February 20, 2015

Islamic State and al-Qaeda: Two extremisms, one face

“They deserved to die! How do you silence someone who repeatedly insults you, without any respect?” a young Somalian sharia student asked me the morning after the Charlie Hebdo attack. The terrorist attack in Paris, in which 12 people lost their lives, was the third in a series of recent attacks paralysing the world’s metropolises and causing turmoil among the international public.

“They deserved to die! How do you silence someone who repeatedly insults you, without any respect?” a young Somalian sharia student asked me the morning after the Charlie Hebdo attack. The terrorist attack in Paris, in which 12 people lost their lives, was the third in a series of recent attacks paralysing the world’s metropolises and causing turmoil among the international public.
Meanwhile, far from major cities, the terrorist group Islamic State (IS) is executing hostages.1 Their video messages of these actions have become more and more dramatic and controversial. The execution of several Americans, two Japanese citizens and a Jordanian pilot has received a lot of media coverage. The last of these was noteworthy for its extreme brutality, which provoked an decisive response from Jordan, which quickly increased its contribution to airstrikes against IS.
Failed integration, the ongoing civil war in Syria, the weak central government in Iraq, the rise of radical ideas among Muslims and the discrepancies between Islamic and Western values are thought to be the causes of this terror. These aspects definitely play a part, but it should not be forgotten that there is fierce competition for the leading position in global jihadism. Two extremist groups—al-Qaeda and IS—are trying to guide the course of extreme Islam in the world.
IS and al-Qaeda have different approaches to the holy war. Their primary goals, types of operation and scope of actions do not coincide. Nevertheless, the two organisations evoke similar responses from the general public and those inclining towards extremism. The opening words of this article seem to confirm this.
Both al-Qaeda and IS try to act in a way that evokes as much outrage as possible in society and then use it to divide communities—the former in the West and the latter mostly in Iraq and Syria. By polarising society, they hope to gain new supporters and this means that both groupings try to use the disillusionment and burnout of individuals to their advantage.
IS has laid the foundations for the rise of the so-called freelance terrorists. These are mainly young men from third countries who witness inequity around them and have suffered from injustice. Many of them have only recently discovered Islam. Technological developments have made communication between these people and the terrorist organisations easier. Internet propaganda has in turn become an important recruiting tool for the extremists.


After the 9/11 attacks in the USA, Islamist terrorism and al-Qaeda became synonymous for many people, along with the name of Osama bin Laden. Before 2001, al-Qaeda grew in Afghanistan with the support of the Taliban. Step-by-step, al-Qaeda became an umbrella organisation with tens of thousands of members fighting in conflict areas all over the world.
The allied invasion of Afghanistan and the later killing of bin Laden succeeded in paralysing al-Qaeda as a global organisation. Because of this, since the middle of the last decade, al-Qaeda’s former centralised leadership has been replaced with dispersed and loosely connected groups. The task of the central preachers and authorities is to create a single narrative about the idea of global jihad while local groups do the fighting.2
The map shows the affiliates subordinate to the al-Qaeda central authorities in the Middle East. AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), based in Yemen, claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in France. In addition to these four organisations, al-Qaeda has ties to numerous smaller groups in Africa and Asia.3
Participation in regional conflicts is al-Qaeda’s attempt to ensure sufficient support. In turn, the local organisations use al-Qaeda’s funds and reputation to recruit new members. Attacks in Western countries, such as that on Charlie Hebdo, continue to be a way for al-Qaeda to demonstrate its capability and global scope.

Islamic State

AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) was al-Qaeda’s most successful regional branch, and later became the most significant predecessor of IS, which now controls extensive territory in Syria and Iraq. The separation into two organisations took place at the beginning of last year when al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, publicly disavowed the actions of IS.
The brutality of IS is considered one of the reasons for the separation. Al-Qaeda’s central authorities repeatedly called on IS to reduce the violence directed at civilians. However, IS saw extreme violence as a way to strengthen its position and eradicate its enemies. In addition, IS was very successful at the local level. By that time, the organisation had become sufficiently independent to carry out various operations in Syria and Iraq. In the summer of 2013 alone they set free more than 500 former al-Qaeda members from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
At the beginning of June they seized Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. Against the backdrop of this conquest, they announced an Islamic caliphate, reaching across the border between Syria and Iraq. The IS advance had been halted by the end of 2014 by allied airstrikes, the reorganisation of the Iraqi army and the efforts of the Kurdish Peshmerga. IS still controls several local key areas, but its offensive has turned into defence, albeit accompanied by raids and surprise attacks in different regions of Iraq. The following map illustrates its activity, which aims to spread the fighting and cause battle stress within the Iraqi army. Compared to earlier, the territories under IS control have decreased significantly.
In order to gain wider attention in the international community and increase self-confidence, IS still tries to portray itself as expanding. “The march of the jihadists will continue until they reach Rome,” said Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, the leader of IS.4 In the same announcement IS also declared new “provinces” in various Arab countries. Al-Bagdadi recognised as part of his “caliphate” extremist groups in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Libya and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, along with the territories they control.
In the latter two there are constant clashes in which IS supporters participate. At the end of January alone, 45 people were killed in attacks 400 kilometres north of Sharm el-Sheikh. These actions serve the interests of IS, which wants to maintain its caliphate and at least appear to expand at a time when it is losing control of its seized territories in Iraq.
Forced onto the defensive, IS has lost a part of its image, which centres around its invincibility on the battleground. Surprise attacks in Iraqi cities, announcing provinces and the brutal treatment of hostages are all attempts to sustain this blood-soaked, forceful image.

Dividing society

“Dragging the masses into battle requires more actions which will inflame opposition and which will make the people enter into the battle, willing or unwilling, such that each individual will go to the side which he supports. We must make this battle very violent, such that death is a heartbeat away,” writes the radical Islamist thinker Abu Bakr Naji.5
The concept of knowingly polarising society is part of the black-and-white world view of extremist organisations. Likewise, it is apparent in the actions of al-Qaeda and IS—both try to use their actions to evoke as much emotional outrage in society as possible.
The attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices, which was at least partly prepared by al-Qaeda, was exactly this type of action and it considerably intensified the life of French Muslims. In the two weeks following the Paris attack, there were over a hundred reports of different crimes committed against Muslims. French Muslims were forced to choose a side, exactly as Naji describes.
IS expresses the same idea through two main activities. On one hand, there are the attacks against Iraqi Shi’ites, where dozens of people are killed every week in the northern part of the capital, Baghdad, and in Kirkuk. Car-bomb explosions and suicide attacks go hand in hand in these regions. By inciting hatred between sects they try to provoke the Shi’ites to take revenge against the Sunnis. Meanwhile, IS attempts to act as the protector of the latter.
The brutal execution of the Jordanian pilot, on the other hand, was an attempt to provoke similar revenge on an international level. IS hopes for Jordan’s impulsive direct military intervention, which would create the opportunity to once again fight before the eyes of the world. Martyrdom in battle like this is more attractive than an unseen end as the result of an allied airstrike in an unknown Syrian village.6

Freelance terrorists

Due to limited resources there is ever greater dependence on so-called freelance terrorists, whom the radical organisations are trying to persuade to take action by offering material as well as ideological support if necessary.7
The recent attacks in major cities around the world have been carried out by single men who were disillusioned with their home societies. Extremist ideology takes the pieces of their broken dreams and creates a distorted image, at the centre of which is a terrorist act with the promise of salvation. Direct contact with particular organisations is not important, but it definitely expands the actions and reach of these individuals.
The attacks by such enthusiasts follow a similar pattern. These are very straightforward attacks that do require some preparation but are simple in nature and only require some weapons and decisive action. The aim of the attack is not numerous casualties but, once again, to gain attention and provoke a reaction in society.8
Freelance terrorists have long been a goal for the decentralised al-Qaeda. It even published a handbook for lone jihadists in 2013, which teaches the use of firearms, how to prepare explosives with domestic supplies and the art of coded communication. “The terror felt amongst the people when an assassin strikes in the enemy’s land is of much greater proportion than him striking the enemy on the battlefield,” notes the handbook in the section on terrorist acts carried out with firearms.9 Events in Ottawa, Sydney and Paris confirm this belief.
Similarly, IS has taken advantage of the enthusiasm of lone individuals in order to talk people into joining the “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. An estimated 3,400 citizens from Western countries are fighting for IS, although the ongoing warfare makes it difficult to assess the exact numbers. Ivan Sazanakov, who went to Syria from Estonia, is one of those thousands.


The weakening of IS has brought it closer to al-Qaeda in its essence. The organisation is increasingly focused on gaining international attention, and the declaration of “provinces” has laid the basis for wider global activity. The latter will become even more important in the light of future defeats, especially if Iraqi, Kurdish and allied troops retake Mosul this spring or summer.
Without decisive action in Syria, however, they are still deadlocked because the northern part of the country is still largely under the control of IS. If IS also suffers greater losses in Syria, reconciliation or close cooperation with al-Qaeda cannot be ruled out, especially with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Defeating the newly established “caliphate” would increase the threat posed by returning foreign terrorist fighters in their home countries. De-radicalising these individuals will be an important challenge for such countries.
The situation in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula has worsened considerably. In order to retain its forceful image, IS will try to support the attacks occurring there. After the coup in Egypt in summer 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood was once again declared a terrorist organisation and hundreds of people were arrested, and many were killed in the protests that followed. Members of the organisation who were forced underground, who think the overthrow was unjust and have encountered violence at the hands of the security forces, are now more open to radical ideas than before.
Al-Qaeda’s position has improved even more following the attacks in France. Regional hot spots in Libya and Yemen have not disappeared and al-Qaeda will keep using them as their nursery. Military defeat of IS might also help al-Qaeda: “If IS is militarily coerced into disintegration without adequate political preparations in place, many of those currently fighting for it could well abandon it for the ‘next best’ option—namely al-Qaeda.”10
An important battlefield for the so-called freelance terrorists is the Internet, which plays an important role in converting individuals to extremism: “… the online world provides an abundance of material and contacts to facilitate and expedite the radicalisation process”.11 Meanwhile, it is evident that attempts to block materials that incite extremism have not been successful so far.
“They are saying that the [Jordanian] pilot was not actually burned alive and the video was faked as an attempt to frighten the Western countries,” says Bekhan from Chechnya. The infosphere of extremist organisations remains largely untouched, giving IS the opportunity to spread its messages convincingly across thousands of kilometres.
E-Estonia could very well contribute more to this fight, all the more so since the issue has already come up with the use of a Russian-language infosphere. Protecting the infosphere field should be a central part of cyber defence. Targeted and extensive countermeasures could avert threats from the east, as well as from jihadists tapping their smartphones in the desert.
1 “Islamic State” is used as a proper name for the extreme Sunni terrorist organisation active in Iraq and Syria, formerly Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
2 Kaplan, E. 2007.The Rise of al-Qaedaism”. Council on Foreign Relations. http://www.cfr.org/terrorist-organizations-and-networks/rise-al-qaedaism/p11033 3 Visualisation of organisations related to al-Qaeda around the world in Russell, J. and Benotman, N. 2013.A New Index to Assess the Effectiveness of Al Qaeda”. Quilliam Foundation. p. 7. http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/ free-publications
4 Summary and audio recording of al-Bagdadi’s speech: Dawaalhaq. 2014. “Fidiu: Khalipha Abu Bakr Al-Bagdadi y’alan tumadid dawlat al-islamiya”. http://www.dawaalhaq.com/?p=19829 5 Naji, A. B. 2006. “The Management of Savagery”. Translation by W. McCants funded by John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies. p. 108. https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/abu-bakr-naji-the-management-of-savagery-the-most-critical-stage-through-which-the-umma-will-pass.pdf This is one of the core texts of modern extreme Islamism and the principles it presents can be recognised in al-Qaeda, IS and numerous other organisations.
6 The Soufan Group. 2015. “Responding to the Islamic State”. TSG IntelBrief. http://soufangroup.com/tsg-intelbrief-responding-to-the-islamic-state/ 7 For more on the phenomenon of freelance terrorists, see Tripathi, R. and Rajesh, Y.P. 2015. “Rise of the D.I.Y. jihadi”. India Times. 15 January 2015. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/terrorists-isis-al-qeada-digitally-enabled/1/413492.html 8 The Soufan Group. 2014. “The New Spectacular Terror Attack”. TSG IntelBrief. http://soufangroup.com/tsg-intelbrief-the-new-spectacular-terror-attack/ 9 Inspire. 2013. The Lone Mujahid Pocketbook. OSJ Special. p. 40. https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/al-qc481_idah-in-the-arabian-peninsula-22the-lone-mujc481hid-pocketbook22.pdf 10 Saltman, E. M. and Winter, C. 2014. “Islamic State: The Changing Face of Modern Jihadism”. Quillam Foundation. p. 54. http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/ free-publications
11 See previous source, p. 57


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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