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The Similarities and differences Between Al-Qaeda and IRA

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Terrorism, famously, is a misnomer. This is exemplified with the saying one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter; an observation  that relates well to groups such as the IRA(Irish Republic Army), and the Muslim fundamentalist groups of which Al-Qaeda is currently the most famous or infamous. Terrorism, however, should actually be treated as being a part of a long-standing tradition of direct action, action taken by groups who have no access to the news agenda under normal circumstances. These groups are marginalized from accessing the public area usually for political-economic motives, and so resort to tactics that shock, grab media attention and so set the news agenda.

            Al-Qaeda is a multi-national support group which funds and orchestrates the activities of Islamic militants worldwide. It grew out of the Afghan war against the Soviets, and its core members consist of Afghan war veterans from all over the Muslim world. It was established around 1988 by the Saudi militant Osama Bin Ladin based in Afghanistan. IRA on the other hand, has been the largest and most active guerillas and terrorist group in Northern Ireland.


            The prominent pro-Unionist commentator, Conor Cruise O’Brien, uses his weekly column in the Irish Independent to focus on the association between the IRA and anti-America terrorists. Ruth Dudley Edwards, after condemning republicans for drawing parallels between themselves and oppressed peoples for political advantage, pointed in the same article to the following similarities between the IRA and Al-Qaedda; both targeted armed forces, both killed civilians, both attacked the centers of democratic states, both attacked important commercial targets, both were involved in global terrorism, and both supported suicide as a political weapon.

            The IRA fought what it described as English imperialism, While Al-Qaeda and its allies fight western economic imperialism within the Middle East. It is almost uniformly linked to actions that cause the loss of life, such as 9/11, the bombing on Madrid commuter trains in 2004, the Real IRA’s bombing of Omagh in 1999 or the bomb attacks on the London transport system during July 2005.

            Of course there is a nexus between the fund generation activities of terrorists and criminals. Terrorist organizations are known to tap into illegal sources of funding such as drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, robbery, fraud, gambling, and smuggling of contraband goods. The IRA has a history of extortion and robbery, while Al-Qaeda, itself relied upon the export of drugs from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

            Despite these similarities, there are however three major sources of funds that appear unique to terrorist organizations and serve to severely complicate the picture from a control point of view, in that they do not in themselves constitute criminal activity in many a domestic context.


Al-Qaeda’s Goals and Strategy

Al-Qaeda has definite goals. It needs the active support of a few states and the tacit support of many people who share its sense grievance even if they do not applaud its methods.

A central question regarding actors and strategies is whether al-Qaeda represents a transformation of the phenomenon of terrorism or a continuation of existing trends. The terrorism that threatens the post-Cold War world, chiefly al-Qaeda and its affiliates, is thought by some analysis to differ profoundly from the terrorism of the past(Benjamin & Simon, 2003). Is the global jihadist movement the first nonstate actor to adopt a genuinely international goal, that of reestablishing Muslim domination by driving the West out of Muslim lands and imposing Islamic rule.  Is al-Qaeda essentially an apocalyptic movement? Or are the goals of such groups basically local and hence part of an old pattern? (Doran, 2002).

There is no consensus on what al-Qaeda and its attendant groups want. Do their leaders seek to seize power in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, or Indonesia, in effect replicating the success of the Iranian revolution at the national level, or do they want to challenge the United States and its allies on the global level.

Their primary goal is the overthrow of what it sees as the corrupt and heretical governments of Muslims states, and their replacement with the rule of Sharia (Islamic Law). Al-Qaeda is intenely anti-Western, and views the United States in particular as the prime enemy of Islam. Bin Ladin had issued three fatwah or “religious rulings “calling upon Muslims to take up arms against the United States. Attempts to radicalize existing Islamic groups and create Islamic groups where none exist.

Advocate destruction of the United States, which is seen as the chief obstacle to reform in Muslim societies.

IRA’s Goals and Strategy

             IRA on the other hand, has three aims: first, weaken the commitment of the British government for administering Northern Ireland, second, terrorize the Protestant community and weaken support for their militia groups, third, weaken support for their Republican rivals, the Official IRA. Their long-term goal is the creation of an Irish Republic on the whole island of Ireland. To achieve these goals, the IRA has sought to persuade the British to leave, the Protestants to stop fighting, and the Catholics to support them rather than the Officials who adopted non-violent political solution.

            IRA tactics mainly consist of bombings and assassinations of British and Protestant security forces, whether on duty or not, and often without consideration of any collateral damage. Attacks within Northern Ireland have been frequent over the past thirty years with hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries on all sides occurring every year.

Some of the more remarkable IRA attacks include a 1973 car bombing in London, bombing in Birmingham and Guildford in 1974 in which twenty-four people died and hundreds were injured, two bombings in London in 1982 in which eleven soldiers were killed ; a December 1983 bombing of Harrod’s department store, an attack on the Tory conference in Brington in 1984 that killed five and could have killed most of the British cabinet, a 1985 attack on the Newry Barraks of the RUC that killed nine and injured thirty-two, a rocket attack on 10 Downing Street at the height of the Gulf War, and a 1993 bombing of the city of London that caused extensive financial damage.

            As the perpetrators of these acts and many more like them, the IRA deserves to be labeled as a group that uses terrorist methods. (Walker, 1986). Recall that terrorism is the use of violence to create a climate of fear that will lead to political change. All of these attacks, whether on civilians or soldiers, were designed to use terror to convince the British government to change its politics in Northern Ireland. Even the attacks on the security forces were not planned by the IRA according to a military logic because they were not trying to defeat the British forces, instead.

            Besides violence, the Ira also used hunger strikes as a tactic. Six different times during the current conflict, IRA prisoners have gone on hunger strikes while in prison, demanding to be treated as political rather than criminal prisoners.

            Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda’s goals and strategies appear much more diffuse than those of groups such as the IRA, affecting a much larger number of states. While Northern Ireland saw some appalling violence by nonstate entities, the overall percentage of civilian casualties tended to be significantly lower than in many al-Qaeda attacks. Al-Qaeda has made extensive use of suicide bombers, posing banning problems that were not present in Northern Ireland, and there have been persistent claims that al-Qaeda is intent on employing weapons of mass destruction though its actual attacks have been technologically low level.


Benjamin, D., Simon, S. (2003) The Age of Sacred Terror, Radical Islam’s War

            against America, New York: Random House

Doran, M (2002) “The Pragmatic Fanaticism in Middle Eastern Politics,” Political

            Science Quarterly 117, no 2: 177-190.

 Walker, C.(1986) The Prevention of Terrorism in British Law, Manchester University


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