How ISIS is different from al-Qaeda

A close reading of the jihadi group ISIS's dogma reveals that its appeals to Muslims in the West are different from what many imagine. ISIS wants Muslims to travel to the caliphate and remain there, not commit terrorist attacks in Western countries.

Jihadi group's rigid ideology is a weakness as well as a strength

While al-Qaeda prefers to operate in the shadows, ISIS ideology requires it to act like a national government. (ISIS)

According to the Government of Canada (and indeed, most Western politicians), the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria represents a dramatic escalation of the terror threat to Western countries.

So it may seem odd to read the following passage in ISIS's official English-language publication Dabiq, looking back on the years immediately after 9/11:

"Europe was struck by attacks that killed multitudes more of kuffar [disbelievers] than those killed in the recent Paris attacks. The 2004 Madrid operation and the 2005 London operation together killed more than 200 crusaders and injured more than 2000."

Indeed, the Paris attacks in January were by far the most lethal jihadi terror attack on the West in the decade since the 7/7 attacks in London. And yet the Madrid bombings killed more than 10 times as many people. (Moreover, the Charlie Hebdo attack was not even as ISIS operation, but the work of an older nemesis: al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.)

The fourth issue of the ISIS magazine Dabiq includes articles on the Qur'anic justifications for the return of slavery and the looting of the property of non-Muslims. (Dabiq)
​Dabiq goes on to ask:

"So why was the reaction to the recent attacks much greater than that of any previous attack? It is the international atmosphere of terror generated by the presence of the Islamic khilafah [caliphate] … It is the lively words contained in the khilafah's call."

In other words, fewer Westerners are being killed, but ISIS's hype – its "lively words" – maximizes the psychological effect of the smaller operations that take place today, which typically leave one or two dead, such as the soldiers attacked on a London street, or in St.Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and on Parliament Hill. And the civilian attacks in cafés in Copenhagen and Sydney.

In some respects, ISIS is merely treading a path laid down by its parent organization al-Qaeda, from which it split a year ago.

It was al-Qaeda that developed the technique of dressing hostages in orange jumpsuits and beheading them on video. Westerners like Daniel Pearl and Ken Bigley suffered that fate long before anyone had heard of ISIS.

So why has ISIS failed to inspire more and bigger attacks in the West?

ISIS limited by its ideology

The answer lies partly in the apocalyptic ideology of the movement.

ISIS believes that its future is already determined by prophesy. It is pre-ordained that ISIS will face and defeat the "crusader" forces on a plain near the Syrian farming village of Dabiq (hence the magazine's name.) 

Some time after, the "Dajjal" [the anti-Christ] will appear. The forces of the caliphate will be reduced to a mere 5,000 men. There will be a final battle at the gates of Rum, commonly held to be Istanbul. At that point Issa ibn-Maryam, known to Christians as Jesus, will descend from heaven and kill Dajjal with a spear, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and heralding the end of the world.

ISIS has begun minting its own currency of gold, silver and copper dinars, as it tries to develop the trappings of a real state. (ISIS)
The group also believes that for all of this to unfold as planned, it is necessary to re-establish the Muslim caliphate abolished by Ataturk in 1923.

That means that unlike al-Qaeda, a shape-shifting clandestine insurgency that operated around the world, ISIS must control and govern real territory.

The main service an aspiring jihadi can render to the Islamic State, therefore, is not to stage attacks far away in the West, but to come to the caliphate and join its army.

What's asked of Western Muslims

Dabiq explains the position of ISIS leadership to its readers:

"The first priority is to perform hijrah [pilgrimage] from wherever you are to the Islamic State ... Rush to the shade of the Islamic State with your parents, siblings, spouses, and children.

"Second, if you cannot perform hijrah for whatever extraordinary reason, then try in your location to organize bay'at [pledges of allegiance]) to the khalifah Ibrahim. Publicize them as much as possible … Try to record these bay'at and then distribute them through all forms of media including the internet."

Curiously, the article does not ask Muslims in the West to stage attacks. In some later pronouncements ISIS has called for attacks, but only in cases where it is impossible to travel.

Jihadis leaving the West

There is no doubt that the announcement of the Islamic State has caused excitement in jihadi circles (though less noticed, it also caused division.) That excitement led to an unprecendented migration of jihadi-minded individuals.

ISIS has become like a vortex, sucking jihadis away from their home countries and into the maelstrom of Syria. Many are dying there, some within days. Others burn their passports or surrender them to the organization. Return to the West, far from being encouraged, is seen as a personal and religious failure.

Dabiq encourages its Western Muslim readers to make public pledges of loyalty to the Islamic State. (Dabiq)
With their departure, these jihadis lose the ability to stage attacks in the West. Where previously Western countries may have been unable to arrest them due to lack of evidence, they can now be targeted for death by Western bombs. And if they do attempt to return, they can be imprisoned for having joined ISIS.

To be clear, the spread of ISIS is a tragedy for the people of Syria and Iraq, particularly those who belong to minorities targeted for extermination under the group's ideology. The group continues to commit sickening atrocities against people under its rule.

But here in the West, politicians have failed to explain how the ISIS phenomenon is more dangerous than al-Qaeda, with its calculated efforts to insinuate agents into Western countries and its ambitious mass-casualty attacks.

The hype of ISIS — that stream of "lively words" — depends on an echo chamber in the West, made up of politicians and media who find it convenient to play up ISIS's claim that it is an existential threat to Western civilization. That feeds into its propaganda that it is a uniquely powerful force capable of bringing on the end of the world.