Armed Hostilities

Extreme Islamic Terrorist Groups in Comparison


Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) represent two generations of terrorism threats faced by the United Sates and the rest of the world. Al Qaeda has provoked an extensive U.S.-led war on terror in 2000s; ISIS, on the other hand, is the new threat which came to light in the 2010s, after the successful efforts to reduce the power of Al Qaeda. The two documents outlining the United States strategy for countering terrorism, the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism and the National Strategy for Counterterrorism were last updated in 2006 and 2011, respectively, which means that they do not reflect the strategic needs for eliminating the current threat of ISIS.

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This paper aims to provide a comparative analysis of Al Qaeda and ISIS in order to argue that, while Al Qaeda and ISIS share the same radical Islamist ideology, their goals, strategies, and operations are different, and the current counterterrorism strategy has to be altered to respond to these changes. Based on the comparative analysis, the paper will also outline the recommendations on how the strategy could be developed to answer to the new threat of ISIS.

Comparative Analysis


The history of Al Qaeda is a complex subject, particularly due to a large number of affiliate groups that stemmed from the organization throughout its development. The founder of Al Qaeda was Osama Bin Laden, born in Saudi Arabia in 1957. In his exploration of the origins of Al Qaeda, Rollins (2011) explains that Bin Laden adopted radical Islamist views while studying in a university, where he attended the lectures of Sayyid Qutb’s brother, Muhammad Qutb.

Sayyid Qutb was the key ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which has also evolved into a major jihadist group. Bin Laden was also inspired by the teachings of Abdullah al-Azzam, another major figure in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, Bin Laden’s university studies, as well as his interest in the extremist teachings and ideology, contributed to the development of his views on the influence of external forces on the politics of Muslim countries.

The radical Islamist ideas of Bin Laden were further developed as a result of the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood led the jihad against the Soviet forces. Rollins (2011) explains that this operation was crucial to the development of Al Qaeda ideology, as the Soviet invasion was viewed as a major threat to the Muslim territory and people, posed by a non-Muslim power. Evidently, it was Bin Laden’s willingness to eliminate this threat that led to the creation of Al Qaeda, as reducing the power of non-Muslim forces in the Middle East became the major stated goal of Al Qaeda’s efforts.

However, even before the organization was created, Bin Laden was an active participant of the events in Afghanistan: Rollins (2011) confirms that he donated funds and recruited fighters to support the jihadist movement. This process eventually led to the creation of Al Qaeda, however the threat was far from obvious: the United States made no effort to stop the recruitment, as “most U.S. officials perceived the volunteers as positive contributors to the effort to expel Soviet forces from Afghanistan” (Rollins, 2011, p. 5). Even though there was evidence of Bin Laden’s criticism of the U.S. support of Israel, there was no information about Bin Laden’s plan to attack the United State at the time.

As the Soviet forces were driven out of Afghanistan, the attention of Bin Laden and his fighters shifted to the actions of the United States in other areas of the Middle East; for instance, the 1990s Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, supported by the U.S. forces, reinforced Bin Laden’s beliefs that the Western power in the Middle East was a major threat to the security of Muslim territories and people, turning him into one of the most active adversaries of the United States. Since then, Al Qaeda became committed to “a global struggle against the world power (the US) in the continuation of the radical anti-imperialist struggles of the 1960s and 1970s” (Roy, 2008, p. 6).

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ISIS, on the other hand, pursued a different path of development, which is explored in detail by Gerges (2014; 2017). Similarly to Al Qaeda, which stemmed from the invasion of Afghanistan by a non-Muslim power, the origins of ISIS can be traced back to the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 (Gerges, 2017). It was initially formed as a branch of Al Qaeda and consisted of the Sunni forces of Iraq and Syria that suffered from the U.S.-led invasion and occupation, which weakened the governments of the two countries and caused the majority of the Sunni military officers to lose their power.

The Sunnis fled from Syria and Iraq to establish a territorial presence in Levant. ISIS first entered the global stage in 2013 by its military surge in Syria and Iraq, which was aimed at conquering territories close to the Iraqi-Jordanian-Saudi Arabian Frontiers. By the end of 2014, ISIS had captured a third of these areas, which marked its first point of difference from the previous terrorist groups: while Al Qaeda was a transnational organization with no interest in seizing land, ISIS has put a tremendous effort in capturing and maintaining territories in Syria and Iraq.

In fact, the acquisition of lands became the main goal of ISIS: Gerges (2017) confirms, “ISIS’s primary strategic target is the consolidation and expansion of the lands and authority of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and other neighboring Muslim countries” (p. 7). In 2014, ISIS declared itself as the Caliphate or Islamic State (IS) under the leadership of Abu Bakr alBaghdadi (Hashim, 2014).


As seen in the previous paragraphs, the goals of the two organizations are ultimately different. Whereas Al Qaeda called for the liberation of Muslim countries and lands of the Western presence, ISIS aims to establish itself as a major political and territorial power. Hashim (2014) explores the goals and strategy of ISIS, explaining that the principal goal of ISIS is to overthrow the illegitimate governments in the Middle East, thus creating a unified Islamic State, or Caliphate. Another substantial difference between ISIS and Al Qaeda is that the former does not rely on theological foundations for its strategic framework, which is evident in its approach to seizing power: according to Gerges (2014), ISIS aims to achieve political influence not just by eliminating non-Muslim forces, but by overthrowing any powers that are viewed as a threat, including fellow Sunni Islamist rivals.

Thus, ISIS adheres to a doctrine of total war against all forces that restrict its political power in the region, which counters Al Qaeda’s strategy of securing and supporting the Muslim powers in the Middle East. The origins and goals of ISIS also created a foundation for the brutality and viciousness of its actions; Gerges (2014) explains that ISIS was born out of a violent political turmoil, which is reflected in its approach to fulfilling its goals: “ISIS is a symptom of the broken politics of the Middle East and the fraying and delegitimation of state institutions” (p. 339).

Thus, for ISIS, brutality becomes an instrument of establishing and maintaining a political power that can break down the weakened governments and structures. The reputation that was created by the previous actions of the organization has spread across the Middle East and the rest of the world, thus helping ISIS to enhance its territorial presence by winning over lands and overthrowing existing governments.


Neumann (2008) offers a detailed exploration of the mechanisms that are used by terrorists to recruit fighters, specifically focusing on Al Qaeda’s methods. The author explains that terrorist recruitment strategies differ a lot between the countries and regions: “Radicalisation and recruitment into the Islamist militant movement in Europe differ from similar processes in the Middle East and South Asia, and there are significant differences between Muslim communities within Europe” (p. 11). This is particularly relevant to the topic due to the fact that a significant share of ISIS fighters is recruited from Europe and the United States.

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Contrary to widespread opinions that Muslim faith, minority status, as well as economic and social disadvantages are the primary facilitators of radicalization, the forces responsible for this process are much more complex. According to Neumann (2008), one of the three main factors that shape the radical influences in Europe and the West is that second and third-generation of Muslim immigrants are prone to experience a conflict of identity, which makes them susceptible to extreme Islamist ideologies. As the rest of this section will show, both ISIS and Al Qaeda exploit this notion in their recruitment strategies.

Al Qaeda’s strategy for recruitment targeted mainly young male Muslims living in non-Muslim communities, who were especially susceptible to persuasion and propaganda. Mosques were among the most significant recruitment grounds used by Al Qaeda. This is not surprising, as mosques play an important role in the life of Muslim communities all over the world. Another type of recruitment grounds used by Al Qaeda were prisons.

Neumann (2008) explains that in prisons, many people convert to religion in an attempt to find peace and resolution; moreover, for many people, prisons are also the places to form connections, especially with those of the same ethnic and religious origin. Both factors made prisons tempting targets for infiltration and recruitment of candidates. Al Qaeda utilized a top-down approach to recruitment, with a distinctive chain of command to guide the recruitment process (Neumann, 2008).

ISIS recruitment schemes rely on the same radicalization mechanisms, however, the path to joining ISIS from the United States or Europe is more complex. Social media and cyber technologies play an important role in ISIS’ recruitment process, and Farwell (2014) examines the ways in which the organization uses the Internet to recruit fighters from all over the world.

For instance, social media platform, such as Facebook and Twitter, are used by ISIS to promote its goals and beliefs; the posts that ISIS shares on these networks create an image that appeals to young Muslims in search of a strong group identity: “The group’s narrative portrays ISIS as an agent of change, the true apostle of a sovereign faith, a champion of its own perverse notions of social justice, and a collection of avengers bent on settling accounts for the perceived sufferings of others” (Farwell, 2014, p. 50).

Cellular technologies allow ISIS to spread its message all over the world instead of targeting individual communities, which makes it more difficult to control the propaganda and the resulting radicalization. ISIS strategy is successful in attracting fighters from outside the Middle East – Gerges (2014) states that over 1000 foreign fighters arrive in Syria each month – and this is mostly due to the effective use of the Internet and social media.

However, as Siboni, Cohen, and Koren (2015) show, using the Internet as a propaganda tool is threatening not only because it attracts foreign fighters into Syria and other ISIS locations, but also because it gives rise to the “lone wolf” terrorists. The lone wolf attacks are spontaneous acts that are inspired by ISIS ideology and directed at the civilian populations. Lone wolves act independently of the local or transnational terrorist cells, which makes it more difficult to track and prevent such attacks. Moreover, even though the lone wolves are not affiliated with ISIS, the organization still claims responsibility for every lone wolf attack, thus reinforcing its global presence and spreading fear all over the globe.


Financing is crucial to terrorist organizations and their operations. Gómez (2010) outlines the estimated costs of carrying out Al Qaeda’s terror attacks. For instance, the London Underground and bus attack on 7th July 2005 cost the organization 8,000 GPB, whereas the Madrid Railway Atocha attack’s cost is estimated to be over 100 000 euros. Undoubtedly, the most expensive operation in Al Qaeda’s history was the attack on the World Trade Center in the New York City, which cost between 400 000 and 500 000 USD.

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The costs of carrying out the attacks, however, are relatively minor comparing to the structural costs of maintaining the organization, recruiting fighters, and disseminating its ideology. Living costs, communication channels, training, travel costs, charitable activities, and propaganda require large amounts of funds, and terrorist organizations need to have established channels of funding in order to exist.

Al Qaeda’s financing strategy is relatively common among terrorist groups of the Middle East. For example, Al Qaeda used fundraisers to find donors, who were primarily based in the Gulf Area: “This mix of fundraising methods has enabled Al-Qaeda to construct a considerable financial network throughout the Muslim world and in foreign diasporas allowing it to obtain the money needed to operate” (Gómez, 2010, p. 7).

Another source of funding for Al Qaeda were the charitable organizations. Al Qaeda supporters infiltrated charitable organizations and used their access to divert many from the charities’ programs to Al Qaeda’s efforts. Offshore entities and companies were also a significant source of funding for Al Qaeda, however, the largest sums of money were earned by the organization through criminal activity, including the trafficking of drugs, weapons, and people, kidnapping, and other common crimes.

ISIS, on the other hand, utilizes a more sustainable system of financing. CAT (2016) report states that the financing model used by ISIS is unprecedented for a terrorist organization, primarily because it is based upon territorial control and provides financial self-sufficiency. Total ISIS revenue in 2015 was 2 435 000 USD, with the main sources of income being oil, natural gas, and extortion. The economy of ISIS is highly adaptable as it utilizes several sources of revenue instead of depending solely on criminal or charitable activity. For example, over 60% of the organization’s revenue in 2015 was from the trade of natural resources, such as oil and gas.

The reliance on essential natural resources allows for more financial independence and stability, as the revenue of the organization depends on its territory and trading capacity and not on the external forces. Whereas Al Qaeda depended largely on sponsors, donors, and criminal activity, ISIS revenues are bound to the global economy due to the use of natural resources. This is the main reason why the UN sanctions aimed at curtailing the flow of funds to ISIS had little effect – they were largely based on the Al Qaeda’s financing model and its dependence on the external contributions. The self-sufficient economic system that has been established by ISIS makes it much harder for the global forces to affect the financial stability of the organization, presenting yet another challenge for the counterterrorism efforts.


The United States’ counterterrorism strategies are mainly based on the Al Qaeda’s model of operations, which is why they were useful in reducing the presence of Al Qaeda in the Middle East and on the global scene. However, as evident from the comparative analysis, there are vast differences between Al Qaeda and the new threat of ISIS, which is why some of the strategies have to be altered to respond to the changes.

Support the Local Governments

One of the main factors that allowed for ISIS to rise was the weakness of the local governments (Gerges, 2014). The actions of ISIS are driven by political motives, and not by religious ones, which is why it is crucial to support the local governments so that they could respond to the threat effectively. Preventing ISIS from seizing more lands is crucial to limit its financing and shatter the economic stability that it has achieved throughout the past few years.

Limit Online Presence

In countering ISIS, the online battlefield is just as important as the real military efforts. ISIS relies on its online presence to spread propaganda and recruit fighters (Farwell, 2014). Moreover, the stable presence of ISIS on the social media allows the potential lone wolf terrorists to become involved with ISIS’ ideology and goals, leading them to commit terror attacks all over the world. Limiting the access of ISIS forces to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is crucial to preventing future recruitment.

Enhance Tracking Strategies

A rather controversial method to limit the flow of recruits to ISIS is by enhancing the tracking strategies that are currently used to identify potential terrorists. These strategies have to be improved to target a wider variety of people: for instance, Neumann (2008) suggests that targeting Muslim communities is less efficient than focusing on the general youth populations. The use of advanced tracking techniques, on the other hand, can help to identify the individuals that are interested in extremist ideologies, thus preventing their radicalization and conversion and limiting ISIS’ recruitment capacity.


Overall, it is evident that, even though Al Qaeda and ISIS share the same radical Islamist ideology, the goals, strategies, and operations of the two groups differ a lot. ISIS represents not just an ideological but also a political threat, as it targets the political and economic stability of the Middle Eastern region. The active use of cyber technologies and social media for recruitment purposes by ISIS allows it to recruit fighters from all over the globe and makes it hard for the counterterrorism forces to track and prevent the threat.

Moreover, the differences in approaches to financing between Al Qaeda and ISIS make the latter far more self-sustainable and independent, which significantly limits the power of global governments to prevent the flow of funds to the organization. The current counterterrorism approach of the United States was created to target Al Qaeda, but is nevertheless used against ISIS; however, due to the vast differences between the two organizations, their goals, and operations, the strategy that was successful in the fight with Al Qaeda may not yield the same results in the face of the current threat.

In order for the United States to respond to ISIS effectively, it is necessary to address its cyber power, sustainable economic model, and the major territorial power that allows it to influence the politics of the Middle East and threaten the rest of the world. By altering the current approach to suit the strategic and operational model of ISIS, the United States will be able to contribute to eliminating the threat and ending the war on terror.


Center for the Analysis of Terrorism (CAT). (2016). ISIS Financing 2015. Web.

Farwell, J. P. (2014). The media strategy of ISIS. Survival, 56(6), 49-55.

Gerges, F. A. (2014). ISIS and the third wave of jihadism. Current History, 113(767), 339-343.

Gerges, F. A. (2017). ISIS‬: A history. Princeton, NJ: ‬Princeton University Press.‬‬‬‬‬‬

Gómez, J. M. D. (2010). A financial profile of the terrorism of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Perspectives on Terrorism, 4(4), 3-27.

Hashim, A. S. (2014). From Al-Qaida affiliate to the rise of the Islamic Caliphate: The evolution of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Web.

Neumann, P. R. (2008). Joining al-Qaeda: Jihadist recruitment in Europe. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Rollins, J. (2011). Al Qaeda and affiliates: Historical perspective, global presence, and implications for U.S. policy. Web.

Roy, O. (2008). Al Qaeda in the West as a youth movement: The power of a narrative. CEPS policy briefs, 12(1), 1-25. Web.

Siboni, G., Cohen, D., & Koren, T. (2015). The Islamic State’s Strategy in Cyberspace. Military and Strategic Affairs, 7(1), 3-29.

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