Riyadh – Observers have agreed that ISIS stole the lights from al-Qaeda and succeeded in concentrating its presence on the international arena as a draconian and violent organization, which expanded its geographic control and gained followers across the world. However, many indications say that ISIS’ power has diminished after the hits it received – especially in Iraq and Syria along with the strategic re-ascension of al-Qaeda.
This retreat was a natural result of the organization’s persistence in brutality and its neglect for the strategies that attract supporters on the long term. In fact, differences between ISIS and al-Qaeda are significant on the levels of planning, targets, and structure.
Al-Qaeda has launched its terrorist activities in the nineties, before any other extremist organization. It has kicked off its connections by releasing letters written by its main leaders before moving to voice and video recordings that focus on the central goal of the organization.
These tools have emphasized the remarkable importance of its leaders and its hierarchical structure, particularly during the era of Osama bin Laden, whose regular appearance in videos reflected his charisma and ability to convince others with his beliefs, turning him into a phenomenon.
Interest in Bin Laden started in the western media, later his letters were regularly covered by a Gulf-based channel, which persisted on translating his speeches into English.
Since that stage, al-Qaeda’s media strategy didn’t witness any remarkable changes. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the organization’s leader who succeeded Bin Laden, used to appear every once in a while in videos to mark his presence or to tackle important issues, including ISIS’ deeds, its illegitimacy and draconian practices.
The same strategy was used by Hamza bin Ladin, Osama’s son who appeared in a video on the 9th of July 2016 trying to follow his father’s rhythm in communicating with others. He overlooked technological advancement and used his father’s traditional style in reaching his goals.
Along with his will in avenging his father’s killing, Hamza’s speeches sought to incite against Saudi Arabia and to encourage people on joining al-Qaeda in Yemen. This call was part of the organization’s keenness to use Islam as an ideology and to target the West and precisely the United States which is considered the major enemy.
The young Bin Laden also sought to polarize extremists with the same political and religious goals. It is worth noting that communication between the organization and its supporters takes place through closed private electronic forums.
ISIS’s populist policies
Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS’ media policies have been more populist and focused on communicating with the audience regardless of its leaders’ appearance like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who has rarely shown his face.
ISIS ignored the traditional media and kept pace with the advancement of social media outlets. It overtook other extremist organizations by using websites like Twitter and Facebook and benefited from encrypted messages on apps like Telegram. This advancement allowed the organization to easily communicate with different regions in the globe, not only in the Arab world, but also in the West through different media messages based on the targeted party and in different languages.
As per recruitment, ISIS has targeted people suffering from psychological problems and discrimination because of their religion or ethnicity and recruited them with promises on providing them with a better environment, however, after joining the organization supporters were shocked with different circumstances and exaggerated brutality, which pushed many possible members to hesitate joining the group.
Organizational structure of al-Qaeda
In its beginnings, al-Qaeda was more powerful and organized – particularly in the phase of Osama bin Laden, the organization adopted a “structural hierarchy” that focuses on the control of the elite on the top of the pyramid; assigned to plan for operations usually implemented by regular members.
Structural hierarchy of ISIS
In spite that ISIS has maintained flexibility in recruiting members and communicating with them to carry out operations, Baghdadi has shown his keenness on the “structural hierarchy” of his organization to keep all the important decisions for the supreme leader.
Spirits and Minds
While ISIS appeared to be more brutal against people who oppose it, al-Qaeda has stuck to the same policy it has adopted since its establishment by soliciting its supporters’ hearts and minds.
Qaeda has also sought to gain the emotional and rational support of people in Yemen by suspending taxes which were imposed on incomes, considering it as non-religious practice. The organization has also spread videos showing its members providing medical services, paving local roads, and other practices that serve the Yemenis’ interests.