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ISIS is More Dangerous than Al-Qaida. But How?

In his final state of the Union address, Barak Obama mentioned that ISIS does not pose a direct threat to the US. This comes at a time when we have witnessed two back to back attacks, one in Istanbul and another one in Jakarta. Over the past six months we have seen a string of ISIS led attacks in Paris and Beirut, all proving the serious threat that the group poses. Looking at what has transpired over the last six months, Obama’s statement cannot be farther from the truth.

A closer study of the ISIS’ capabilities will prove that it is a much bigger threat than Al-Qaida. What enhances ISIS’ global outreach is the vast number of foreign fighters who are joining them. A UN report tabled on March 2015 stated that there were up to 22,000 foreign troops, from around 100 nationalities fighting for ISIS. Though Al-Qaida had its share of international fighters, ISIS’ strong propaganda program and superior capabilities means that these radicalized foreign fighters can pose a much bigger threat.

The danger increases many fold when these fighters return to their home countries. Their radicalization and training mean that they are a significant security threat. Already countries across the European Union, India, US and Australia are coming up with strategies to detain returning fighters.

ISIS’ rapid rise has meant that several regional terror groups have sworn allegiance. A group like Boko Haram was initially a regional terror group whose impact was limited to Nigeria. However, by owing allegiance to ISIS, it’s drawn into the much wider network that ISIS possesses. As a result, a group that was initially a very local threat becomes an international concern. Boko Haram is not an isolated case of a regional terror group pledging allegiance to ISIS. Several groups like Khalifa Islamiyah Mindanio, Abu Sayyaf, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Ansar al-Sharia, all of which are regional terror networks, have pledged allegiance to ISIS. This extends its reach right from the Philippines to Libya and beyond. Though Al-Qaida had networks across the world, the support ISIS is receiving from various regional terror groups can make their global reach more dangerous.

What sets ISIS apart from Al-Qaida is its control over territory. Al-Qaida was operating from territory controlled by the Taliban. ISIS, on the other hand, is in direct control over land in Syria and Iraq. The control over land has given it access to material and economic resources that Al-Qaida did not have access to. Al-Qaida received financial resources from the illegal opium trade, ISIS today is in control of a much more lucrative commodity, oil. By controlling oil rich regions in Iraq and Syria, the oil trade gives ISIS access to significant financial resources. Therefore measures like freezing donors’ bank accounts, a method commonly used to deal with Al-Qaida’s income cannot be effective in ISIS’ case. The vast economic resources means that ISIS can access superior military technology which makes them far more dangerous than Al-Qaida.

Unlike Al-Qaida, ISIS is also a part of the much larger regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As a Sunni organization, ISIS is viewed by many regional Sunni powers as an effective check against rising Iranian influence (especially in Iraq and Syria). Regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have been accused of funding or helping ISIS in some way. Therefore, defeating ISIS will also mean taking on the much larger regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Considering how crucial an ally Saudi Arabia is for the US, this is not going to be an easy task.

Looking back at what has transpired over the last few weeks, it is important for us to recognize that ISIS is a much larger threat than Al-Qaida. The presence of foreign fighters and the support of regional outfits, has a made ISIS’ global outreach far more dangerous. The fact that it directly controls oil rich territory in Iraq and Syria means that it has access to financial resources that are far greater than Al-Qaida. Finally, fighting ISIS will mean getting involved in the regional power game between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The recent escalations in tension, makes this task more complex. The battle against ISIS is, by all means, going to be a long-term battle. Unlike fighting Al-Qaida, this battle is going to be far more complex and will involve making some tough decisions regarding regional alliances.