The War of Words between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Part 3

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.


ISIL presents a list of accusations against al-Qaeda, among them charges that the group abandoned true jihad, flirted with tyrants, and cooperated with secularists and the ‘traitorous’ Awakening groups; the same groups it previously fought. Moreover, ISIL blames al-Qaeda for the split in the ranks of the Mujahideen. Importantly, this claim relies on ISIL’s narrative that it has been independent from al-Qaeda for years. The core of the accusation therefore is that al-Qaeda weakened unity within the jihadi movement when it accepted the ‘defectors’ of JN and “started a war against the Islamic State.” ISIL’s anger at al-Qaeda and JN lead to extremely harsh words against both. ISIL accuses al-Zawahiri as directly responsible for sedition among the jihadis because he chose to accept the Ba’yah of the ‘traitorous’ al-Joulani: “You [al-Zawahiri] made yourself and your al-Qaeda a joke and a toy in the hands of an arrogant traitor-boy who broke the pledge of allegiance that you did not see. You left him to play with you like a child plays with a ball, thus ruining your reputation and losing your history and glory.” The charges go on: by causing split in the movement, al-Qaeda weakened the mujahideen while emboldening and strengthening the disbelievers. It labeled ISIL members as Khawarij and in this way made shedding their blood permissible. As a result, ISIL speakers complain that al-Qaeda trapped them: if the State leave those assaulting it alone they will eradicate ISIL fighters, but if ISIL were to protect itself al-Qaeda would twist the story, and present actions that are essentially defensive into evidence that ISIL represents the modern Khawarij.
Stopping short of excommunication al-Qaeda and its associates, ISIL spokesman al-Adnani frames the conflict with al-Qaeda as the consequence of the latter’s ideological shift which led it to abandon monotheism. Al-Qaeda “leaving the faith of Abraham” is linked to the act of disowning Abraham’s followers – the Islamic State – and their jihad. What could be viewed by al-Qaeda supporters as greater pragmatism and necessary acceptance that there may be a variety of strategies that could serve the group’s objectives is harshly condemned by ISIL. Al-Qaeda’s flirting with greater flexibility of means, following lessons it learned from the Arab Awakening, gets assaulted by ISIL. The Islamic State accuses al-Qaeda that it is now seeking peace, and that it is abandoning the doctrine of Tawhid (unity) because it is catering to the majority in Muslim states and allying with actors al-Qaeda had previously rejected. ISIL even accuses al-Qaeda that it now accepts peaceful relations, as equals, with non-Muslims. Ironically, these accusations echo critique al-Qaeda speakers had made against the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
In a strong rebuke to al-Zawahiri, ISIL demands that al-Qaeda reverse its new ‘accommodationist’ approach. It must change the new vocabulary it adopted, by abandoning the use of terms such as ‘popular resistance’ and ‘mass uprising’ which are designed to cater to a broader audience but are not derived from the Shari’ah and come at the expense of the unnegotiable ideological purity. Al-Zawahiri should instead return to the language of jihad, and explicitly call true Muslims to bear arms and to shun all peaceful means. In that spirit ISIL also demands that al-Zawahiri would stop calling the armies of Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen ‘Americanized’ forces. Such depiction, ISIL argues, distorts their true nature. Al-Qaeda must instead use the appropriate terms, which reflect the true Islamic view of such entities: they are “tyrants,” “disbelievers” and “apostates.” Thus, the shift in al-Qaeda’s position (reflected in its discourse and changes in its behavior), amount to compromises on core elements of true Islamic faith.
It is interesting that ISIL is careful to associate the detrimental shift in al-Qaeda’s ideology with al-Zawahiri, rather than bin Laden. Bin Laden is still a mythical and revered figure. Condemning him, especially after he was martyred at American hands could backfire. Al-Zawahiri however, appears an easier target. The Islamic State even tries to use statements made by al-Qaeda leaders, bin Laden, abu Yahya al-Libi, and Suleiman abu Ghaith, as a weapon against al-Zawahiri. ISIL presents their words against disbelief as evidence that the State remained loyal to the ideas of al-Qaeda which its current leadership betrayed. Indeed, ISIL called al-Zawahiri directly to change his way and return to the path of his successor and to the methodology of the true al-Qaeda, the one who received the jihadi movement’s admiration and support.
In sum, ISIL’s comments reveal an attempt to present its own actions as a truthful and consistent Islamic stances; conflict, on the other hand, is the result of al-Qaeda’s deviation from the correct path. ISIL adheres to its principles, and continues to do so no matter the costs it may incur because these principles represent the right and only way. However, al-Qaeda compromised its beliefs and its methods. Instead of being dedicated to the establishment of the Caliphate, al-Qaeda became a tool in “demolishing the project of the Islamic State and the coming Caliphate.”

So not all jihadis are the same. Decisionmakers would be wise to understand that and tailor counter-terrorism measures to fit reality as it is, not over-simplified views of the jihadi threat.