ISIS vs. Al Qaeda vs. Hamas-The Global Threat of Islamic Terrorism

ISIS vs. Al Qaeda vs. Hamas: The Global Threat of Islamic Terrorism

The threat of radical Islamic terrorism has been a prominent security concern for the US and other western countries for over 50 years. Early attacks targeting the 1972 Munich Olympics, US Marine Corps troops in Beirut in 1982, and the hijacking of a Pan Am flight to Karachi in 1986 raised the threat to the forefront of international security priorities. 

By virtue of these attacks being predominantly carried out in sudden, rapid operations at large events or on public transportation, these attacks are known to cause heavy physical and psychological damage without significant losses on the terrorists’ side. Suicide bombings are the clearest example of this endgame, allowing terrorist organizations to remain at large even when under attack by western nations. Despite this clear aim, world leaders have gone through cycles of misguided proclamations of victory over Islamic terrorist groups.  Now, the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel and March’s mass shooting at a concert hall near Moscow have reignited fears about a resurgence in large scale attacks from Islamist terrorist groups

Crocus City Hall (Russia) Attack

IS-K (Islamic State – Khorasan Province), an affiliate of the Islamic State (referred to as IS, ISIS, ISIL, etc.),) claimed responsibility for the recent shooting in a concert hall outside of Moscow. The shooting is among the worst terror attacks on Russian soil in 20 years and comes at a moment when most of Russia’s fighting-age population is immersed in ground operations in Ukraine. Preoccupied with the war, Russia’s vulnerability was an opportunity for IS-K to achieve mass damage, killing over 130 and injuring approximately 180 civilians. 

According to CNN, experts believe the IS-K attack may indicate a larger push by IS and its affiliates to target western population centers, to include sporting events such as the Paris Olympics this summer. 

Germany’s interior minister has said that radical Islamic terrorism poses the greatest security threat to Germany. Concerned about the upcoming 2024 European Championship that will take place in the country this summer, she said that Germany will introduce temporary border controls as part of its security expansion. For Germany, domestic tensions are likely to heat up as restrictions on immigration from Islamic countries may be paired with increased suspicions and hostility toward its large refugee population.

Likewise, US retired Gen. Frank McKenzie, former head of U.S. Central Command warned that the threat of IS is growing, and they have a “strong desire” to attack the US.

What is the Islamic State and What Do They Want?

IS (“Daesh” in Arabic), the main body behind its various affiliates (IS-K, ISIL, ISI, etc.), emerged as a Salafi jihadist group of Sunni extremists in 2004. Their main goal is to establish an Islamic Caliphate to resemble that which existed in the Quran, in which “believers” would live in accordance with Islamic law. Non-believers, or “infidels,” are considered an affront to the commandments of Allah and must either convert or be killed.  

It emerged from the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) following the invasion of US troops. Relatively obscure in its early years, it used that time and the instability in Iraq and Syria to bolster its ranks. IS rose to prominence in 2011 following the Arab Spring revolutions. One of their first and most prominent acts was to abduct, torture, and televise the execution of American journalist Jim Foley. It was Foley’s gruesome death that put IS into the American and western public consciousness. By 2014, the group succeeded in capturing large territories in Iraq and Syria, which it ruled as an independent caliphate until 2019, when it lost control due to ongoing conflict with Americans, Iraqis, and Kurds. 

IS-K was formed as an offshoot in 2015 and by 2018, it was ranked as the world’s fourth deadliest terror group. Its most lethal attack was a bombing outside a Kabul airport, which killed 170 Afghans and 13 US military personnel. 

While IS has undergone several name changes throughout its 25-year history, and operates in several regions under different leaders, its overarching goal is the same: to create a “pure Islamic state” governed by Sharia law. Its enemies include the Taliban, Afghanistan’s Shia Muslim minorities, Israel, Russia, and Western countries, including the US, UK, and Europe. 

IS vs. Hamas 

Following the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel, Israeli politicians bolstered the hashtag #HamasisISIS (Hamas is ISIS). While the deadly acts of violence from Hamas and IS have been carried out with similar brutality, the two terror groups vehemently oppose each other due to the longstanding conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims

Hamas is, in theory, a more localized ideology whose main goal is to drive Israel and the Jews “into the sea.” IS has a global outlook, seeking to bring Sharia law to the entire world. For example, IS cannot stomach Shiite Iran or its proxies, regarding them (including Hamas) as “apostates.

IS vs. Al Qaeda

Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the September 11 attacks, and IS both are global jihadist groups. Al Qaeda is a Sunni group, while IS is Salafi, a revival movement within Sunni Islam calling for a return to the days of the Islamic Caliphate (circa 700 CE). Both are extremist organizations that aim to destroy and disrupt Western influence in the Middle East. IS, however, goes further ideologically than al-Qaeda, demanding global adherence to their Caliphate. Importantly, IS has also been significantly more effective in radicalizing not just local fighters to join their cause but lone wolves in countries around the world (including the US, UK, France, and more) to carry out attacks on their behalf. Indeed, it is their weaponization of online radicalization and propaganda that has made them so much more difficult to defeat than al-Qaeda, effectively extending the battlefield to cover most major cities in the western world and the Middle East.   .

Al Qaeda, on the other hand, kept their organizational goals relatively narrow in comparison. They do not often outright condemn Iranian proxies and refrain from direct confrontation with their larger adversary in Tehran. Rather, they support actions that harm western and Israeli interests in the Middle East, even if they come from Shiites. For example, after the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel, Al Qaeda immediately praised the event and called on its Muslim brothers to support and join Hamas fighters in battles around the world. IS, on the other hand, had a less celebratory reaction to the attacks, not because they have any sympathy for Israel, but because they repudiate Shiite Iran and its proxies. 

Recognizing a Common Threat

While IS and Al-Qaeda are the most prominent Islamic terror organizations we most often hear of, the spread of this ideology cannot be underestimated. In Africa, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab regularly attack civilians in Nigeria and Somalia, among other countries. Each has its own aims and charter which often differ. However, despite any differences, their tactics and rhetoric all promote and glorify the killing of civilians. 

Some of the most well-known Islamic terror groups today — ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Hamas — have different ideologies, but they all present a threat to Western values, including democracy and international humanitarian law (rules of warfare). As the world has witnessed one too many times, from 9/11 to a Kabul airport to a Russian concert hall, several of these terror organizations present a tangible threat to the lives of ordinary people and are liable to strike at the most unexpected of moments.