Terror or Terrorism? Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Comparative Perspective *

By Gomes, Aureo de Toledo; Mikhael, Michelle Mitri | Brazilian Political Science Review, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Terror or Terrorism? Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Comparative Perspective *


Gomes, Aureo de Toledo, Mikhael, Michelle Mitri, Brazilian Political Science Review


At the moment in which this article is written, al-Qaeda, ISIS1 and the phenomenon of terrorism continue to receive considerable attention in the media. Al-Qaeda, for instance, recently announced to be acting in Kashmir, increasing the possibilities of tension in that region even more2. In regards to ISIS, at least since October 2016, Iraqi forces have been gaining territory in Mosul, the secondlargest city of Iraq, which had been taken by ISIS on June 10, 20143. No less important were the terrorist attacks in Berlin4 and Istanbul5, which were examples of how terrorist attacks are permeating the international context as well. For many, the above events are reverberations of what policymakers and analysts have designated as the War on Terror, results of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, whose fifteenyear anniversary was last year. Even now, Al-Qaeda is active, although perhaps more fragile since the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Conversely, ISIS led a geopolitical reconfiguration of the Middle East from 2014 to 2017, taking advantage of the instabilities originating from the U.S. intervention in Iraq (2003) and the civil war in Syria (2011). The most concrete example of this was the occupation of a territory the size of the United Kingdom containing approximately six million people (BYMAN, 2016, p. 136).

Notwithstanding similarities vis-â-vis origin and political/ideological orientation, the misunderstandings and differences between the two groups are public. The origin of ISIS was in particularly influenced by a schism between central al-Qaeda and its franchise in Iraq, which was led at the time by the Jordanian Abu Musab alZarqawi. It is no coincidence that the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, recently has denounced the extremist excesses of ISIS, which suggests that both organizations compete for supporters around the world6. One can see that, despite the initial similarities, the two groups behave differently. As a result, based on a synthesized framework, we organize this analysis around two questions: What are the logics of action for the two groups? What are the implications of these logics for their behavior?

The argument to be developed is the following: while al-Qaeda seems to use terror with the intention of inducing a certain behavior in another public that can alter the correlation of forces in its favor for the future, given that it is a weak actor vis-â-vis its principal contender, ISIS is a more complex organization that is also interested in installing a new political order in the territories that it occupies. Such logics and objectives therefore produce different behaviors despite political and ideological similarities.

The article is structured into three sections. First, we conduct a literature review about the academic production on terrorism studies, adding our analytic framework. The second section starts by examining al-Qaeda, followed by ISIS. Finally, we present our final conclusions.

Debates about terrorism

Based on reviews from Reid (1997) and Ranstorp (2009), it is possible to identify stages in what is conventionally called terrorism studies. According to them, systematic and consistent research can be found starting in the 1970s, with Gurr (1970), Rapaport (1971) and Crenshaw (1972). To some degree, it is possible to argue that the main trigger for these investigations was the concept of urban guerrilla warfare, stemming from experiences with groups such as Baader Meinhof in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. Among the main findings of this group of studies was one argument about the political nature of terrorism - in other words, how the logic of action of these groups longed for the reversal of a particular status quo.

If this first stage included the publication of important work and the emergence of notable research centers, such as the RAND Corporation program on terrorism led by Brian Jenkins in 1972, the interval between the 1980s and 1990s was one of relative stagnation. …

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