Al-Qaeda Disowns ISIS

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on March 21, 2014

On February 3, 2014, Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad (The Base of Holy War Organisation)—al-Qaeda—disowned ad-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa-Sham (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS), finally resolving the tortured question of the group’s “affiliation” with the terror network.Al-Qaeda has “no links” to “the ISIS group,” the statement says. Al-Qaeda has “no organisational relationship with [ISIS]“. Al-Qaeda were “not informed about its creation,” “we ordered it to stop” and were defied: as such al-Qaeda is not responsible for ISIS’ “actions and behaviours“. Closing by restating some principles, Ayman az-Zawahiri’s people say that “problems between the mujahideen are solved amongst themselves and not through the media“. “[W]e are a nation,” the statement says, but “we don’t hasten to create States/Emirates without consulting scholars, leaders, mujahideen, and then enforcing it on people.”

This is an especially direct rebuke: ISIS has refused arbitration by independent shari’a courts precisely because it conceives of itself as a State authority, the nucleus of a future Caliphate, and thus by definition unable to share power—States have a monopoly of force. This has understandably been rejected by other jihadi groups, even its close ideological allies in Jabhat an-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham. Apostasy in Islam has always been closely tied to the concept of treason—the world of Islam’s entanglement of State and religion meant that the defection from one’s religion was conceived as a change of allegiance away from the umma (community), as well as a change of mind. And ISIS has taken this to its logical, if hysterical, conclusion: anyone who rejects its authority is an unbeliever, or worse a former believer who has abandoned the faith, and somebody against whom the death penalty applies. The statement does not explicitly condemn ISIS’ use of takfir, as Zawahiri’s statement of January 23 did, but it does say that al-Qaeda’s forces must: “Distanc[e themselves] from any behaviour that will result in oppressing a mujahid or a Muslim or a non-Muslim.” The statement concludes with a condemnation of fitna (strife) and a note that all who wish to place themselves under al-Qaeda’s guidance are welcome.

The most striking similarity here is al-Qaeda’s repudiation of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). That, however, never came in a form this open. In June 1996, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), the Qaeda group in that country, withdrew its support for GIA, and a number of Qaeda-linked groups and scholars followed, including Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Abu Qatada al-Filistini, and Abu Musab as-Suri. Osama bin Laden did not like the GIA, whose takfiri tactics had brought disgrace on the jihadists even in a country where many secularists had been prepared to vote for political Islam as an alternative to the drab, merciless military dictatorship. The GIA murdered the two FIS leaders, Muhammad Said and Abdelrazak Redjam, who led a section of that group into the GIA, and the GIA also murdered Libyan volunteers to the jihad. (Interestingly, one of the letters sent to Abu Musab az-Zarqawi in 2005 begging him to tone down the anti-Shi’ism, was from Atiyah Allah Abd al-Rahman al-Libi, a Libyan jihadist in Algeria who had survived the GIA’s onslaught.) The GIA had also refused bin Laden’s request to set up training camps, and al-Qaeda’s leader repaid them for this defiance by orchestrating the formation of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in May 1998 that largely collapsed the GIA. More striking still is this: while al-Qaeda maintained that this was a theological dispute with the GIA, that Antar Zouabri had crossed a line when he declared that the “Algerian people were kuffar, apostates and hypocrites because they did not support the GIA against the government,” it was also known that the GIA was penetrated at its most senior levels by Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) (“Department of Intelligence and Security”), an intelligence agency modelled explicitly on those seen behind the Iron Curtain, an internal and external agency. In Syria now, it seems conceivable al-Qaeda is making similar calculations. It seems overwhelmingly probable that ISIS is penetrated by the Basharist mukhabarat; the question is one of extent.

ISIS relationship with al-Qaeda

Writing for Carnegie in December, Romain Caillet, a Beirut-based researcher specialising in Salafism/Wahhabism, argued that ISI(S)’ estrangement from al-Qaeda goes back to the founding of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) on October 15, 2006. Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM) was by far ISI’s largest constituent, and ISI was regarded by everyone as a front for AQM: a means of recovering ground that was then quite obviously slipping. A foreigner, Abu Musab az-Zarqawi, had imposed on the Iraqis—and the Sunni Arabs at that—mayhem and tyranny; al-Qaeda needed an Iraqi face and public “outreach” urgently. By Caillet’s account, however, rather than ISI functioning as an Iraqi mask for AQM’s project, AQM was dissolved within ISI: Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (or Abu Ayyub al-Masri), Zarqawi’s Egyptian successor, swore baya (loyalty) to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (Abu Bakr’s predecessor): pointedly not Osama bin Laden. Caillet points to a Saudi al-Qaeda commander, Abdullah al-Qahtani, who made this point from custody in Iraq to al-Arabiya. In 2007, Zawahiri “declared in an interview that the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda had ceased to exist due to its integration into the ISI.” This is difficult to find, but in April 2008 a Zawahiri audio recording was captured by NEFA, where al-Qaeda’s then-deputy says ISIS, the Taliban “Emirate” and the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus “are individual Islamic Emirates that do not yield to a single ruler,” but a resurrected Caliphate “would encompass the three of them“. (Zawahiri even said in this interview that Osama bin Laden was a “soldier of the Emir al-Mumineen,” the Commander of the Faithful, Mullah Muhammad Omar.) By this reading, Jabhat an-Nusra’s leader Abu Muhammad al-Golani’s rejection of the ISI coup last April—and his clever appeal to Zawahiri, “reaffirming” his pledge of allegiance while in fact making it for the first time in public—was a means of drawing in an arbiter he was sure would favour him.

Caillet notes that ISIS, in its many permutations, also differs from al-Qaeda on significant theological and strategic matters. The question of what to do with the Shi’a masses, for instance. Traditional Wahhabism says that the Shi’a Imams must be killed for leading the flocks astray, and the idols must be sacked, but Zarqawi took this further and said all Shi’ites, everywhere and at all times, are to be murdered. It was Zawahiri who wrote the letter in 2005 begging Zarqawi to stop this: focus your furies on the crusaders, Zawahiri said, do not needlessly antagonise the Iraqi majority. Zarqawi ignored him. And while al-Qaeda—again Zawahiri personally—have focussed on the “near enemy,” the Arab autocracies, and have attacked the “far enemy” (America) as a means of defeating these regimes and winning a civil war within the (Sunni) Muslim world, the Zarqawi’ites have focussed on resisting the “Safavid project,” the Iranian bid for hegemony through Iraq and the Levant, as the most immediate need.

Aron Lund accepts much of this analysis but contests Caillet’s statements on the split being formalised. Jabhat an-Nusra’s appeal to Zawahiri last April presumed that ISI was subordinate to al-Qaeda “Central,” which was an assumption made by nearly everybody and was an assumption ISI had never contradicted. Zawahiri’s letter of May 23 last year addressed ISI as if it were a subordinate. There does seem to have been an ambiguity, post-Zarqawi, as the Iraqi-based Qaedaists fought for their lives not only against the American army but an enraged Sunni population done with their cruelty and banditry, but it was a willed ambiguity in that nobody saw an interest in clarifying it, and ISI rather rode the coat-tails of the Qaeda network—as indeed the Qaeda network found benefit in at least an arm’s-length association with this most determined and ruthless jihadist organisation, which had held significant territory and had recruited a hard-core of followers even as it had sickened large parts of the Arab world. Since it is known that Jabhat an-Nusra was intruded into the Syrian war by as an ISI(S) project, this makes it conceivable that this was initially understood by its participants to be an al-Qaeda project, and with ISI(S) then deciding to go its own, Caliphate-now way, Nusra enforced its separation by genuinely reaffirming an allegiance it had given in private in public.

In February 2009, Zawahiri partook in a Q-&-A forum, and spoke of ISI’s unique role as a proto-Caliphate: “The State [i.e. ISI] is a step on the path to establishing the Caliphate. It is superior to mujahid groups. These organisations [in Iraq] must give allegiance to the State, not vice versa.” That said, AQM was always, as Cole Bunzel put it in October, a “problem child“. Bunzel noted that the Abbottabad documents reveal that AQC never sanctioned ISI’s founding and “a leadership-to-leadership relationship hardly ever existed“.

In late January 2011, Adam Gadahn recommended the course that has now been adopted vis-à-vis ISI(S). Appealing not only to Osama bin Laden and Ayman az-Zawahiri, both of whom had made statements on the necessity of not needlessly antagonising other sects, Christians specifically, but also Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who has condemned the blowing up of churches even when there are no Christians inside, Gadahn said that “this behaviour” was “being carried out by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq, without an order from al-Qaeda and without consultation.” Al-Qaeda “should declare the severing of its organisational ties with [ISI],” Gadahn said. Relations “have been practically cut off for a number of years” and the decision to found ISI was “taken without consultation” with al-Qaeda’s leadership. Their “improvised decision” has caused divisions among the holy warriors and their supporters, both inside and outside Iraq, says Gadahn. The expulsion of the ISI from al-Qaeda’s ranks is the “only solution . . . otherwise [al-Qaeda’s] reputation will be damaged more and more as a result of the acts and statements of this group“. Among the “repulsive issues“—which are “certainly forbidden” by Islam—is ISI’s attacks on mosques. And Gadahn understands—at least in public-relations terms—the full horror of things like the October 2010 attack on the Catholic Church in Baghdad. Drawing on an article by Robert Fisk, of all people, Gadahn went on: “Unlike . . . Western television news, al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya show the whole horror of such carnage. Arms, legs, beheaded torsos, leave no doubt of what they mean. Every Christian in the region understood what this attack meant,” especially in combination with ISI’s statements against, and attacks upon, the Shi’a. This was disgracing al-Qaeda in its heartland, said Gadahn, and since al-Qaeda did not have control of this renegade faction but was getting the blame for its gruesome brutality, the obvious course was to disown it. That analysis has evidently now won-out among the Shura in Pakistan.


This declaration from Zawahiri meant that the Qaeda-type groups had to choose sides. Kataib Abdullah Azzam more or less sided with Nusra; Mujahedeen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, the Qaedaist group in the Sinai, openly took ISIS’ side. MSC is “committed to helping ISIS and bolstering its ranks,” said the statement, and blamed the fighting between the rebels and the takfiris in Syria on “an unfair view toward ISIS and its emir, the Prince of Believers [or Commander of the Faithful] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” Abdullah bin Muhammad al-Muhaysini, the Saudi cleric who had been working to calm differences between the jihadists, took to Twitter to tell ISIS’ men to defect to Jabhat an-Nusra or the Islamic Front. This call was also made one of Nusra’s senior clerics, Sultan bin Issa al-Atawi. Nusra managed to largely stay out of the violence between ISIS and the rebellion after January 3; this put it on a collision course for all-out war. This is undoubtedly the most serious breach in the global jihadist universe.


Update: On April 4, 2014, Ayman az-Zawahiri put out a statement in which he said Syria reminded him of Algeria too. The GIA’s takfiri tactics and fitna had led to the “spiritual death of that group, followed by [its] physical death,” Zawahiri said.

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