In the aftermath of attacks on Nairobi, Beirut, Paris, and Bamako over the last few years it is becoming easier to distinguish between the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda, and their affiliates. These groups share a common beliefs system, but ISIS and al-Qaeda are rivals and perhaps enemies. Neither is monolithic and there are also significant differences between them and their affiliates, especially ISIS and Boko Haram, despite pledges of allegiance.
How ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram Are Alike
First, all three have emerged from the Salafist theological school of Islam. Broadly speaking, Salafism interprets literally the Koran and other seventh century writings associated with Islam’s earliest days. From a secular perspective, Salafism is puritanical in style of living and is characterized by rigid adherence to Islamic law, sharia, and its harsh punishments. It is the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, and al-Qaeda’s founder, Osama Bin Laden, was Saudi. The shared Salafist belief system can obscure the important differences among the three. Salafist theology can be sophisticated and subtle. Many Muslims deny that the ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda movements are “Islamic” or “salafist,” but, repellant though they are, they have emerged from a common salafist context.
Second, all three are de-centralized movements, especially outside of their traditional areas of operation. Leadership appears unstable. Internally, disputes appear to be addressed through violence.
Third, they have emerged in regions that experienced colonialism and are characterized by a history of elite exploitation of the poor, notoriously bad governance, and popular marginalization.
How ISIS and Boko Haram Together Are Different From Al-Qaeda
ISIS and Boko Haram have a stronger millenarian religious cast in their ideology and propaganda than al-Qaeda. The former aim to create (or prepare for) the creation of God’s kingdom on earth and the End Times. For ISIS, the focus is on the creation of a genuine Islamic state in preparation for Armageddon. In the case of Boko Haram, which has sworn “allegiance” to ISIS, it is the creation of God’s kingdom through achievement of justice for the poor by the rigid implementation of sharia. That requires the destruction of the Nigerian state, but, thus far, Boko Haram has demonstrated little interest outside Nigeria and certain, adjacent regions that were part of pre-colonial Islamist kingdoms centered in what is now Bornu.
To a greater extent than al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram exploit for propaganda purposes a pornography of violence: hand-chopping, beheadings, and other 7th century punishments, including a revival of crucifixion and burnings.
Al Qaeda and its affiliates are more “political” than the millenarian ISIS and Boko Haram. Its goal is the expulsion of the West and its influences from the Middle East and North Africa rather than the creation of God’s kingdom, Armageddon, or the End Times. The al-Qaeda affiliates are stridently anti-Western, but in contrast to ISIS their operations are informed by “political” strategy and tactics, rather than millenarian enthusiasm. It is they that claimed responsibility for the attacks on Westgate and Bamako. Al Qaeda argues against the “unnecessary” killing of Muslims, and in its operations distinguishes between Muslims (of any sort) who are spared, and non-Muslims who are killed. (This was a characteristic of the al-Qaeda affiliated attacks on Westgate in 2013 and Bamako in 2015.)
How ISIS and Boko Haram Are Different
With its universalist, millenarian message ISIS is remarkably effective in recruiting fighters from around the world. Boko Haram, with its more local focus, has attracted none. Boko Haram and ISIS emphasizes the necessity to destroy “apostate” or “heretical” Muslims. Indeed, most victims of Boko Haram are Muslims that do not subscribe to Salafist structures of belief. Boko Haram, moreover, murders Muslim school boys and enslaves Muslim school girls attending secular schools because by doing so, the students render themselves “apostates” and under sharia they must die. Boko Haram recently overtook ISIS as “the world’s most deadly terrorist organization.”
The ISIS attacks on Paris may well have been the consequences of what the City of Light symbolizes: rationality, tolerance, and the good life, with formal religion confined to its own sphere. That may have been at least as important as vengeance against the Hollande government for its military operations in Syria. Boko Haram remains focused on the destruction of the Nigerian state.
Movements Are More Than Religion and Ideology
In Mali and Algeria, al-Qaeda affiliates also have an important criminal dimension, coming out of decades of smuggling and kidnapping. ISIS is much influenced by former Iraqi Baathists who are focused on the recovery of secular power rather than preparation for Armageddon. Where both movements operate, there is evidence of score-settling over grievances from yesterday or hundreds of years ago. Both are no doubt exploited by political leaders, warlords, and tribal chiefs for their own narrow purposes.