The War of Words between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Part 1

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.


Al-Qaeda explains its decision to renounce the Islamic State as the result of ISIL’s failure to operate within the bounds of the al-Qaeda organization. It did not respect the authority of the group’s General Command. It announced the establishment of an Islamic state without permission from the mother organization and without even informing its superiors. According to al-Zawahiri the decision to keep the relationship between JN and al-Qaeda secret was accepted in coordination with the Iraqi branch. Al-Qaeda sought to participate in the Syrian war and help the oppressed but decided that open admission of its role in the fighting would be counter-productive. Secrecy was therefore preferred. But the Islamic State ignored this rationale. And by exposing the relationship between JN and al-Qaeda it played into the hands of the Assad regime and the United States. Moreover, it caused anxiety among Syrians who feared that al-Qaeda’s public role would lead Washington to actively intervene in Syria, allegedly bringing additional pain to that which the Syrians were already suffering from the hands of the Assad regime.
Al-Qaeda contradicts ISIL’s claims that despite its wishes to avoid division it simply could not comply with al-Zawahiri’s edict to designate geographical responsibility for jihad by keeping the Iraqi group in charge over the Iraqi arena and JN as responsible for Syria. Al-Qaeda maintained that had ISIL accepted al-Zawahiri’s edict the life of thousands who died in jihadi infighting would have been spared. Moreover, forces that ended up fighting each other would have been able to dedicate their energies to fighting the Syrian regime instead.
Although the conflict with ISIL is damaging to al-Qaeda, the organization tries to turn the crisis into an opportunity by using it to strengthened the new image, of flexibility and attentiveness to the people, it has been trying to cultivate since the beginning of the Arab Awakening. One of the lessons al-Qaeda took from the upheaval in the Middle East is that the region’s people abandoned their passivity and would like to assume greater role in determining their own fate. Thus, al-Qaeda criticizes ISIL that by unilaterally announcing itself as an Islamic State rather than simply an organization, it appropriated the ummah’s right to be consulted and participate in its own governance. Rejecting the claim that the ummah is not qualified for such a role and that it should be reserved to ‘specialists among the mujahideen,’ al Qaeda declares that only the Muslim community is qualified to decide who will lead it.
Al-Qaeda also sought to refute any claims that the Islamic State was not subordinated to it prior to the public eruption of the conflict between the Central Command and the Iraqi branch. AQC presents a series of evidence to prove that ISIL was not independent, and therefore that its current behavior constitute insubordination. Oddly some of the evidence offered came from correspondence between leaders of al-Qaeda, as well as from letters exchanged between the Central Command and the franchise, which were captured in bin beste online casino Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad and made public by the U.S. government. The communications show that the ISI responded to queries from AQC. In one example the affiliate explains to AQC its reasons for going ahead and nominated abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to lead the franchise after the death of abu Hamza al-Muhajir and abu Umar al-Baghdadi in 2010, and agrees that AQC will decide whether he would remain in his post after an initial one year period. Among the other examples provided as evidence that there had been hierarchical relations between al-Qaeda’s General Command and the Iraqi branch are a request from the ISI for instructions concerning the way in which it should respond to the nomination of al-Zawahiri as bin Laden’s successor, and the words of reverence abu Bakr al-Baghdadi used in his communications with al-Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda noted that even in the correspondence following al-Baghdadi’s announcement that his franchise expanded into Syria, he refers to al-Zawahiri as his commander.
Notably, al-Qaeda’s defense also confirms that it its central leadership’s relationship with the Iraqi group was highly contentious years before the split. Al-Qaeda leaders wrote letters to abu Hamza al-Muhajir and abu Umar al-Baghdadi expressing their displeasure with the policies of the franchise which AQC deemed to be political mistakes. After the death of the two leaders the ISI appropriated from AQC the right to nominate a leader to the branch. Moreover, in selecting abu Bakr the ISI also failed to consult and ask the General Command for their approval. Al-Qaeda’s leadership did not even know who those individuals who rose to lead the ISI were. It had to ask for information about them because it could not gauge their reliability based on any personal experience of the General Command. And as the ISI admitted, it had repeatedly ignored al-Zawahiri requests that it stopped targeting Shiite masses in Iraq.
In its statements AQC also struggles to explain the discrepancy between its consent to the establishment of the ISI in 2006 and its rejection of ISIL in 2013. After all, if, as al-Qaeda declares, it does not support the formation of Islamic Emirates how it is that it had previously accepted the establishment of such an entity? Al-Zawahiri tries to address this inconsistency by proclaiming that al-Qaeda’s General Command was not consulted prior to the foundation of the ISI either. However, in distortion of the events surrounding the formation of the ISI, al-Zawahiri states that the Iraqi Emirate received al-Qaeda’s blessing because there was no threat that its founding would cause a rift among jihadis and lead to bloodshed among brethren. Although not all actors in the Iraqi arena were consulted and asked to join the ISI ahead of its announcement, al-Zawahiri claimes that such omissions were viewed as technicalities, the result of inability to reach all jihadi groups while a war is raging, and did not constitute a threat of sedition. Moreover, in a snide comment directed at abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al-Zawahiri notes that AQC had accepted the explanations of the ISI for the steps it took because they were delivered by the trusted abu Hamza al Muhajir, implying that the leader of ISIL was not similarly trusted.
It is noteworthy that al-Zawahiri still leaves the door open for ISIL to return to al Qaeda. In early May he called al-Baghdadi and ISIL to “return to hearing and obeying their Emir.” Emphasizing the needs of Sunnis in Iraq, he urged ISIL to shift its focus back there. Calling for a rebelling franchise to repent and come back to the fold of the parent organization is not a costly measure. It is consistent with al-Qaeda’s efforts to project a conciliatory image. At the least, al-Qaeda may mitigate criticism that it is responsible for strife within the jihadi camp. The appeal to al-Baghdadi must also be seen in light of al-Qaeda’s difficulties in finding a more effective way to deal with the ISIL threat. Given the increase in ISIL’s appeal, inside the Syrian arena but more worryingly to al-Qaeda, outside it, there is even a greater urgency to stem the rise of ISIL before its rise reaches a tipping point and consumes al-Qaeda.

In part 2, ISIL hitting back (and very strong)…