July 27, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Measuring the Threat: The Islamic State vs. Al-Qaeda

• The head of the FBI recently declared the Islamic State a greater domestic threat than al-Qaeda, given how widely the former has disseminated its call for violence

• The two groups share the ideology of bin Ladinism but differ greatly in attack planning against the West; al-Qaeda plots while the Islamic State agitates and motivates

• Comparatively, the Islamic State has lower standards for both external attacks and attackers

• While the power of al-Qaeda has shifted more to its affiliates, the group remains focused on pulling off a true ‘spectacular’ attack against Western targets, meaning the odds of an attack are lesser but the damage would be far greater.


Referring more to the Islamic State’s ubiquitous messaging than to its meticulous planning, FBI Director James Comey recently declared the group a greater threat to the United States than the perennial threat posed by al-Qaeda. This is a dramatic reordering of the threat matrix that has, since 2001, listed al-Qaeda as the most serious terrorist threat to the homeland. In part, this is a positive development—an acknowledgement that al-Qaeda Central has been diminished and disrupted in Pakistan and Afghanistan—and now even in Syria—with the targeting of the al-Qaeda external operation plotters labeled the ‘Khorasan Group’. It is also, however, an acknowledgement that, in terms of external attacks, the Islamic State is succeeding where al-Qaeda has failed, by favoring quantity of attacks over quality.

In terms of extremist messaging, the Islamic State has dominated the Internet. It accomplished this by crowdsourcing its message and convincing people and governments that it can operate far beyond its actual territorial borders. Through countless taunts and tweets, the Islamic State has merged ‘intent’ with ‘capability’; random tweets about Islamic State fighters taking over the streets of Paris are taken as a relatively serious threat. That Islamic State fighters will never take over the streets of a major international metropolis matters less than that its supporters threatened it. The troubling part is not that it will actually come to pass, but that random supporters across the world will take it upon themselves to try.

With its constant calls to attack anyone anywhere in any fashion, the Islamic State does indeed represent a higher probability and higher frequency threat to the United States and other Western countries. This is in stark contrast to al-Qaeda, which, when it comes to external attacks on the West, remains committed to pulling off another ‘spectacular’ attack like 9/11. The FBI director is correct when he says the Islamic State is the greater threat because of its widespread appeal. Officials are also correct to note that al-Qaeda remains the greater threat in terms of terrorist attacks that critically damage a society more so than frighten it.

This concern can be seen in the effort spent by the U.S. to strike al-Qaeda members in Syria thought to be plotting significant external attacks against Western targets. In the midst of the high-profile war against the Islamic State, the U.S. has dedicated significant resources to targeting and disrupting the skilled al-Qaeda operatives who traveled from Pakistan and Afghanistan to embed with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. The concern has been that while Islamic State supporters can shoot up a shopping center or a beach, al-Qaeda's operatives can bring down a plane or a building. The Islamic State rightfully understands that it can negate traditional security measures, and withstand any failures, as long as attacks or the threat of attacks remains constant. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, cares less about perceived disruption than it does tangible destruction when it comes to external attacks. It prefers one attack or a plot that fundamentally alters global aviation security measures (such as the limiting of liquids in carry-on luggage) to ten smaller attacks that dominate a news cycle. As Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani noted, al-Qaeda is holding off on attacking the West, but still desires to and plans to that effect.

The worrisome issue, for both governments and security agencies, is that both groups are successful in their approaches, and committed to their various strategies. The Islamic State is indeed the more likely threat, given that it exhorts anyone to commit acts of violence in its name—be it successfully or unsuccessfully. Al-Qaeda Central, the core group of skilled and inventive plotters, is the more lethal threat even if it is the less likely one, given how current security strategies have been developed to counter its style of attack. With the rise of its affiliates from Yemen to Syria, al-Qaeda is biding its time, and trying to consolidate rather than instigate. Yet the threat from both groups, different as they are in their current approaches —patience versus exuberance—is constant. Both groups seek death and destruction, just on a different scale and in a different style.


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