Two of the world’s most notorious terrorist organizations, the Islamic State group and al Qaeda, have stepped up efforts to gain support from the next generation of recruits with a series of video messages that underscore the increasing competitiveness between militant groups in the Middle East.
After staging the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., al Qaeda was arguably the strongest and most-feared Muslim terrorist organization in the world for more than a decade, recruiting militants en masse from madrasas, or Islamic schools. However, the group met its match in 2014 when the Islamic State group, formerly known as either ISIS or ISIL, seized large portions of Iraq and Syria and declared itself a caliphate. The Islamic State’s brutal video campaign has attracted tens of thousands of fighters from more than 80 countries as of this month -- and it has also aroused the ire of al Qaeda, which is now marketing itself as the only viable option for jihadi hopefuls.
In recent months, al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula, or AQAP, a Yemen-based offshoot of the group, has released videos in which it denounces the brutal Islamic State strategy of beheading hostages and mass-executing opponents. This strategy is based on the premise that the videos and images depicting those atrocities will be seen all over the world.
“AQAP is trying to position itself as the less extreme, less violent and more viable option for young jihadists who are looking to join a movement,” said Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “Al Qaeda core and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has seen [the Islamic State] ‘success’ and has noticed that they've been a little bit behind in the digital game," Gambhir said.
But that’s an uphill fight for the group founded by Osama bin Laden. According to John Horgan, a psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, the younger group can count on the “truly global appeal of ISIS.”
“They have become so adept at social media that they are reaching out to disaffected individuals on a global scale,” he said in an interview with International Business Times when the group first began to gain ground in Iraq and Syria this year.
Since the Islamic State group seized the Iraqi city of Mosul in June, its three different media wings have released almost 400 videos. Although several of its videos of beheadings have gone viral, the group also produced less violent recruitment-focused material, in which foreigners in Iraq and Syria talk about what life is like in what ISIS calls the caliphate. Other videos aim to educate viewers about the group’s philosophy, history and their plans for expansion.
Al Qaeda’s video propaganda was never that intense.
As the group’s leadership was chased into hiding by the U.S. manhunt for bin Laden and his deputies, the frequency of fatwas, or Islamic rulings, issued through video messaging dwindled. During an interview with ABC News in February 1998, bin Laden issued a fatwa declaring it the religious duty of all Muslims to kill Americans. He also published audio recordings and distributed photos to spread al Qaeda’s philosophy and recruit soldiers.
For a long time, that mode of messaging appeared to work for al Qaeda. In November 1995, a bomb exploded at the Saudi National Guard training center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing five Americans. The bombers made videotaped confessions saying they were inspired by bin Laden.
But then the Islamic State group came along. Forced to recruit in the world media arena, al Qaeda brought back in October its English-language magazine and named it “Resurgence.” In the past month, AQAP launched what some called a “media blitz,” releasing several videos. They alternate between calls for lone-wolf attacks against the West and a smear campaign against ISIS’ brutal tactics.
In one of its latest videos, AQAP held its first “international press conference,” where militant commander Nasr Ibn Ali al-Ansi answered journalists’ questions, taken from social media. He denounced ISIS for its barbarity and said the group would fall as quickly as it rose, adding that al Qaeda was the only group that could defeat the West.
“Filming and promoting it [beheadings] among people in the name of Islam and jihad is a big mistake and not acceptable, whatever the justifications are,” al-Ansi said.
The beheadings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff set off a wave of fury on social-media sites and forced Western leaders to publicly address the Islamic State group’s barbarity. At the same time, news broke that dozens of young men raised in the West, from cities such as London and states such as Minnesota, had left their homes to join the group.
“That media strategy is a key part of the way that ISIS aims to be sustainable,” Gambhir said. “ISIS’ leaders know that they needs to have an ongoing stream of fighters and civilians coming into the caliphate in order for its existence to be sustainable.”
Andre Poulin, a Canadian who converted to Islam, first appeared on YouTube in Syria last year. He said his family didn’t understand why he had moved to the country to fight with other jihadists against President Bashar Assad’s forces. Allah had pulled him to Syria, he said in his video message. Poulin was just one of several Westerners to join the Islamic State.
“Before I come here to Syria, I had money, I had a family, I had good friends. It wasn’t like I was some anarchist or somebody who just wants to destroy the world and kill everybody. I was a regular person,” Poulin, who later began calling himself Abu Muslim, said in the message. “We need the engineers, we need doctors, we need professionals. Every person can contribute something to the Islamic State.”
Messaging like Poulin’s helped attract foreigners to sneak into Iraq and Syria and fight. Horgan said in the more than 20 years he has been researching the topic, he had never seen a message by a member of a terrorist organization as compelling as Poulin’s.
The Islamic State group does not openly oppose al Qaeda, but it does consider any organization that does not pledge loyalty to be an enemy. When ISIS Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced last month his expansion into several countries, including Yemen, he declared the “nullification” of existing terrorist organizations that did not join his Islamic state. AQAP immediately released a video response calling the caliphate “inauthentic” and criticizing Baghdadi’s strict allegiance policy as “driving a wedge” between jihadi factions and distracting from their shared goal of defeating what senior AQAP official Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari called “a Crusader war against all the honest mujahedeen,” according to the Long War Journal.
Despite its efforts to quell the appeal of the Islamic State group, al Qaeda is largely failing to gain equal attention and support. ISIS has successfully launched grassroots campaigns to gain supporters in places such as Jordan and Kosovo. Its flags are being raised in countries all over the world. In contrast, Al Qaeda seems unable to transform from its past strategy of hiding, planning attacks, executing them and then retreating back into the shadows.
But that is precisely the strategy al-Ansi said would ultimately make al Qaeda win in the long term.
In his answer to a question in the press-conference video, al-Ansi said ISIS was “too distracted” and fractionalized. According to Gambhir, the counterterrorism analyst, he may have had a point. There are roughly five stages to completing jihad, and al Qaeda has been stuck on the third step of “destabilizing attacks,” the analyst said. Meanwhile, the Islamic State group skipped to the final step of declaring an Islamic state, namely, its caliphate. Its next move is to keep the caliphate running and defeat the enemy in one final battle. This may be the objective that ISIS was aiming for with the brutal videos it intended as the tool that would provoke the West into sending ground troops to the region.
In the meantime, despite having been a so-called state for only six months, the Islamic State is having great success with its drive for new converts. “ISIS isn’t only appealing to those who would join because of the brutality,” Gambhir said. “They’re also appealing to those who want to join because they want to live in a sustainable, governable caliphate.”