Comparison of the strategic priorities of both the al Qaeda and ISIS.

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Researcher: Lecturer. Hussain B Abdulameer

Publisher: Department of Political Studies / Center for Strategic Studies

June 2019


The Major objectives of ISIS:

Salafist jihadist organizations have sought to erase national boundaries and dismantling of the current regional political system in order to establish a Muslim political society and entity in the heart of the Middle East and reshape the strategic landscape.

The Grand strategy for ISIS was based mainly on military action in order to wrest control over the lands and cities from the modern states, and then establish the caliphate on them. Thus, ISIS was characterized by its threat to the modern state system -the national state- on the field level, which it translated through its ability to establish an entity and a political structure on geographical areas in Syria and Iraq. The terrorist organization formerly controlled a certain area between the two countries, possess a traditional army, and tried to protect and extend its existence. Until ISIS was defeated in the previous year, but it’s kept up to last moments on this character. However, the “joint Iraqi security forces” determined to dispel the objectives and dreams of “ISIS” and succeed to occupy the place of top spot among the local, regional and international parties, which ensured the protection of the modern state system in the Middle East.


The strategic priorities of “ISIS” compared to the “Al-Qaeda”:

There is a set of contradictions on both intellectual and practical levels between Salafist and Jihadist organizations. In terms of the ultimate goal, they all share a vision that elimination of the modern state system and the building of a new transnational society and political structure governed by a religious system based on the historical caliphate. However, “ISIS” differs with the other Salafist jihadist movements and organizations, especially “Al Qaeda” in determining the priorities and strategies adopted in order to achieve their common objective.

For example, al-Qaeda had a great desire to create a religious model on the ruins of the modern state, but it remains a highly dispersed terrorist organization. Al-Qaeda was unable to control a region continuously. It has been constantly movement without place. This is contrary to the ISIS. Thus, the political vision of “ISIS” is based on the imposition of the Salafi caliphate by force and reliance on military success in the end. This methodology distinguishes “ISIS” than Al Qaeda and other Salafist jihadist organizations that believe that the religious “Emirates” and social acceptance must precede the Caliphate.

Thus, the most important contradictions in the priorities and strategies of both the Islamic state and the other Salafist jihadist organizations, most notably Al Qaeda on the establishment of the caliphate and the dismantling of the modern state system through:

  • Salafist jihadist organizations (Takfiri), led by al-Qaeda, placed priority in their global activities against the West, “the distant enemy”. Therefore, it did not work to ignite jihad in Syria and work to liberate Palestine and fight the Shiites, despite being important issues for them, but it will block them from the most immediate goal of fighting the “distant enemy“.

In spite of the atonement al-Qaeda of the doctrines of Islamic non-Sunni such as the Shiites, and considered them nothing more than deviant and perverted doctrines. Although the organization believes that confrontation with them is inevitable, al-Qaeda has postponed this confrontation so as not to stand up to the distant enemy.

However, ISIS made the enemy “nearby”. ISIS decided that Shiites -and minorities– as well as many existing regimes in the Middle East were the main enemy, thus deepening the sectarian conflict in Iraq and Syria.


  • The concentration of jihadist Salafist organizations, headed by al-Qaeda, to wage global jihad and attack Western targets meant that they did not feel the immediate concern of exposure to the existence of the modern state system – the nation state – and replacing it with the establishment of the caliphate state. Al Qaeda has adopted an evolutionary methodology to achieve its ultimate goal, represented by the establishment of a “caliphate” on the ruins of the modern state.

For decades, al Qaeda has created small and scattered branches that have sought to form small regional entities known as the “emirates”, such as those in Afghanistan. In this regard, the nuclei of the Islamic Emirates has had emerged since the spring of 1994 from Kandahar, Afghanistan. and extended in the first decade of the third millennium to Anbar and Diyala Iraq, paper Syria and Grozny, Chechnya and the tribes of Algeria, since regained these areas, “Emirates System”, which was formed in history within the Islamic Abbasid caliphate, and represented internal splits in the scattering of the national state entity and as an expression of reject on its composition, as well as a threat to its future. And that the emirates has employed the concept of “rebellion against nation states” in order to reconstitute the Islamic Ummah on the basis of the caliphate.([1]) It was seen as phased and would lead to the eventual creation of the caliphate. Thus, the al-Qaeda was based on an evolutionary methodology to reach the caliphate.([2])

While ISIS rebelled on “Al Qaeda” approach that aimed at continuing to change gradually. The strategy of “ISIS” is mainly based on military action in order to wrest control over the lands and cities from modern states, and then establish the caliphate. It then becomes clear that “ISIS” adopts an immediate, not an evolutionary, approach to establishing its caliphate, the final jihadist goal.


  • Al Qaeda sought to form and build a link between the Muslim masses and its jihadist project. Al-Qaeda considered Muslim peoples to be ignorant of religion, of course, and unwilling to accept Islamic law without religious guidance and social acceptance of the concepts of jihadist rule. Al-Qaeda assumed that religious teachings and social acceptance must precede material control. As a result, al-Qaeda postponed the immediate challenge of national borders among Muslim countries and replaced it with the state of the caliphate until such condition was met and gaining community support.

For example, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi became the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq after the US-led invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Zarqawi sought to establish the caliphate in 2004, which was an important step in challenging the national state system in the region by al-Qaeda’s.([3]) This led the al-Qaeda leadership to explain that the time was not right, as the Muslims were not ready for it yet. Zawahri argued that if it were proved that AQAP was incapable of providing security, adequate services and functioning of the state, this failure would impede the application of Islamic rule, and that failure would undermine the jihadi establishment. Thus, al-Qaeda believes that the Muslim community must be properly prepared through advocacy and guidance before the imposition of Sharia and the establishment of the caliphate.([4])

Unlike al-Qaeda – which felt that the conditions were not ready to govern according to the shari’a or the establishment of the caliphate after – “ISIS” felt the need for both and with urgency. “ISIS” did not care much about popular support and had little tolerance for opposition when it came to his faith. ISIS believes that the establishment of the caliphate and the removal of national borders must take place immediately. They also accused the Al-Qaeda organization of “seeking after the will of the people” and thus undermining the God authority because they -al-Qaeda- are forcing the jihadist movement to submit to the vision of the grassroots instead of the divine bases. Thus ISIS leaders accusing al-Qaeda that “Seeking to become conscious of the popular will, rather than adhering to the law of God.


  • Despite al-Qaeda’s atonement for non-Sunni Muslim sects, such as the Shiites, which al-Qaeda regard them as deviant and perverted doctrines, and although Al-Qaeda believes that confrontation with them is inevitable. However, al-Qaeda has worked to postpone this confrontation so as not to distance itself from confronting the distant enemy and not to alienate Muslims from its violent and extremist operations.

It seems that al-Qaeda was interested in not alienating Muslims from the jihadist branches of al-Qaeda, which used excessive violence without austerity. So that in some cases al-Qaeda called for some form of detente with non-Muslim or Sunni communities, including Shiites and Christians. Although Al-Qaeda sees the Shi’ites as misguided apostates, al-Zawahri while messaged al-Zarqawi during 2005 says to him, “At the present stage, al-Qaeda must do their preaching (as is the case with other deviant sects) instead of killing them unless they start fighting first.” ([5])

ISIS categorically rejected the al-Qaeda approach aimed not alienating Muslims by selective use of violence. Instead, elements of “ISIS” adopted a pervasive violence approach to undermine the modern state system. They have shown a lot through the media and social networking sites such as the Internet from pictures and videos that include the scenes of burning people alive, beheadings, mass executions of prisoners and other punishments such as flogging publicly. Moreover, ISIS has described anyone who opposes his doctrine and approach as an infidel. This broad definition of atonement allowed ISIS to justify expanding the killing of civilians and opponents.

Thus, the contradictions mentioned above and at both intellectual and practical levels between “ISIS” and “Al Qaeda” terrorist represent the most important strategic priorities of the major Salafist jihadist organizations.



[1] – فؤاد إبراهيم. ” السلفية الجهادية في السعودية”، دار الساقي، الطبعة الأولى، 2009. ص18.


[2] – Jon B. Alterman. “Religious Radicalism after the Arab Uprisings”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2015, p17.

[3] – لزيادة التفاصيل حول مساعي الزرقاوي في إقامة الخلافة عبر تأسيس “مجلس شورى المجاهدين” بأعتبارها الجبهة الأساسية لقيادة الجهاد في “الدولة الإسلامية في العراق” أنظر “فيشمان”:

Brian Fishman. “Re­defining the Islamic State: The Fall and Rise of Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” New America Foundation National Security Studies Program Policy Paper, August 2011, .


[4] – Ayman Al-Zawahiri. “General Guidelines for Jihad,” As-Sahab Media, 2013, .

[5] – Ibid.