IS operates significantly differently from all other terrorist groups that came before it and exist today, and in particular, its forebear, Al Qaeda.
The resources enjoyed by IS are the consequence of a successful seizure of land across two countries. Al Qaeda was never able to use this strategy, as it was dependent on host nations like the Sudan and Afghanistan for bases. IS’ land grab includes substantial oil and agricultural land which Al Qaeda could never capitalise on. Since the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the organization has experienced serious financial problems due in part to the collapse of what remained of its bases in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and because of the severe disaggregation or breakdown of the group after its leader’s death. As a result, some branches of Al Qaeda are heavily underfinanced and its ability to carry out attacks – which are becoming more and more expensive - is not as great as it had been just 10 years ago.
According to the Global Terrorism Report, despite Al Qaeda’s global character, IS has a much higher number of fighters. While Al Qaeda’s estimated membership ranges from 3,700 to 19,000, including all affiliates, IS alone has 20,000 to 30,500.
In addition, IS is believed to be better armed. Recent videos released by the group show surveillance footage that is likely to have been shot by a drone. Al Qaeda has never been heard to have such technologies. If this footage is genuine then IS will soon rise to a different level of terrorism where it may conceivably be able to strike its targets without losing people. If its members are not engaged in risky overt warfare, it will become harder to stop them.
We might suppose, with reason, that one of the most important factors that has contributed to the recruitment success of IS is the way in which it uses social media. Their media campaign seems to represent a new trend in terrorist propaganda and is much more sophisticated than those of Al Qaeda and Boko Haram, both of which use social media as a secondary means of spreading their ideas and recruiting.
The first distinctive feature of the IS media campaign is that it spreads violent content, such as videos and photos of beheadings and mass executions. Al Qaeda tends to opt for more restrained content focused on communicating a verbal message. The use of violent images makes sense for IS in that it is aimed at a demonstration of the group’s power. The message they send in such scenes of violence is “see that we are strong, we are invulnerable, we are powerful and ruthless and no one can stop us.”
It is also evident that IS orchestrates every scene: the orange outfits of their victims, black figures in masks, “medieval-style” executions. Everything is aimed at gaining more attention. As IS achieves its goals, it intimidates enemies and convinces prospective recruits of its power, and that is worth joining.
The second peculiarity is that IS tries to show its recruits another side of jihad. Where the usual terrorist message bleakly calls for martyrdom, IS instead tries to relate to modern society. In their posts and videos, IS fighters pose with jars of Nutella, speak of their favourite Disney cartoons, have a ‘pizza night’ or visit friends in a hospital. This is aimed at showing that jihad can be actually be ‘fun’ and is a good strategy for involving young people both in the Middle East and in the West.
What is more, IS’ general social media presence is impressive. They publish online journal with recent news from the battlefield and have an application that can be installed on computer or Android smartphone. Once you sign up you are able to access tweets, photos, news and other content created by IS. This content is translated into French, English and many other languages.
The presence of IS on the web is relatively high and despite the fact that they are adherents to the most extreme and medieval form of Islam, they do not reject modern means in order to recruit new people. Moreover, judging by the numbers of foreign fighters they recruit, they are pretty successful in this approach. Al Qaeda cannot compare. In the 21st century, when information is more than just data, and a means of attraction and distraction, those in the know are armed with a very effective tool for the achievement of their goals. IS seems to understand this, and it makes them more dangerous than Al Qaeda.
IS is a new threat for the international community, one that breaks the previous moulds and is in a class of its own. Traditional means of counter-terrorism, like airstrikes or limited military campaigns, will not be enough. In order to fully defeat this group, the international community needs a new, comprehensive approach. It should target IS, not only physically, but fully disavow their psychological power.