ties with Al Qaeda and continued their ideological quest for an Islamic state in the region of both Iraq and Syria, in competition to their former allies.

Andrew Zelin notes that social media exacerbates this competition and that “it is likely that social media, especially Twitter, has amplified mutual hatred, with supporters of each camp refusing to back down rhetorically, likely signaling their steadfastness to their respective leaders.”[9] Overall, the fracture in the groups came down to the prioritization of goals, and the Islamic State emerged as a reaction to ideological ruptures within Al-Qaeda. ISIS’s recruitment techniques and global outreach have exploited tools of propaganda and the Western network of social media in a way that perpetuates their successes and attracts recruits remotely using the internet.

Al Qaeda: Ideology and Strategies

Ideologically, the focus of Al Qaeda has always been the West. Daniel Byman explained in a testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security that although the “ultimate goal of Al Qaeda is to overthrow the corrupt ‘apostate’ regimes in the Middle East and replace them with ‘true’ Islamic governments, Al Qaeda’s primary enemy is the United States, which it sees as the root cause of all the Middle East’s problems.”[10]  Al Qaeda targets the far enemy of the West because they believe that targeting them will make them tired of being involved in the Middle Eastern struggle and, therefore, retreat to leave the region weak and open for them to take over from within. Al Qaeda believes that, in contrast, the struggle internally with the near enemy “is a great mistake, no matter what reasons are there for it [because] the presence of the occupier [American] forces will control the outcome of the battle for the benefit of the international kufr.”[11] Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden considers apostate Muslims and Muslim governments to be on the same level as the Americans in terms of evilness but does not believe in attacking Muslim countries because he values the sanctity of Muslim blood. In his 1996 Declaration of Jihad Against Americans, bin Laden states that “the purpose of this document was to persuade Muslims that the United States is the primary enemy of Muslims, responsible for oppressing them in numerous lands, and that Muslims therefore have a duty to wage jihad against America.”[12] He then ends the document claiming Muslim unity and states that “the division of the world into believers and nonbelievers”[13] is at the heart of their argument to try to recruit people to fight against Muslim oppressors and, in turn, cooperate with the goals of Al Qaeda.

Strategically, Al Qaeda is known for plotting global terrorist attacks. Al-Qaeda and its founders believed in the same goal of cleansing the Muslim territories and targeting “apostate Arab regimes,” but “to achieve these goals, it first had to cut off the head of the snake – the United States and the West.”[14] Their focus on the West includes large terrorist attacks, such as the events orchestrated against United States embassies in Africa in the late 1990s and the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001.  The leaders of AQ believe that Western influence has tarnished and modernized life in the Middle East, and that the people will be cleansed for the coming of the Caliphate. This focus on the West creates an atmosphere of a global terrorism network around members of AQ, instead of a focus on the regional religious end goals of their crusade.

The Islamic State: Ideology and Strategies

Ideologically, the Islamic State shares some similarities with Al Qaeda, which is a trait of being a splinter group of the larger terrorist organization. Instead of focusing on the far enemy overtly in the way that Al Qaeda does, ISIS’s primary target “has not been the United States, but rather ‘apostate’ regimes in the Arab world – namely, the Asad regime in Syria and the Abadi regime in Iraq.”[15] The irony behind this is that the fight against the near enemy is not a foreign concept to high-ranking members of Al Qaeda. Zawahiri’s jihad was primarily focused on the near enemy before he joined with bin Laden, and the Islamic State embraces this old tactic as a reaction to the failures of Al Qaeda to promote a successful global jihad.

In contrast to Al Qaeda, “ISIS’s portrayal of its own goals…seeks to establish an Islamic state that can become the core of a new Caliphate that will eventually strive to dominate the rest of the world.”[16] They have no specific focus on the West as their enemy within their tactics, but instead have focused attention on the regional conquests of Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State is brutal towards anyone that opposes them or their ideologies, including other religious groups within Islam. Therefore, their harsh and consistent violence towards everyone does not single out Westerners as specific targets. Scott Shane and Ben Hubbard describe how the idea that ISIS has anti-western priorities is a common misconception amongst Americans, since the “most notorious [ISIS] video…showed a beheading of the American journalist James Foley.”[17]

This public beheading diverged from the norms of ISIS’s plan and does not prove that ISIS intends violence against Westerners in particular. Instead, one should interpret the widespread violence the organization shows to regional populations and foreigners alike and violence that coincides with their near enemy strategy. They do not, however, have a priority goal of attacking Westerners, yet this “could change overnight, for now it sharply distinguishes ISIS from al-Qaeda.”[18] It is explained that the “Islamic State uses mass executions, public beheadings, rape, and symbolic crucifixion displays to terrorize population into submission and ‘purify’ the community, and at the same time provides basic (if minimal) services: the mix earns them support, or at least acquiescence due to fear, from the population.”[19]   In addition, ISIS has demonstrated an ability of utilizing the Western-created social networks to infiltrate and recruit Westerners into their ranks.

Strategically, the Islamic State is trying to set themselves apart from the failures of Al Qaeda in Iraq and “to demonstrate in Syria that it has somehow ‘learned the lessons’ of AQ’s failures to hold onto power in the Anbar province and its ultimate defeat in the Iraq War.”[20] Instead of trying to cooperate and win over the local organizations within Iraq and Syria the way Al Qaeda does, “ISIS has carefully crafted and implemented a political strategy that calls for the establishment of its own political institutions.”[21] Hence, they are reassuring their goal of an autonomous Islamic State by establishing their own rule of law over the region and either stripping the old rule or ruling via strict coalition. They do this through the process of da’wah meetings that provide outreach to locals and have “sought to recruit children” in “a bid to ensure that their political rule lasts.”[22]

Another strategy ISIS uses is to institute sectarian struggle and chaos to destabilize the region in order to take over the apostate regimes. This is something that Al Qaeda was always vocally against; instead, they focused on the far enemy and relied on them to destabilize the region. Another parallel in their strategies can be drawn in the way the Islamic State proudly proclaims responsibility for attacks and violence. Daniel Byman notes that “Al Qaeda has historically been fairly quiet for a terrorist group when it comes to claiming and boasting of attacks, while the Islamic State often exaggerates its own prowess and role to the point of absurdity.”[23] This quick response to claim responsibility for violence and attacks is perpetuated via social media accounts and official newspapers for the group. By perpetuating successes online, ISIS has demonstrated the ability of utilizing social networks to spread information both locally and, more importantly, abroad.

How Al Qaeda uses Propaganda/Social Media

Al Qaeda’s technique of focusing on the far enemy allows them to have a recruitment strategy that targets the passive believer, not the active traveling believer that ISIS targets. Instead, “AQ propaganda, like Inspire magazine, seeks to recruit individuals passively through indoctrination,”[24] and “perhaps more importantly, Inspire often encourages Westerners who desire to fight in foreign wars to consider the ‘jihadist next door’ and attack their own countries.”[25] By recognizing online jihadism as a contribution to the global jihadist campaign from behind the screen of your computer, they are more focused on indoctrination than traveling to take place in physical jihad.[26] In their strategy, Al Qaeda uses themes such as uncertainty and consumerism found in Western societies to turn people against Western ideals and radicalize them for the cause. While “AQ tells its followers, and those it hopes to recruit, that there will need to be a “violent struggle to remake the world,”[27] they do not nearly employ violence in the way that we see the Islamic State doing. For example, the Tsarnev brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013 were inspired by Al Qaeda members online to plan their attack. While not directly influenced or guided by a single member of the organization to carry out the attack, the brothers were instead inspired by trips to the region and Salafi Islam information read online on semi-private internet forums.[28]

The communication structure online is a three-tiered system. At the top, official sites carry messages to leaders behind password protected firewalls. In the middle, reasonably well-known and recognizable jihadi figures discuss issues of strategy. These forums may also be protected behind password firewalls but are more open to interested recruits than the top tier. At the bottom, chat-rooms and independent websites dominate the scene where non-radicals and radicals alike can engage and fantasize about the jihadi cause.[29] While their structure is closed off behind firewalls with the upper and lower tiers not interacting directly, Al Qaeda is smart occasionally to allow the lower tier to see a personal face of the organization. Leaders recognize that “terrorism doesn’t work if no one is watching, and in the days before YouTube and Twitter, AQ needed Western journalists to bring its message to its target audience” and therefore, decided “on multiple occasions to grant Western journalists safe passage in AQ safe havens and allow them to interview Bin Laden face to face.”[30] They also rely heavily on their Inspire magazine, which featured a dedicated narrative and praise of the brothers in the May 2013 edition.  Overall, the recruitment tactics of Al Qaeda online have not produced many significant cases of real recruitment to jihadism.[31] This is exemplified by the lack of domestic terrorist activity and proves that a majority of the Muslim community has both rejected their ideology and indicates a breakdown in their social media tactics for recruitment.

How the Islamic State uses Propaganda/Social Media

A foundational pillar of the Islamic State’s success is its focus on social media outreach to formulate a controlled global perception that is readily available to people both locally and globally. Instead of closing themselves off to the West, ISIS adopted clearer religious goals with widespread violence to appeal to Muslims outside their immediate sphere of geographical influence: “ISIS’s ‘forcing it down people’s throats’ style is more popular with its foreign fighter contingent, which makes up 50 percent of its fighting force and provides support for its out-of-theater power projection.”[32] This legitimizes them as a radical religious force, as opposed to the overtly anti-Western force like Al Qaeda and opens the organization to recruits from all over the world. This widespread popularity of ISIS combined with their successes in the region of conflict prove that “ISIS is not only talking the talk about establishing an Islamic state, it is walking the walk,” which has “attracted many foreign fighters to its side.”[33] In comparison to Al Qaeda, the Islamic State is very vocal about broadcasting their successes and claiming responsibility for attacks, “exaggerating its own prowess and role to the point of absurdity.”[34] This success breeds more success and positive public relations between the headquarters fighters and people around the world.

The organization utilizes a bottom-up social media strategy that allows both low and upper-level militants to define the group’s goals and image on the internet. While this strategy allows for a variety in the firsthand material on the Islamic State for people to interact with, it also “risks allowing the most foolish and horrific low-level member to define the group.”[35] Houda Abadi describes that the Islamic State has seven themes that are most prevalent in their social media postings, some being “Western humiliation and transgression of the Ummah,” “Military jihad,” and “hypocrisy of Muslim and MENA leaders.”[36] He also describes that the propaganda coming out of the Islamic State and onto social media are “of high production value and share stylistic similarities to Hollywood action movies.”[37] For example, Aqsa Mahmood, a twenty-year-old from Glasgow, left for Syria in November 2013 to join the cause. Aqsa is described as “a prolific social-media user” who “writes a blog in which she advises other young women about the best way to travel to Syria and marry a fighter.”[38] Through her social media blog, readers get a glimpse into her supposed “life” as a wife of ISIS. University educated, Aqsa is a strong force on social media because, to people who are interested in joining the cause, she is credible. Instead of a radical, readers of her blog see a smart, young woman who made the religious decision to join the fighters in Syria, and this personalizes the recruitment narrative. By creating an example out of educated, Western women like Aqsa, “ISIS wages a slick social media campaign offering all the advantages of jihad.”[39] This is a huge source of success for the Islamic State because it is proving that there is not only a global outreach, but that this outreach is not just among jihadi radicals. The parents of Aqsa describe the phenomenon and the implications of their social media outreach by stating, “if our daughter, who had all the chances and freedom in life, could become a bedroom radical then it’s possible for this to happen to any family.”[40] Throughout their social media tactics, their end goal for viewers is ultimately to persuade them to travel to the Caliphate and join them. This is another strategy the Islamic State learned as a reaction to failures that they saw in Al Qaeda management of the jihadi next door.


What sets the Islamic State ahead of Al Qaeda is not only their successes, but the perpetuation of successes on social media. By focusing on the near enemy, the Islamic State has opened their ideology to demographics that may have originally been deterred by a far enemy ideal that Al Qaeda preaches. By perpetuating their goals on social media and through propaganda, the Islamic State is successful in creating an open forum and an inclusive environment for people of all ranks and backgrounds to discuss topics related to their cause. One may come to the final conclusion that the Islamic State emerged as a commentary and reaction to the things that Al Qaeda was considered to be doing incorrectly in terms of a global jihad.

Brooke Kuminski is originally from Spring Lake, New Jersey. She completed her undergraduate degree in International Political Economics at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee and is pursuing a MA in national security and intelligence with a focus in counterterrorism. Brooke works in government relations for Elbit Systems of America.

[1] John Esposito, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) 27-28.

[2] Esposito, 30.

[3] Esposito, 34.

[4] Aaron Y. Zelin, “The War between ISIS and Al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement,”Research Notes (2015): 2.

[5] Zachary Laub, “Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria,”Council on Foreign Relations (2014): 2.

[6] Davis S. Sorenson, “Priming Strategic Communications: Countering the Appeal of ISIS,” Parameters 44(2014): 30.

[7] Zelin, 3.

[8] Daniel Byman, “Terrorism in Africa: The Imminent Threat to the Unites States,” Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence of the House Committee on Homeland Security (2015): 4.

[9] Zelin, 5.

[10] Byman, 4.

[11] Fawaz A. Gerges,The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 144.

[12] Briand Bonhomme and Cathleen Boivin, “Osama bin Laden’s Declaration of Jihad Against Americans, Milestone Documents in World History: Exploring Primary Sources That Shaped the World (2010): 4.

[13] Bonhomme and Boivin, 6.

[14] Zelin, 2.

[15] Byman, 4.

[16] Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “The Dawn of the Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Sham,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 16(2014): 11.

[17] Scott Shane and Ben Hubbard, “ISIS Displaying a Deft Command of Varied Media,” The New York Times, 30 Aug 2014: 1.

[18] Shane and Hubbard, 1.

[19] Byman, 6.

[20] Al-Tamimi, 8.

[21] Al-Tamimi, 8.

[22] Al-Tamimi, 10.

[23] Byman, 7.

[24] Therese Postel, “The Young and the Normless: Al Qaeda’s Ideological Recruitment of Western Extremists,” Connections: The Quarterly Journal 12 (2013): 101.

[25] Postel, 115.

[26] Brian Michael Jenkins, “Is Al Qaeda’s Internet Strategy Working?” Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence of the House Committee on Homeland Security (2011): 2.

[27] Postel, 108.

[28] Postel, 107.

[29] Jenkins, 1.

[30] Byman, 5.

[31] Postel, 9.

[32] Zelin, 6.

[33] Zelin, 7.

[34] Byman, 7.

[35] Byman, 8.

[36] Houda Abadi, “ISIS Media Strategies: The Role of Our Community Leaders,” The Carter Center (2013): 1.

[37] Abadi, 1.

[38] Harriet Sherwood, Sandra Laville, Kim Willsher, Ben Knight, Maddy French, and Lauren Gambino, “Schoolgirl Jihadis: The Female Islamists Leaving Home to Join ISIS Fighters,” The Guardian (2014): 7.

[39] Sorenson, 26.

[40] Sherwood, 8.