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Al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Comparison

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Islamic terrorism is widely seen to be one of the most substantial threats to the national security of the United States (Bullock, Haddow, & Coppola, 2016). The power of extreme Islamic terrorist groups seems to be enormous to the people of the U.S. and Europe; however, it is far more prominent in the Middle East and some African countries (Bullock et al., 2016). After the 9/11 attacks involving Al-Qaeda terrorists, the U.S. and the rest of the world have put an enormous amount of efforts and financing into defeating the organization, presuming that it will help to defeat terrorism once and for all.

However, as the power of Al-Qaeda subsided, the world found that the war on terrorism was far from over and that the face of terrorism has changed, meaning that the strategies used by the global security forces may not be as effective in the future (Bullock et al., 2016). There is a clear need to understand the patterns and developments that affected Islamic terrorist organizations since 2001 to enhance national security strategies and reduce the risk of terror attacks in the future.

This project will present a comparative study of who extreme Islamic terrorist groups: ISIS and Al-Quaeda. I have chosen to focus on these two organizations as they represent two different ages of terrorism. Al-Qaeda, with its bold actions and wide network of affiliate groups, was seen as the most imminent threat in the 2000s, whereas ISIS represents the new face of terrorism, with increased political involvement and the ability to remain self-sustainable. Analyzing the origins, strategies, and operations of the two groups will help to determine the possible differences in the approaches to eliminating the two threats.

Origins and Goals

The first question that the research project intends to discuss is “What are the differences in origins and goals of Al-Qaeda and ISIS?”. At first glance, it seems that the two groups have very similar ideologies and goals; however, there are some fundamental differences that have affected their development. Al Qaeda stems from the military conflict in Afghanistan, which peaked in the 1980s (Rollins, 2011).

Osama Bin Laden, who became the founder of the organization, had been a financial donor to the Afghan mujahedin and a recruiter of Arab and other Islamic volunteers for the war (Rollins, 2011). Towards the end of the military conflict in Afghanistan, he has gathered a network of over 10,000 volunteers, some of which supported Al Qaeda’s terrorist activities (Rollins, 2011). The strategic goal of the organization was to defeat the Western powers (including the U.S. and Europe) in the Middle East and proceed to seize power in the local lands, ultimately establishing a domination in critical regions by building an Islamic caliphate (Gerges, 2017).

ISIS, on the other hand, originated as an affiliate group of Al Qaeda and stemmed out of the decades-long crisis of Baathist rule in Iraq (Gerges, 2014). Whereas Al Qaeda usually worked in cooperation with local Islamic leaders, ISIS declared its independence and fought rival Islamic forces as well as the Western ones (Gerges, 2017). ISIS came to the global stage by starting a bold military campaign in Syria and Iraq, seizing power from local Islamic leaders (Gerges, 2017). Similarly to Al Qaeda, the goal of ISIS is to gather the territories in the Middle East under a single Islamic rule; however, the origins and strategies of the group are substantially different.

Strategies and Operations

Another question that the research is focused on is “What are the different strategies and operations employed by the two groups?”. Financing is one of the key concerns for terrorist organizations, as their strategies require a lot of resources to be fulfilled. Al Qaeda’s methods of raising money included trafficking weapons, drugs, vehicles, cigarettes, and people, as well as by robberies and kidnapping (Rollins, 2011).

ISIS’ operations, however, are more developed, as they enable the group to sustain itself. ISIS’ economic model is “unprecedented”; it is based on the idea of financial self-sufficiency, which stresses the diversified use of resources and adaptability (CAT, 2016). ISIS generates the vast part of its high revenues by selling natural resources, such as oil, gas, and phosphate (CAT, 2016). Extortion amounts to 33% of its revenues, whereas kidnapping and robberies only account for 3% (CAT, 2016). The total revenue of ISIS in 2015 is estimated to be almost 2.5 billion dollars, which allows the organization to fund its operations in the Middle East and all over the globe.


The final question that the research will aim to answer is “What adjustments to global security strategies and counterterrorism efforts have to be made in order to eradicate ISIS?”. Whereas the U.S. and European efforts in defeating the Al Qaeda have managed to decrease the power of the organization significantly, the same strategies may not work the same way in the fight against ISIS (Gerges, 2014). Gerges (2014) suggests that the best approach for anti-ISIS efforts is to coordinate with local governments, which ISIS considers to be its rivals. However, there are more factors to be considered: for instance, weakening ISIS’ economy and decreasing its online presence will help to reduce the recruitment volume and hence the power of the group.


Overall, this comparative study will examine the practical meaning of the differences between Al Qaeda and ISIS, as these are essential to determining the possible ways of decreasing the threat to the U.S. and global security. The final part of the research will explore all of the possible solutions to the ISIS problem and determine whether or not it is likely that the group will lose its power to global security efforts in the next few years.


Bullock, J. A., Haddow, G. D., & Coppola, D. P. (2016). Introduction to homeland security: Principles of all-hazards risk management (5th ed.). Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Center for the Analysis of Terrorism (CAT). (2016). . 

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.‬‬

Rollins, J. (2011). . 

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