Whether ISIS equals al Qua’ida appears to be a matter of some dispute in Western policy-making circles. The answer depends on the point of the question. Yes, they differ in significant ways, but the real weakness in Western policy toward Muslim societies lies in the failure to see the forest more than in the lack of data about the trees: the psychological constraints inhibiting Western policy-makers from feeling sympathy for Muslims.
The combination of Salafi fundamentalism (in itself an extreme and historically marginal faction within Islam or even just Sunni Islam) with a belief in violence (not coincidentally marching in step with the Western tendency to rely on war as the answer to all disagreements with Muslim societies) is a new threat to global stability arising from a rapidly evolving reinforcing feedback loop between Western behavior and Muslim frustration. This feedback loop is the key to understanding the sudden prominence of violent jihad, a new dynamic powered by the widespread popular feeling among Sunnis that they have no other options. That is the high-level dynamic that must be understood to design an effective Western policy.
One of the most ironic examples of the rapid evolution of Muslim behavior as it responds to Western intrusion is the unification of Zarqawi’s super-extremist Salafis with Saddam’s unemployed, secular officer corps to lead a Sunni revolt riding on the backs of mistreated Sunni civilians to form ISIS–united by their marginalization at the hands of Washington, Tehran, and Baghdad.
One step down, the key dynamic is the speed of Salafi jihadi tactical evolution in contrast to the blind Western insistence on repeating the same failed strategy of trying to bomb people into altering their ideology. As with the highest level dynamic (the reinforcing feedback loop between jihad and Western behavior), tactical adaptation is also a dynamic that characterizes both branches of Salafi jihad.
This is certainly not to equate the two branches of Salafi jihad. For those chasing individuals or those dealing with the tactics of defeating a highly networked gang vs. a geographically-based functioning state, the two are obviously different. Those concerned with underlying ideology will also see numerous distinctions, and the West is unlikely to make easy progress against Salafi jihadism unless it manages to understand such internal jihadi debates as that between ISIS and al Qua’ida theoretician al Maqdisi.
Strategically, however, the contextual similarities Western leaders tend to find too embarrassing to recognize are the key to creating effective policy to counter the growing Salafi challenge. These contextual similarities include:
a lack of Western sympathy for peaceful Muslim political protests;
a typical Western response, once Muslim protest attracts Western attention, based not just on force but on utterly out-of-proportion force that punishes the already victimized Muslim society;
a tendency to think short-term, exploiting extremism in Muslim societies for short-term political gain, akin to allowing a forest fire to rage in order to roast marshmallows;
and finally the apparent inability of Western politicians to understand how easily an insurgency can trap an unwitting adversary into defeating itself by thrashing wildly, causing widespread civilian casualties, and pushing those frustrated citizens further into a corner.
The result is the now familiar pattern of empowering extremists: the rise of Hamas because the calls of Palestinians for freedom were ignored; the rise of Hezbollah because Lebanon’s fate at the hands of the Israeli invaders was ignored; Maliki’s Iranian-backed discrimination against Sunnis pushing them into the arms of the joint rebellion of ISIS and the remnants of Saddam’s officer corps; the rising influence of Salafi extremism in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars as the doors of peaceful democratic action to address the grievances of both Sunnis and Kurds in Syrian as well as Houthis in Yemen were slammed shut, one after another.
The West could in principle simply “do no harm:” avoid interfering, buy oil from those who wish to sell it or go without, and never–ever–sell arms or provide military training or supply intelligence to a regional regime. Not only is this degree of self-control beyond imagination, it is morally questionable. Few are the regional regimes so pure that they have the moral right to demand full sovereignty over their citizens (“state sovereignty” is a concept that emerged out of desperation to stop Europe’s own period of sectarian madness called the Thirty Years’ War, not a concept adopted because it is remotely just). Moreover, many in the West would argue that its principles (if not very much of its behavior) are a gift that should be actively offered, not just passively displayed. If the West is to take the risk of promoting the rule of law, civil liberties, and non-sectarian principles of governance, then that offering of gifts must, to be effective, be made sympathetically to avoid the charge of self-serving hypocrisy.
The core weakness of Western policy toward the Muslim world is the psychological inability of Western policy-makers to feel sympathy for Muslims.