Shortly after the horrific attacks of October 7th, when Hamas terrorists brutally killed more than 1,400 men, women and children, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “Hamas is ISIS.” It’s a comparison that has been reinforced by numerous Israeli and American officials, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who, while visiting Israel shortly after the attack, commented that what Hamas did was “worse than ISIS.”
We study terrorism in the Islamic world, and after this analogy began spreading widely, we decided to call some of our sources — including high-ranking jihadists and ISIS sympathizers — to see how they perceived the comparison. They flatly dismissed it.
To be clear, the savagery of Hamas’ attack opened the door to comparisons to the Islamic State, the most vicious terrorist group of modern times. Hamas targeted civilians and killed them in brutal ways. The world was shocked by gruesome reports of rape, mutilated and burned bodies, and the kidnapping of babies and the elderly. It’s the sort of grotesque behavior and violation of human rights and international law that recalls the worst of ISIS.
And yet, it must be said that Hamas is not ISIS. There are far more differences between the two groups than similarities. Acknowledging this reality is critical: Only when it’s understood how Hamas really works — and what it’s aiming for — will it be possible to confront the group in a way that will help Israel regain its security and ultimately end the war.
As a former leader of a Salafi militant group sympathetic to ISIS recently told us, “There is a world of difference between ISIS and Hamas.”
Here is what policymakers and the public need to know:
A State vs a Caliphate
Hamas is a nationalist organization that seeks the destruction of Israel and its replacement with a Palestinian state. It is also a militant religious group, to be sure, styled in the Islamist mold of the Muslim Brotherhood, from which it originated. But it seeks a state that would ultimately be like any other in the international community, with a seat at the United Nations and in regional organizations like the Arab League. Its objectives are local.
The Islamic State, on the other hand, has transnational goals and is a fundamentalist religious organization. ISIS seeks to build a global caliphate grounded in its literalist interpretation of scripture. Rather than aspiring to be a member of the global community of nations, ISIS sought to conquer states and subdue their citizens under threats of intimidation and death. Had ISIS succeeded in consolidating its territorial base in Iraq and Syria, it would have sought to undermine and destroy the United Nations, not join it.
“ISIS is a pure Islamic group” that follows Islamic ideas and concepts, culminating in the “divine, obligatory way of life called the caliphate,” says the ISIS sympathizer. Hamas “carries the flag of Palestine,” he adds, while ISIS “carries the flag of Islam.”
“Sovereignty of Man”
Hamas-ruled Gaza is certainly no democratic beacon, but ISIS members and supporters castigate Hamas for engaging in the electoral process, as it did in 2006 when Hamas won an election in Gaza with 44 percent of the vote.
Hamas “accepts the sovereignty of man” and denies God’s “sovereignty and supremacy,” the ISIS sympathizer contends. “There is nothing called democracy and man-made legislation,” he adds, “because everything is legislated by Almighty God in the sharia.” In other words, ISIS supporters criticize Hamas for failing to implement sharia law according to the Islamic State’s interpretations.
Divisions on Iran
ISIS also regularly denigrates Hamas for recognizing and receiving support from the (Shia) Islamic Republic of Iran. The unofficial English translation of a recent ISIS statement slams the Palestinian group for “getting close” to the Iranian regime “in friendship and brotherhood.”
ISIS considers Iran to be an enemy more devious than even the United States and Israel because ISIS considers the Shia to be rafidha, or rejectionists, and prioritized targeting them for death above any other adversary. Promoting sectarianism forms the core of ISIS’ recruiting methods, so a Sunni group like Hamas receiving support from a Shia country like Iran is considered beyond the Islamic pale.
For these and other differences, the Islamic State “holds Hamas in contempt and as apostates,” according to a second ISIS sympathizer.
Indeed, one other reason why ISIS views Hamas with disdain is that Hamas has tolerated other religious groups in Gaza, something ISIS would never do.
“It’s not fair to call Hamas ISIS,” the first ISIS sympathizer concludes, “That’s an insult to ISIS.”
Given these deep theological and ideological differences, it is not surprising that ISIS and its supporters have refrained from praising Hamas for its October 7th attack, even as it was applauded by al-Qaeda and a host of its affiliates, including al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.
The distinctions between Hamas and ISIS will also impact how the current conflict ultimately comes to an end.
With ISIS, there was never any room for negotiation. ISIS had no state sponsor, as Hamas does with Iran (and used to have with Syria). Nor did ISIS have the level of popular support that Hamas enjoys, either within its area of operations or internationally. Indeed, the Islamic State was so threatening that it generated a truly global response with the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh, comprised of 86 nations. Countries with large Muslim populations had overwhelmingly negative views of the terrorist group.
Unlike ISIS, some of Hamas’ goals are actually political, and so there will be no effective solution to the crisis unless it also includes a political resolution.
Yet, if Hamas is equated with ISIS, as specious analogies suggest, the only available options for dealing with it will be military-oriented. Such analogies also risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more Israeli and American officials equate Hamas with ISIS, the more they close the door to any possible political settlement.
The ongoing effort to demolish Hamas could very well prove counterproductive as civilian deaths mount and global public opinion turns against Israel and, by extension, the United States. Pursuing a solely kinetic response to Hamas may end up weakening the group, but it is unlikely to destroy it completely. Hamas’ operational commanders were likely moved out of Gaza prior to the attack, perhaps to Lebanon, Iran or Syria, to ensure the continuity of the organization, particularly among its hardliners.
The fallout could lead to an even more extreme iteration of the group — Hamas 2.0 — that could rise from the ashes in Gaza and continue perpetrating acts of violence and terrorism against Israel. If that were to happen, Hamas would prove similar to ISIS in at least one unwelcome respect: its resilience.