Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Why ISIS Beats al Qaeda in Europe

Why ISIS Beats al Qaeda in Europe

A decade ago, counterterrorism analysts around the world fretted about the possibility of European jihadists returningfrom the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and finding safe harbor among embittered diaspora communities across Europe. But the al Qaeda “bleed out,” as it was called in counterterrorism circles, never really happened. The group didn’t take hold of North African and Middle Eastern communities in Europe. It failed to attract many of what the group called “clean skins”—Western passport holders able to slip through security without drawing attention.

The Islamic State (ISIS) has achieved in short order what al Qaeda could only dream about. Motivated by a call for jihad in Syria and connected via social media, second- and third-generation Muslim Europeans joined in droves to fight in Iraq and Syria. Their bonds grew tight; their propensity and their thirst for violence was insatiable. After helping build their caliphate in Syria and Iraq, these young European fighters have turned their guns on their homelands, with devastating effect. Brussels, Istanbul, and Paris—the violence has been steady and sustained.

Recent articles in The Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs suggest that ISIS is simply following the al Qaeda approach to terrorism in Europe. But such claims are off base. Al Qaeda sought to bring Westerners—clean skins—to terrorist safe havens, where the group would train them to follow detailed plans to attack designated high-profile targets. Trained cells and lone infiltrators were deployed back to their homelands in pursuit of al Qaeda’s bidding. These disciples had little autonomy and were directed to strike at high-profile targets. ISIS’ European jihad looks very different from that of its al Qaeda forefathers, and it is far more dangerous for Europe.


ISIS’ greatest advantage in Europe comes from its many years of cultivating foreign fighter networks to Syria. Much has been made of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s Arab legion fighting in Afghanistan during the 1980s, but that force’s numbers paled in comparison to today’s cadres of European ISIS members, which is likely tenfold larger. Fast communication over social media and easy travel into Turkey has facilitated the unprecedented flow. Al Qaeda’s recruitment efforts faced more challenges. The group never enjoyed the level of technological sophistication that is available to ISIS. It relied more on physical facilitation and brought in far fewer newcomers, who were incrementally assessed and slowly integrated into Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Sahel—all locations that were far more difficult than Syria to traverse. Although ISIS has chewed up its international cadres in staggering numbers during routs like the one in Kobani, the European survivors of ISIS will still far outnumber the foreign fighters al Qaeda managed to recruit.

The recruits ISIS has brought in are, in some ways, more valuable than those al Qaeda used to win over. Al Qaeda desperately sought clean skins for the execution of Western plots. But the Westerners they attracted proved to be few and far between. They were often troubled souls, and some ultimately caused discord in the ranks, eventually becoming more of a liability than a benefit. Omar Hammami and Osama al Britani, a famous American foreign fighter and a famous British foreign fighter for al Qaeda’s affiliate al Shabab in Somalia, challenged their emir, Ahmed Godane, and created a rift between foreign and local fighters. Their public dissension increased discord in al Shabab’s ranks and ultimately led to the public killing of these previously celebrated Western recruits.

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