global politics, relationally

The War of Words between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Part 2


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?”

At the same time ISIL seeks to bolster the claim that it showed respect and even some deference to al-Qaeda as long as it could, though clarifying the boundaries of that effort. It stopped at Iraq’s borders: the State never allowed al-Qaeda to encroach on the legitimate rights of the Emirate in Iraq. But it made compromises elsewhere for al-Qaeda’s sake. ISIL argues that the Islamic State avoided carrying out operations outside the area over which it established direct authority only because it was sensitive to al-Qaeda’s interests. Al-Adnani states, as an example for respectful deference to al-Qaeda, that the ISI avoided targeting Iran although it had the capabilities and despite a strong demand for such action from the State’s ranks. Similarly, it avoided operating in Saudi Arabia or intervening in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia where al-Qaeda, as the holder of the banner of global jihad, took on itself to operate. But such sacrifices did not reflect any formal obligation to obey al-Qaeda. For the State, al-Zawahiri’s words carried limited weight. They were no more than recommendations and guidelines.

It is hardly surprising that the attempt to establish this certain narrative leads ISIL to embellishing its history. At the time the ISI was established and claimed to be an Emirate which all jihadis in Iraq must follow, it caused a real controversy within the jihadi camp. But in its recent statements ISIL declares that all leaders of the jihadi movement had praised and supported this Islamic State and helped in strengthening its legitimacy year by year. The purpose of ISIL’s rhetorical move appears to be establishing its superior status in Syria, stemming from its nature as an Islamic state, not simply a jihadi organization. This unique character also legitimizes ISIL’s actions in Syria as appropriate measures that reflect the fulfilment of natural rights and progression of the Caliphate project. At the same time it makes its condemnation of rivals’ actions as seditious more powerful. In a few days I will conclude this series of posts by discussing how ISIL attempts to present al-Qaeda as the one causing splits within the jihadi camp.