Last week, a sudden and devastating series of terrorist attacks were unleashed on the streets of Paris, resulting in 129 deaths, and a claim of responsibility by ISIS, the so-called "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (some, including President Obama, use the acronym ISIL instead, for "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant"). And on Friday, another high-profile terrorist attack struck the African nation of Mali, an armed hotel siege which left at least 27 people dead. But this one wasn't ISIS — so, what's the difference between ISIS and al Qaeda?
It's easy to be distracted, ignorant, or just plain unaware, and to end up filing every militant Islamist group away in your mind as though they're all the same. And certainly, in terms of raw bloodshed, they're tightly simpatico organizations — both are more than willing to kill to advance their own standing, influence, and a violently fundamentalist interpretation of their faith.
But in a very meaningful, first-principles sense, the two groups have very different visions and very different goals. It can best be summed up like this: Al Qaeda has prioritized attacking, destabilizing, and decimating the Western world, America in particular, while the top priority of ISIS is the establishment of its own rigidly militant Islamist nation.
In fact, it's right there in the name. The "Islamic State" part refers to the creation of a cross-border, colossal theocratic nation — essentially, the reconstitution of the caliphate, the Islamic empire of the seventh century. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said as much in July of 2014, when he delivered a speech in Mosul, Iraq declaring himself "Caliph Ibrahim."
The conceit is fairly simple: the caliphate is envisioned as an Islamic empire that represents and includes all Muslims worldwide, which is a big part of why ISIS has violated and brutalized so many Muslims in addition to members of other faiths — they're striving to bring Muslims under heel, as well as the rest of the world.
By contrast, al Qaeda is a more conventional, less aspirational organization. It isn't aimed at urgently creating a caliphate, not in the way ISIS is — although former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden did write in his correspondence (recovered following his death in Pakistan in 2011) of eventually creating such a state, he urged for more patience and "timing."
You should ask them to avoid insisting on the formation of an Islamic State at the time being, but to work on breaking the power of our main enemy by attacking the American embassies in the African countries, such as Sierra Leone, Togo, and mainly to attack the American oil companies. ... We should stress on the importance of timing in establishing the Islamic State.
This isn't the only reason for the sometimes rancorous divide between the two ostensibly similar groups — within the realm of international terrorism, both are vying to be regarded as the world's strongest and most imposing, and of late, ISIS has been winning that battle. For more than a year now, ISIS has been the group that's drawn glaring headlines, and driven fretful conversations within American politics, so much so that some influential people in the halls of power — including former general and CIA chief David Petraeus — have advised helping al Qaeda to try to thwart them.
What a difference 15 years makes, huh? While it's impossible to know for sure what motivated the al Qaeda-allied hotel attack in Mali on Friday, it's timing just after the Paris attacks is suggestive. Could an ISIS rival, in its own perverse way, have been jealous of the attention last week's attacks generated? Make no mistake, things aren't all that collegial between them — al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has condemned al-Baghdadi as a false Caliph back in September.