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Al Qaeda and Islamic State - what’s the difference?

They are very different organisations, and Islamic State is not simply replicating Al Qaeda under a different name.

Al Qaeda (AQ) has been described as an informal grouping of independent military franchises which has achieved global reach. Its primary activity is terrorist attacks targeted at the West, maximising its reach with the so-called ‘spectaculars’ such as the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, Madrid in 2004, and London in 2005.

Al Qaeda activity has been on the wane both in volume and scale in the years since Osama bin Laden’s death. Al Qaeda's leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, does not show the charisma required to hold this loose linked organisation together. Yemen, the home of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and once a hotbed of exported terror has been largely quiet. AQAP appears to have been distracted in its efforts to counter the activities of the expansionist Al Houthi tribe from the North of Yemen. Similarly in Somalia, the decline of Al Shabab has been accompanied by a matching decrease in AQ activities except in Kenya where they maintain efforts to punish Kenya for its intervention in Somalia. In North Africa, it has lost much of its support in the Islamic Maghreb and in West Africa, Boko Haram has been switching its affiliation toward IS. 

Islamic State (IS) has been described as a highly effective, disciplined, trained and funded military organisation with only local reach. Its hallmarks are terror and shock and its intent is to carve out an extremist Islamic state and Caliphate.

IS has created itself as an un-recognised governing state occupying vast swathes of eastern Syria and western Iraq. It has created effective and working governance of the regions it controls and has adopted Sharia law, declaring itself as a Caliphate with authority over all Muslims worldwide. It is an Islamic Sunni organisation, which has effectively declared war on Shi'ite Islam. Their extreme form of Salafist Wahhabism has attracted significant support from a disaffected Islamic youthful diaspora around the globe and a number of Islamist terrorist organisations in Africa have declared themselves subordinate to IS. 

Author: General Searby

Major General Searby, a member of Hawki’s advisory board, is a leading expert on security matters in the Middle East and North Africa. He has been Defence Advisor to the Sultan of Oman and was Counter Terrorist adviser for North Africa and the Sahel for the UK Prime Minister until 2012.


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