For over a decade, since the horrible 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda has been considered worldwide as being the most dangerous and possibly also the most influential terrorist group in the world. Having started out in the late 1980s as a small group of fanatics fighting in Afghanistan, the group has evolved over the last few decades to a large ‘multi-national’ type terrorist organisation with various wings and a chain of command.
As explained in a previous article, al Qaeda is now in its third generation, which has come along through a combination of the Arab Spring and the death of Osama bin Laden. Since then al Qaeda has split into various different regional groups of various degrees of danger. The group which poses the largest threat of attack on the west is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen. AQAP has a vast amount of experience with its leaders being previously very close to Osama bin Laden himself in the run up to the 9/11 attacks. Amongst their members is the infamous expert bomb-maker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri who has been developing smartly disguised bombs for a number of years.
The Islamic State
In recent months there has been the emergence of an organisation called ISIS, referring to themselves as the Islamic State. Initially considered as a terrorist group, ISIS has quickly evolved to much more than this. Having seized vast amounts of cash, oil and weaponry it is more similar to a small army which also controls a fair amount of land in both Syria and Iraq. Although its aim may sound similar to that of al Qaeda, the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, its method of achieving this is very much different. This was made clear in 2013 when Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda central issued a statement for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now the Islamic State (ISIS), to be abolished.
Much of ISIS’ political messages are sent through violent and brutal acts such as the recent beheading of the American journalist by a British national who has gone to join the ISIS cause. It is due to this violent nature that al Qaeda has severed its links with the group, which seems to have no method in its ruthless killing of innocents and civilians in its quick take over in Iraq and Syria.
Who poses the greatest threat to the West?
This question is not straight forward, starting with the question about whether ISIS even wants to attack the west or whether its aims are simply regional. Although ISIS has made threats to attack the west, it has yet to follow through. Although ISIS seems to be a new group, its leaders have been around for over a decade borne out of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s group called the Islamic State in Iraq. Although the group has previously launched attacks in Amman, Jordan, most of its activities have not stretched beyond the borders of Iraq.
This said, ISIS does still pose a threat to the West, this threat having increased with the recent air strikes conducted by the U.S. military. The threat posed by ISIS is, however, a very different threat from the one posed by AQAP and the other al Qaeda affiliates.
The threat from ISIS is far greater than that of al Qaeda for a number of reasons. Firstly, ISIS is much larger and better armed than al Qaeda. Although al Qaeda as a group may have a larger presence worldwide, having such a large group concentrated in one area provides a far greater threat. Furthermore while al Qaeda spends a lot of time and effort on hiding and operating in the shadows, ISIS controls a large area of territory where it is governing people giving it a safe haven that al Qaeda hasn’t had since before 2001.
The largest threat from ISIS is, however, its ability to recruit members from all over the world. An estimated 2000 extremists with European passports and a further 200 Americans have travelled to Syria to join ISIS. Not only does this give them access to pass back into their respective countries undetected, but they are gaining a large amount of actual fighting experience. Although the western intelligence agencies are doing their best to catch the fighters on their return, there will remain a large number of them who make it back undetected. Furthermore the fighting experience gained in Syria is far greater than the experience previous al Qaeda members would have gained in their training camps.
ISIS is benefitting from a greater funding base, large support both local and abroad. It is in control of a large territory from which to plan an attack and train fighters. Furthermore the group has a vast amount of weapons and are fast gaining experience on the battlefield. This, however, does not guarantee a successful attack on the west. Al Qaeda spent almost a decade meticulously planning and training for the 9/11 attack and the small size worked in their favour with a smaller number of people knowing about the plot making it easier to keep it under the radar of western intelligence services.