Home > 2016 > What makes the ISIS more dangerous than Al-Qaeda?

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 6 New Delhi January 30, 2016

What makes the ISIS more dangerous than Al-Qaeda?

Saturday 30 January 2016, by Sandeep Shastri

In his final State of the Union address, Barak Obama mentioned that the ISIS does not pose a threat to the US. This comes at a time when we have witnessed two back-to-back attacks, one in Istanbul and another one in Jakarta. Over the past six months we have seen a string of ISIS-led attacks in Paris and Beirut—all proving the serious threat the group poses. Looking at what has transpired over the last six months, Obama’s statement cannot be farther from the truth.

A closer study of the ISIS’ capabilities will prove that it is a much bigger threat than the Al-Qaeda. What enhances the ISIS’ global outreach is the vast number of foreign fighters joining them. A UN report, tabled on March 2015, stated that there were up to 22,000 foreign troops, from around 100 nationalities fighting for the ISIS. Though the Al-Qaeda had its share of international fighters, the ISIS’ strong propa-ganda programme and superior capabilities means that these radicalised foreign fighters can pose a much bigger threat. The danger increases many folds when these fighters return to their home country. Their radicalisation and training mean that they are a significant security threat. Already countries across the European Union, India, the US and Australia are coming up with strategies to detain returning fighters.

The ISIS’ rapid rise has meant that several regional terror groups have sworn allegiance. A group like the Boko Haram was initially a regional terror group, whose impact was limited to Nigeria. However, by owning allegiance to the the ISIS, it’s drawn into the much wider network that the ISIS possesses. As a result a group that was initially a very local threat becomes a more international concern. The Boko Haram is not an isolated case of a regional terror group pledging allegiance to the ISIS. Several groups like Khalifa Islamiyah Mindanio, Abu Sayyaf, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Ansar al-Sharia, all of which are regional terror networks, have pledged allegiance to the ISIS. This extends its reach right from the Philippines to Libya and beyond. Though the Al-Qaeda in its time had networks across the world, the support the ISIS is receiving from various regional terror groups can make their global reach more dangerous.

What sets the ISIS apart from the Al-Qaeda is its control over territory. The Al-Qaeda was operating from the territory controlled by the Taliban. The ISIS, on the other hand, is in direct control over land in Syria and Iraq. The control over land has given it access to material and economic resources that the Al-Qaeda did not have access to. The Al-Qaeda got a lot of financial resources from the illegal opium trade, the ISIS today is in control of a much more lucrative commodity: oil. By controlling oil-rich regions in Iraq and Syria, the oil trade gives the ISIS access to significant financial resources. Therefore measures like freezing donors’ bank accounts, a method commonly used to deal with the Al-Qaeda’s income cannot be effective in the ISIS’ case. The vast economic resources means that the ISIS can get access to superior military technology which makes them far more dangerous than the Al-Qaeda.

Unlike the Al-Qaeda, the ISIS is also a part of the much larger regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Being a Sunni organisation, the ISIS is viewed by many regional Sunni powers as an effective check against rising Iranian influence (especially in Iraq and Syria). Regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have been accused of funding or helping the ISIS in some way or the other. Therefore, defeating the ISIS will also mean taking on the much larger regional tussle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Considering how crucial an ally Saudi Arabia is for the US, this is not going to be an easy task.

Looking back at what has transpired over the last few weeks, it is important for us to recognise that the ISIS is a much larger threat than the Al-Qaeda. With the presence of foreign fighters in the ISIS and several regional outfits pledging allegiance to it, the ISIS’ global outreach is far more dangerous. The fact that it directly controls oil-rich territory in Iraq and Syria means that it has access to financial resources that are far greater than what the Al-Qaeda has. Finally, fighting the ISIS will mean getting involved in the regional power-game between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The recent escalation in tensions makes this job more complex. The battle against the ISIS is by all means going to be a long-term battle. Unlike fighting the Al-Qaeda, this battle is going to be far more complex and will involve taking some tough decisions regarding regional alliances.

The author holds an M.Sc degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He can be contacted on sshastri93@gmail.com