The Buzz

ISIS vs. Al Qaida: Battle of the Terrorist Brands

It has been a bloody summer in Europe so far, with ISIS-linked and inspired attacks taking place in Nice, Wurzburg, Ansbach, Normandy and, just recently, Charleroi. The attacks seem to have been the work of a few individuals and the body counts have been low, with the exception of the attack in Nice, which claimed at least 84 lives. The number of attacks, the varied but generally unsophisticated methods,  and the lack of strong ties between the attackers and ISIS leadership in Iraq and Syria demonstrate a major difference between ISIS and al Qaida. Namely, ISIS has adopted the “Big Box Retail Outlet” strategy of branding while al Qaida remains committed to framing itself as a luxury brand.

ISIS’s big box retail approach consists of several important variables: reach, consistency, its positioning as a loss leader, psychological appeal and freshness (or keeping things new and current). Al Qaida, as the luxury alternative, is more focused on exclusivity, pedigree, price-setting and seeking adherents that truly understand its message.

For ISIS, it’s a numbers game, both in focusing more on the quantity than the quality of attacks, but also in terms of reach and thus, recruitment. To reach as many potential recruits as possible, ISIS relies on several mediums to communicate its propaganda, from print publications like Dabiq to videos produced in multiple languages. It even retains an unofficial wire service, Amaq News Agency, to disseminate messages, including claims of responsibility for attacks. Moreover, by delegating the bulk of its media output to provincial information offices that focus on local and regional events, ISIS is demonstrating a lack of concern with staying on message.

Because the volume of messages matters more than staying on a specific message, social media, which has rapidity and reach but not control, is much more important to ISIS than it is to al Qaida. It does not matter to ISIS if the messages in their various communications streams clash. The implication to the target audience is, "if this particular message doesn't motivate you, don't worry, a different one will come along soon." Followers and recruits can almost always find something that appeals to them in the ISIS message torrent.

In terms of consistency, ISIS positions its brand around several themes, but above all else, it attempts to portray its organization as a defender of Sunni Muslims worldwide, the ummah. To achieve this, ISIS positions itself in contrast to its enemies—Shiites, Jews, crusaders, etc. This message resonates with Sunnis at a more parochial level in Syria and Iraq, but also gains traction with the global jihadi movement on a more strategic plain. It also motivates young Muslims outside the Islamic world who feel alienated from the society where they live or want to address guilt caused by a lack of piety.

Like big box retailers, ISIS is also unafraid to take risks by positioning itself as a “loss leader,” meaning that it will sell its product at a loss in exchange for customer buy-in. In other words, ISIS is willing to use its foot soldiers as cannon fodder in suicide operations and human wave attacks, confident that new recruits will arrive to backfill those lost in battle. Furthermore, ISIS has proven it is willing to produce grisly videos featuring beheadings and immolations in order to attract new recruits, even if the videos repel more moderate jihadists.

Finally, like most successful big box retail outlets, ISIS fosters its brand with psychological appeal and constantly tries to keep its brand new and fresh. It accomplishes the former by promoting the caliphate as an open invitation to all Sunnis, an inclusive, model society where Muslims can live in an ideal Islamic community. This vision is furthered by videos that focus on the caliphate as a benevolent state committed to public works and Islamic welfare. To keep its brand fresh, ISIS is aggressive in seeking to keep its name in the news on a near-daily basis.

In contrast to this branding as a big box retail outlet, al Qaida is much more akin to a luxury brand. First, al Qaida is more selective and discerning about who it recruits and what targets it chooses to attack. The barriers to entry into al Qaida are higher, by design, to keep the uninvited at bay and maintain exclusivity of the brand (it also doubles as smart operational security).