By Al Emid
Author Journalist Broadcaster
The Glamourous Life of an Author
The worst kept – and most misunderstood — secret – in the deadly world of jihadist terrorism burst out front and center last week, perhaps as a macabre anniversary marker for 9/11.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the man who took over the leadership of Al Qaeda after the death of Osama bin Laden, threw down the gauntlet at the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – ISIS –and essentially declared war.
In remarks contained in an audio released by Al Qaeda and widely quoted in various publications, Al-Zawahiri criticized Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS and its Caliphate and charged him with ‘sedition’. He also charged Baghdadi with poaching Al Qaeda members.
Until last year, essentially the same organization then known as Al Qaeda in Iraq and now known as ISIS had fought as Al Qaeda Central’s Iraq franchise. AQC basically disowned it because it would not follow orders, would not restrict its territorial ambitions to Iraq and perhaps most astonishingly had become too brutal in the view of AQC, a dimension of the split that I have always found astonishing. By all accounts AQC remained unrepentant and made no attempt at reconciliation.
In the audio recording, as quoted in various publications, Al-Zawahiri continued chastising the former Al Qaeda franchise and its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi: “But Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his brothers did not leave us a choice, for they have demanded that all the mujahedeen reject their confirmed pledges of allegiance, and to pledge allegiance to them for what they claim of a Caliphate,” said the Al Qaeda leader.
Put more simply, Al-Zawahiri’s barb translates as: “Baghdadi had no business demanding the allegiance of jihadists. They owe their allegiance to us.” Clearly, Baghdadi and the rest of ISIS did not share that view.
He may also have been referring to the pressure both sides placed on smaller splinter groups to declare their allegiance. Whether out of awe, fear, self-preservation or jihadist pragmatism, numerous smaller groups swore allegiance to Al Qaeda Central or to ISIS and several shifted from Al Qaeda to ISIS at the time. Most notably, Boko Haram in Nigeria not only swore allegiance to ISIS but mimics its tactics as well and declared its own Caliphate in the north of Nigeria. However, Boko Haram lacks the territorial control it once touted as a growing Caliphate, according to Nigerian journalist Samuel Okocha. The Nigerian army, with the co-operation of neighboring forces, has incapacitated Boko Haram’s ability to hold onto a Caliphate, Okocha explains. In the absence of a Caliphate, the terrorist group has slipped back to its use of suicide bombings and general hit and run tactics.
ISIS’s declaration of the Islamic State, became a very large sore point following the split. Al Baghdadi designated himself as Caliph of the Islamic State and leader of the Muslim world, a role that Al-Zawahiri likely saw as rightfully his, given the history of Al Qaeda.
Last week’s audio marked a change in attitude for Al-Zawahiri and Al Qaeda. The schism between the two groups had become public at the time but neither group said this much about it until now. As well as marking the 9/11 anniversary, Al Qaeda may have decided that no rapprochement between the two groups could ever work and that it wanted a very public pronouncement of the separation.
While the thought of these two groups slugging it out seems appealing – and understandably – to us here in the West let us consider the downside: clearly the two groups compete ferociously to claim leadership of the jihadist movement but they also compete for world attention and for cash from their patrons who help finance their activities. That could lead to escalating hostilities and atrocities. And their ‘competition’ can only add to the mounting instability in the Middle East region for as long as it continues, potentially leading to ever more battles and claim-staking. They both operate in Syria and in Yemen, for example.
At the same time they differ in several ways that very much matter to us here in the West, starting with the flow of recruits. Al Qaeda has reportedly attracted small numbers of foreign recruits but ISIS’s command of social media, online recruitment and propaganda videos has meant that it recruits thousands of foreign fighters each year with estimates ranging above and below 4000 annually. The figures of course represent the best guesses of various analysts but clearly ISIS has triumphed over Al Qaeda in image-building and attracting foreign recruits.
They also differ in their funding sources. Both organizations receive donations from local patrons but in modern day corporate terminology, ISIS has many more revenue streams. It gets revenues — albeit reduced – from smuggled oil, sale of antiquities, (the ones that they have not destroyed), human trafficking, extortion and other sources. It has also acquired many of its armaments by scooping up equipment left behind by fleeing Iraqi armed forces.
ISIS also appears to have greater military expertise, since it has attracted some of the officers of former President Saddam Hussein’s army, which the Americans disbanded and made unemployed in 2003.
For these individuals joining ISIS represented both a job and a venue to revenge for their dismissals. According to some reports Baghdadi actively sought them out after taking over the leadership of AQI/ISIS.
The groups share some similarities, including their ideological foundations. Members of both groups are largely Sunnis, one of two main Muslim groups in the region. The Sunnis have long suffered at the hands of Shiites and the two groups attract a lot of support from other Sunnis on those grounds alone.
They share one other similarity: both appear set to continue fighting coalition and local forces, as well as each other, for the indefinite future.
Al Emid’s fifth book entitled What You Need to Know About ISIS – Terror, Religion, War and the Caliphate and set for release by Quidne Press in early Fall looks behind the news about ISIS and what might lie ahead. He has begun developing a follow-up book set for release in early 2016.