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The Islamic State is Not Al-Qaeda

If the international community sees the Islamic State as a mere extension of al-Qaeda, the measures taken against it will fail.

On June 26, the world watched in horror as terrorists unleashed a series of attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France. While people struggle to make sense of the devastation left in the wake of these incidents, governments across the globe aim to prevent further strikes on their soil from the Islamic State (IS), a radical movement that is both indebted to its terrorist forefathers while being a distinct challenge for countries in the Middle East and beyond.

The carnage began in Kuwait with an explosion inside the Imam al-Sadiq mosque. A suicide bombing killed 27 people and wounded 227 others. The attack was claimed by an IS affiliate, Najd Province, which said it was targeting Shiite Muslims. The perpetrator was later discovered to be a Saudi national who snuck into the country.

The day continued to unravel in France, where a man decapitated his boss before attempting to ignite the chemical factory where they both worked.

Then, in the seaside town of Sousse in Tunisia, a young man dressed as a tourist opened fire on European beachgoers at the Imperial Marhaba Hotel. The attack had an almost immediate impact on a tourism industry that has struggled to recover since the 2011 revolution and was still suffering from an assault on the Bardo National Museum in March 2015. Media later revealed the attacker as a student from Kairouan, Tunisia’s fourth largest city and a noted meeting place for the now banned group Ansar al-Sharia.

The Islamic State: Shocking Without Awe

While IS did not immediately take credit for all the attacks, together these events follow a pattern of lone wolf terrorist attacks that have come to be associated with the group. Due to this, the Islamic State, which split from Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda in 2014, is both indebted to and distinct from its former parent organization. Al-Qaeda made its name by engaging in well-coordinated, meticulously planned attacks that sought to instill fear and awe in witnesses, be they victims or potential recruits.

Thus far, while the radical breakaway organization of the Islamic State has showed interest in publicizing its barbarism and making a name for itself via gruesome videos spread on social media, it has not demonstrated the interest or capability in launching attacks on the level of al-Qaeda. Though this could change, the group’s primary goal—establishing, expanding and ruling an Islamic State within Syria and Iraq—suggests that such an objective will continue to take precedence over planning complex attacks far from the battlefield. This does not mean that terrorist attacks launched or inspired by IS are not a threat to the West or countries in the Middle East—the aforementioned events clearly indicate otherwise. But the attacks will more likely than not continue to be carried out by IS sympathizers or foreign fighters who have returned from Syria and Iraq.

Given that the events in Tunisia and France were carried out by disaffected locals—inspired by but not directly carried out by IS—it must be understood that these attacks spring from domestic contexts, potentially related to but distinct from other countries experiencing similar strikes.

In Saudi Arabia, years of fundamentalist Wahhabi-based education and high unemployment have left the country with a large percentage of youth who have little to do, no money to spend and very conservative religious views. Similarly, Tunisia experiences high unemployment, particularly acute among the country’s youth, and a political climate that for years only offered one alternative to secular dictatorship: radical Islam. In France, the country’s failure to fully integrate certain segments of its French Muslim population has resulted in years of tension, spurring the gruesome attack against the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. While some may credit IS for these attacks, they arise from local circumstances, a far cry from the 19 hijackers who traveled to the United States with a plan already in mind.

Stopping IS at the Source: Home

Since these terrorist attacks originate in local contexts, stopping such incidents will require responding to the specific conditions that each attack originates within. While Europe faces a risk from IS sympathizers, a European response that favors heavy-handed tactics over integration and dialogue will likely fail, as it would further the “Muslim as victim” narrative that drives many European Muslims to extremism in the first place.

In Saudi Arabia, the country must maintain its path toward development, providing youth with jobs, while keeping an eye on the country’s notoriously conservative judiciary.

Tunisian authorities must recognize that Tunisia is sending more fighters to IS than any other by making serious efforts to counter radical preaching, solving an unemployment crisis that contributed in no small way to the revolution, and giving young people an opportunity to contribute to their country. Despite the many changes that have taken place since the revolution, a class of older men still dominate the ranks of Tunisia’s political and social leadership. Giving youth opportunities that go beyond mere paychecks would serve Tunisia well in stemming the threat of terrorist activity within its borders and dampening the enthusiasm that many young men have for running off to go play hero in a foreign land.

Although the Islamic State is indebted to al-Qaeda in popularizing the rhetoric and ideology behind the movement that is often called “jihadist” in the West, solving the problem of lone wolf attacks inspired by IS will be fundamentally different.

In confronting al-Qaeda, the US and its allies attacked the group’s leadership, giving it nowhere to hide, while cleaving potential supporters away from the terrorist organization and bringing them into the mainstream political debate. While such tactics will likely be effective in defeating IS in Syria, stopping lone wolf attacks outside of Syria and Iraq will require different steps. Governments, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, must respond to the local nuances that make young men in places such as Tunisia, France and Saudi Arabia ripe for radicalization.

IS does reach a significant number of young sympathizers via social media, but these youths were already alienated and pushed beyond the edges of society. As such, lone wolf attacks inspired by the group will continue to originate from alienated young men, not from the group’s leadership. If the world sees the Islamic State as a mere extension of al-Qaeda, the measures taken against it will fail.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Alexskopje / Shutterstock.com


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