What's The Difference Between ISIS & Al Qaeda? Well, It's Complicated

Odds are, you've heard about James Foley by now. A brave American photojournalist who went missing in Syria in late 2012, Foley was executed at the hands of the Islamic militant group ISIS, and the video made public by the militant group. The graphic killing drew worldwide attention, pleas to remember James Foley's life over his horrifyingly public death, and stern words from President Obama. And it's worth asking now, with consequences looming: how does ISIS compare to al Qaeda, America's other longtime terrorist-fundamentalist foe?

Well, the first thing to know is that they weren't always two distinct groups. ISIS' origin story begins in Iraq, following the toppling of Saddam Hussein by U.S. forces. As Vox details, members of al Qaeda in Iraq who survived the so-called "surge" of American troops into the country after 2006 were badly beaten back, but not for long. ISIS was the organization that formed out of the remaining militants, and for a time was tightly-allied with al Qaeda.

But ISIS disobeyed the militant group during the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, and that pushed that relationship to a momentary breaking point. According to Foreign Affairs' Barak Mendelsohn, the group's open defiance of orders from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda, was a breaking point that split ISIS into its own, distinct organization.

Are They Worse Than Al Qaeda?

Whether they're actually meaningfully more violent or treacherous than al Qaeda is kind of an open question, depending on who you ask. The understandable horror caused by the gruesome video of Foley's execution has may weigh into this debate, as well as similar (though unverified) claims that the group may be beheading Christian children within Iraq.

Whether you consider this a difference in intention or ability is relevant. As Patrick Skinner of the Soufan Group — a security consultancy group headed by former FBI anti-terrorism agent Ali Soufan — told NBC News, the destabilizing 13-year assault the U.S. has waged on al Qaeda could be to blame for ISIS seeming harder and more brutal than its former counterpart.

If al Qaeda central ever had the opportunity to take Mosul, they would have. If al Qaeda could do what ISIS did, they would do it in a heartbeat. But we spent a trillion dollars just destroying them. The worst job on the planet for 10 years has been the No. 3 guy in al Qaeda.

ISIS has a valuable base of operations in Syria, and considerably more armed force behind them within Iraq, owing partly to the American-made weapons that they've managed to steal off the Iraqi military. This is a consequence of leaving high-grade weapons tech to help a military in a strife-ridden environment — if the military can't hold things together, you've suddenly got a group of armed-to-the-teeth enemies.

They're Both Aggressive Towards Muslims

There's one major thing they do have in common — both ISIS and al Qaeda are in the habit of killing Muslims, a puzzling reality for a pair of groups both vying to establish an Islamic caliphate. In reality, their vision of Islam is something both groups assert the right to impose on everyone, fellow Muslims included, and as fighting has spread throughout majority-Muslim countries, the outcome is much what you'd expect. As Der Spiegel reports, al Qaeda was found to kill eight times as many Muslims as non-Muslims.

ISIS, as well, is willing to spill the blood of Muslims they consider insufficiently militant. This has been laid bare throughout their bloody campaign across Iraq, and President Obama specifically referenced this fact in his remarks on Foley's killing, drawing a bright line between Islam writ large and such actions (Obama to them as ISIL, one of the different accepted variations of their name).

Let’s be clear about ISIL. They have rampaged across cities and villages killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children and subject them to torture and rape and slavery. They have murdered Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, by the thousands. They target Christians and religious minorities, driving them from their homes, murdering them when they can, for no other reason than they practice a different religion.

They declared their ambition to commit genocide against an ancient people. So ISIL speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents.

Are They Joining Forces Again?

And, last but not least, maybe the most unfortunate similarity of late — it's starting to seem like al Qaeda and ISIS may be mending fences, at least on the surface. Despite the aforementioned breakup in early 2014, the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen voiced support for ISIS' crusade in Iraq Tuesday, as reported by The Yemen Times, the country's most widely read English-language paper.

We announce solidarity with our Muslim brothers in Iraq against the crusade. Their blood and injuries are ours and we will surely support them. We assert to the Islamic Nation [all Muslims worldwide] that we stand by the side of our Muslim brothers in Iraq against the American and Iranian conspiracy and their agents of the apostate Gulf rulers.