There is a fervent Saudi attempt to isolate the phenomenon of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and to regard it as a phenomenon unrelated to elements in contemporary Arab political culture (or to American foreign policy legacy, for that matter).
All propagandists of Saudi princes are under strict orders to write (especially in English) and blame the ISIS phenomenon on various things (like on the “Arab soul” or “the Arab body politic” or “the Arab culture” or the “Syrian and Iranian regime” or the “arms of Hezbollah” or the “Arab mindset”, etc.). Yet, the effort is futile. ISIS, like al-Qaeda, is the product of the Wahhabi Saudi ideology. This ideology is behind the various jihadi terrorist organizations wreaking havoc around the world. But the US government is not blameless in this regard at all: it was the US doctrine during the Cold War (and later its sectarian plot in Iraq) which intersected with the Wahhabi ideology of Saudi Arabia to give birth to the jihadi monster.
ISIS and al-Qaeda share the same ideology of the Saudi royal family but they disagree on foreign policy. The story of Bin Laden was well-told: he was on best terms with all Saudi princes until the US invasion of Iraq and the decision by the Saudi royal family to allow the US to invite itself to invade various countries in the region. Prior to that, Bin Laden was a senior member of the political establishment of Saudi Arabia. The textbooks in ISIS-run areas rely on the same Wahhabi literature used in Saudi schools. Kitab al-Tawhid (the collection of strict and dubious Hadith and their interpretations by Mohammed ibn `Abdul-Wahab) is the “bible,” so to speak, for ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the House of Saud.
ISIS and al-Qaeda are similar and yet different in some regards, and below is a list of differences and similarities:
1) Al-Qaeda had a charismatic leader with oratorical skills. He was able to inspire fellow fanatics and young Arabs. ISIS, on the other hand, does not have a charismatic leader and its caliph failed in his first televised speech.
2) Al-Qaeda was centrally run by Bin Laden and his lieutenants while ISIS seems to have a collective leadership style organization.
3) In the distinctions of political parties by Maurice Duverger, al-Qaeda was an elite small organization seeking true believers, while ISIS (and hence its danger) is a mass party/army that wants to run countries.
4) Al-Qaeda specialized in spectacular attacks on Western targets while ISIS focuses on horror images to intimidate and achieve military victories. Don’t underestimate the fear that it instilled in the hearts of its enemies in Syria and Iraq.
5) ISIS focuses on the battle at home while Bin Laden focused on the fight with the US and West.
6) They both share the Wahhabi ideology.
7) Both abhor the religious establishments of al-Azhar and in Riyadh.
8) Both can easily justify murdering fellow Muslims.
9) Both are youth-oriented in their online (or TV) propaganda operations.
10) Al-Qaeda relied on old style media, while ISIS focuses on new media.
11) ISIS is obsessed with campaigning among youth.
12) ISIS has several distinct regional organizations in order to avoid the fate of al-Qaeda after Bin Laden went into hiding and then death.
13) ISIS uses simple language on social media, while Bin Laden favored the old style of Arabic speech-making (his first speech after September 11 was an exception and it worked in his favor among Arab public opinion.)
14) ISIS does not fault al-Qaeda in principle but faults the current leadership of al-Qaeda (see the letter from Abu Mohammed Al-`Adnani to Ayman al-Dhawahiri). Al-Qaeda now faults ISIS in principle.
15) Al-Qaeda was born with the full blessing of the Saudi intelligence service (and with the consent of the US during the Cold War) while ISIS developed in opposition to Saudi rule (see the studies by Saudi dissident Badr al-Ibrahim).
16) ISIS wants to take over the state (and expand it to be integrated into its caliphate) while al-Qaeda wants to subvert the state with no ultimate goal.
17) ISIS wants to impose Islamic laws and regulations while al-Qaeda is too focused on military jihad activities.
18) ISIS went back to “Islam-is-the-solution” while al-Qaeda sticks to bombings-are-the-solution.
19) ISIS has a financial brain, while al-Qaeda was reliant on the largesse of Bin Laden.
20) ISIS addresses itself to the citizens in areas under its control while al-Qaeda addresses itself to the ummah.
21) ISIS and al-Qaeda are quick to resort to takfir.
22) Al-Qaeda sought allies among jihadi groups while ISIS seems keen on alienating fellow jihadi groups.
23) Al-Qaeda focused on foreign policy while ISIS focuses on domestic policy.
24) Both al-Qaeda and ISIS are not keen on antagonizing Israel.
25) Al-Qaeda was a short-range threat to the region, while ISIS seems like a long-term threat to the region.
26) The very creation of al-Qaeda and later of ISIS took place in the context of Western glamorization of Islamist violence and terrorism (first in Afghanistan and later in Syria).
27) Both organizations are internationalist.
28) Al-Qaeda’s literature seemed less hostile to the House of Saud than ISIS, and Abu Mohammed Al-`Adnani pointed this out in his famous letter to Dhawahiri.
29) ISIS, despite its literature claims, is more pragmatic in its recruitment: “former” Ba’thists form an important component in its leadership ranks.
30) Both ISIS and al-Qaeda benefited from direct or indirect Gulf funding.
Dr. As’ad AbuKhalil is a Professor of Political Science at the University of California, a lecturer and the author of The Angry Arab News Service. He tweets @asadabukhalil.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick