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The Obama administration is targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) under the same authority it is using to target al Qaeda, arguing that the ISIS is an “associated force” of al Qaeda since ISIS used to be al Qaeda in Iraq. 

But al Qaeda disowned ISIS earlier this year, and both Democratic and Republican lawmakers say using the 2001 AUMF against ISIS is a stretch.

{mosads}Here’s a look at five critical differences between al Qaeda and the new threat of ISIS.


ISIS is fighting more like a conventional army than al Qaeda ever did.

It has seized territory and declared a caliphate in northern Syria and Iraq. ISIS is also employing more conventional military tactics, using assault rifles and grenades.

Al Qaeda has not sought to hold on to territory as much as it has been focused on carrying out spectacular attacks that would seize attention from international media. Since the attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon it has continued to carry out high-profile, complex attacks, such as last year’s assault on the Westgate Mall in Kenya. 

Al Qaeda also wants to establish an Islamic Caliphate, but it has taken a long-term approach, and has discouraged affiliates from going out and doing so.

This is also one of the major reasons why al Qaeda disowned ISIS — it wanted ISIS to wait on establishing a caliphate.


It may seem strange to say, but ISIS is even more brutal than al Qaeda.

It has used extreme violence and brutality to attract attention and more followers, and so far, experts say it’s working. 

“They attract disaffected young people that want to kill other people,” said Clint Watts, senior fellow at George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. 

ISIS has gained international attention by beheading prisoners and enemies, and then posting pictures of the violence on social media.

Al Qaeda, in contrast, has shunned that practice because it risks turning off less extreme Sunnis and other Muslims from sympathizing with their cause. 

“ISIS attacks anything at any given level,” Watts said, while “Al Qaeda has shown quite a bit of restraint,” Watts said.

“They are very strategic in the attacks they take.”

ISIS is more popular with young people

ISIS now has more followers than al Qaeda because of the recruitment boom to Syria.

Al Qaeda has also suffered heavy losses from defection or destruction, Watts says. 

Intelligence officials say there are more than 30,000 ISIS followers, while experts believe al Qaeda’s formal membership is much smaller. 

ISIS has also attracted followers because it has pursued an Islamic state, and has territory to show for it. 

“ISIS has really grown in popularity because they pursued an Islamic State,” Watts said.

ISIS has also gained popularity with the young by embracing social media, while al Qaeda stuck to more traditional recruiting methods. 

Al Qaeda has attacked the US. ISIS has not

ISIS has made clear it wants to attack the U.S., whereas al Qaeda already has. For that reason, al Qaeda is still considered the recognized leader of the global jihadist movement. 

Since the 9/11 attack, al Qaeda has carried out plots several times over the last five years against the U.S., and the group has the capability to do more.

President Obama was criticized for referring to ISIS earlier this year as a jayvee terrorist team. But experts say it’s true ISIS isn’t the threat to the homeland that al Qaeda is.

“Certainly al Qaeda, no question” is a greater threat to the U.S., said Will McCants, a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy and director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. 

“They’re still laser focused on attacking the United States. They still have people in Yemen capable of making those diabolical crafted bombs” he added. 


Al Qaeda’s core has been traditionally reliant on donor funding, whereas ISIS is more reliant on illicit activities such as selling oil on the black market. 

“ISIS started out with a massive set of criminal enterprises,” said Watts.

However, now ISIS is beginning to draw donations due to their success. Experts say ISIS draws in $1 to $2 million per day. 

Experts say that although the two groups are different, competition between the two doesn’t bode well for the United States. 

“Any time you have a competition between terrorist groups, there will be incentive to launch more high profile attacks to attract more attention,” McCants said. 

Al Qaeda especially will be seeking to attack the West, to stay relevant, Watts said. “If they can’t prove themselves, they will slip by the wayside.” 



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