This is the third and last post on the recent exchange between al-Qaeda and the Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The first part introduced al-Qaeda’s arguments against ISIL, and the second deals with ISIL’s attempt to tell a different construction of its past relations with al-Qaeda so that its current actions could not be construed as an act of rebellion against jihadi superior. This post presents ISIL’s effort to shift the blame for the infighting to al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). Beyond the fascinating story of how jihadi fight and what set of principles and justifications they use in the public side of their fight, the conflict I discuss here as important because it underscores the divisions within the jihadi camp. It is easy to classify all jihadis together as comprising one entity. Easy but wrong, and likely to result in a sub-optimal response to the jihadi threat. Good counter-jihadism requires understanding of nuances and that would never come without comprehending diversity and internal conflict within the jihadi camp. So, back to ISIL …
Given how powerful the symbol of unity is, both with regard to the Muslim ummah and more specifically within the ranks of the mijahideen, ISIL portrayed the Islamic State as the embodiment of unity. In fact, it claimed that for the sake of maintaining unity it had been patient and endured considerable costs as rival Islamist groups continuously tried drawing it into conflict (no real appreciation of course to ISIL’s own role in generating the backlash from other Islamist groups). But according to ISIL the magnitude of the change al-Qaeda experienced required that it think beyond the important value of unity. It maintained that the escalation of the conflict resulted from to the deviation of al Qaeda’s General Command from the correct path. Framing al-Qaeda as the one who transgressed again the State, rather the other way around, is central to the rhetorical strategy of ISIL. It declares that while it remained loyal to the Islamically-sanctioned path, al-Qaeda overreached. Put this way, ISIL can attribute the infighting within the jihadi camp to the actions of its rivals and clear itself from any wrongdoing. Framing itself as the just player and others as responsible to the rift shapes ISIL’s suggested, and essentially the only legitimate solution: since al-Zawahiri is responsible for the bloodshed, it is in his power to stop it by changing his ways. Specifically, ISIL demands that he would annul the acceptance of JN’s pledge of allegiance and renounce al-Qaeda’s authority within the Syrian arena.
In my previous post I introduced al-Qaeda’s explanations for the rift for the ISIL. In this post I will discuss ISIL’s response as presented in recent statements by the group’s leader al-Baghdadi and its spokesman al-Adnani. Because the discussion is too long for one blog post I decided to divide it to two. Today I will focus on ISIL’s effort to contradict al-Qaeda’s claim that there was a relationship of subordination between al-Qaeda and ISIL previous incarnation, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), and that the expansion of the Iraqi group into Syria thus represents a rebellion. According to ISIL when al-Zarqawi pledged allegiance to bin Laden in 2004, it was in order to enhance Muslim unity and raise the moral of the Mujahideen. But when conditions were ripe, the Iraqi branch, together with others, raised to the next level by founding the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006. For all intent and purposes, that means ceasing to exist as an organization and the disbanding of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Despite the end of the authority relations between the Iraqi affiliate and al-Qaeda Central, the Islamic State of Iraq continued to view al-Qaeda as a symbol of the ummah and its Imams. Thus when al-Zarqawi’s successors proclaimed their loyalty to al-Qaeda, it was a symbolic measure that indicated respect to al-Qaeda and acknowledgement of the latter’s role in leading the global jihad. It was intended to show the State’s commitment to the unity of the Ummah, but did not reflect organizational subordination. In the view ISI leaders, once the State was established it had complete authority over the arena in which it operated. Moreover, once an Islamic Emirate is established it reaches a status that surpasses that of any organization. As a result it would be inappropriate for it to pledge allegiance to an organization. ISIL even reminds al-Qaeda that this principle is reflected in its own pledge to Mulah Omar in his role as the leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
To strengthened its claim that there were no tangible relations of authority between the ISI and al-Qaeda the State emphasized that it did not get any real support from al-Qaeda and that al-Qaeda never exercised any effective control over the State’s activities, operational or bureaucratic. In sharply drawn words, ISIL’s spokesman even ridicules al-Qaeda for the extent of its irrelevance to the operation of the Islamic State. Deridingly he asks the al-Qaeda’s chief al-Zawahiri “what did you give to the State if you were its Emir? With what did you supply it? For what did you hold it accountable? What did you order it to do? What did you forbid it to do? Who did you isolate or put in charge of?”
Over the past couple of weeks we had lots of excitement here at Haverford with a commencement controversy that got us (unwelcome?) media attention like never before. But now it is time to finally focus on research. As part of my work on a book dealing with the relationship between al-Qaeda and its franchises I spent recent days going over some fascinating statements made by leaders of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the past couple of months. The exchange is primarily between al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and ISIL’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. As a reminder, in early February al-Qaeda announced that it is disowning ISIL, keeping Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) its official franchise in Syria. Since then the conflict between the groups escalated, both through rhetoric in messages posted online and through violent clashes on the ground in Syria. The battle of statements is fascinating and deserves to be treated at length as it sheds light not only on the heart of the conflict but also on the discourse that is deemed legitimate in an intra-jihadi rivalry. In this post I will present al-Qaeda’s arguments for distancing itself from ISIL and add some analysis of its statements. In a couple of days I will return with the Islamic State’s response which is even juicier. I apologize that the post is not edited properly and wave my foreigner card and time constraints as my excuses.
Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) explains the decision to distance itself from ISIL as the result of the difference in approaches. It maintains that it is focused on fighting against the US and does not want to fall into engagement with ‘side skirmishes.’ Al-Qaeda seeks to unite the ummah and establish the Caliphate. These objectives require care not to shed innocents’ blood and the projection of a positive image; they cannot be accomplished if the group is viewed as seeking domination and as usurping others’ rights. As implied, ISIL, in contrast, wastes energies on secondary priorities, failing to identify accurately the central threat to the ummah, and consequently its strategy is bound to fail. The Islamic State is also committing a serious mistake as its aggressiveness severely damage its reputation and as a result alienate the public whose support it requires.
I got into the business of threat analysis over twenty years ago as a practitioner. It’s almost terrifying for me to think back now how young and clueless I was. I was poorly trained and overly excited and understanding the world around me seemed difficult but hardly impossible. Oh, the benefits of youth, when you think that you know everything, and cannot imagine how much you do not know. I say terrified to think back not simply because I am embarrassed that I was too cocky and not sufficiently aware of people – and my own – limitations and biases, but primarily because the way I performed my job could have been consequential. The privilege of life in the academia is that there is so little at stake. But when you are a practitioner somebody might actually listen to you and take action. There were many reasons for my decision to leave the bureaucracy and seek an academic career, but the growing acknowledgment of my limitations as an analyst and the sense of frustrating helplessness given high stakes was definitely one motivating factor. Looking back, that period was a good lesson in humility and one that put me in a better position to become a scholar of international security.
Fast forward a few years. The 9/11 attacks found me beginning my second year of grad school at Cornell. I heard about al-Qaeda before and was upset how something so big went under my radar. My response was quite productive. I became curious and eager to figure out more about the jihadi movement, and particularly of al Qaeda. As I had known already that my research will deal with security in the Middle East there were little opportunity costs in starting to explore jihadism. And of course I was not unaware that how events unfolded meant that suddenly my region, so ignored by the academia before, is going to have demand. Who knows, I might even be able to find a job after graduation… Continue reading