So, the al-Qa’ida chiefs don’t like ISIS

Picture of Abu Qatada, a white man with a dark complexion with a long grey beard, wearing a loose beige Arab head covering and a light grey topLast Thursday, the Guardian carried a lengthy feature (the “big read” in their comment section) as well as a front-page article on how prominent members of al-Qa’ida have come out against ISIS. The long piece, written by Shiv Malik, Ali Younes, Spencer Ackerman and Mustafa Khalili, features an interview with Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a leader of al-Qa’ida in Jordan who spent many years in jail, as well as Abu Qatada (Omar Mahmoud Othman, right), a Palestinian preacher and scholar who operated in London from 1993 to 2002 and who some claim was a leading ideologue for al-Qa’ida. He was arrested in 2002 and spent much of the next 11 years in prison fighting deportation to Jordan, where he had been convicted of terrorism offences; he was acquitted of those in 2014.

The article claims that he was the first to pronounce the Saudi royal family as apostates, that his views were once considered extreme even by Osama bin Laden, that he counts al-Qa’ida’s current leader, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, as a personal friend (how he manages that given that they live in separate countries it doesn’t say) and “may be best known for personally mentoring Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who founded the organisation that would later become Isis, while the two men were jailed together on terrorism charges in Jordan in the mid-1990s”. However, after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate last June, Maqdisi released a long tract condemning ISIS as “ignorant and misguided”. ISIS in return have launched a social media campaign against Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, calling them stooges of the west and at one point calling them “misleading scholars” who should be avoided more than the Devil. A doctor who was present when the two scholars were interviewed said that donations to al-Qa’ida had dried up since the rise of ISIS, as donors either switched their allegiance or refused to fund hostilities between the two, and in some places al-Qa’ida cells are selling cars and computers to pay for food and rent.

According to the report:

The list of Isis’s crimes that have offended Maqdisi and Abu Qatada is long. They include creating division within the wider jihadi movement, publicly snubbing Zawahiri and establishing a caliphate to which Isis demands every other jihadi swear fealty or face death. For more than a year both say they have worked behind the scenes, negotiating with Isis – including with Baghdadi himself – to bring the group back into the al-Qaida fold, to no avail. “Isis don’t respect anyone. They are ruining the wider jihadi movement and are against the whole ummah [Muslim nation],” Abu Qatada said.

… As Qatada poured tea into small glass tumblers, he began reeling off images to better communicate the depth of his loathing for Isis. He likes speaking in metaphors. The group, he said, was “like a bad smell” that has polluted the radical Islamic environment. No, they were better described as a “cancerous growth” within the jihadi movement – or, he continued, like the diseased branch of a fig tree that needs to be pruned before it kills the entire organism.

… Both men are particularly appalled, they said, by the way Isis has used their scholarship to cloak its savagery in ideological legitimacy, to gain recruits and justify its battle with al-Qaida and its affiliates. “Isis took all our religious works,” Maqdisi said. “They took it from us – it’s all our writings, they are all our books, our thoughts.” Now, Abu Qatada said, “they don’t respect anyone”.

Such impudent behaviour, the two men agreed, would never have been accepted in the days when Bin Laden was alive. “No one used to speak against him,” Maqdisi lamented. “Bin Laden was a star. He had special charisma.” But despite their personal affection for his successor, Zawahiri – whom they call “Dr Ayman” – they both admit that he does not possess the authority and control to rebuff the threat from Isis. From the “very beginning” of his tenure, Zawahiri lacked “direct military or operational control,” Qatada said. “He has become accustomed to operating in this decentralised way – he is isolated.”

The report does not question the motives behind the two men’s sentiments, but it should not be surprising that al-Qa’ida should be afraid and suspicious about the rise of any major rival jihadi group. To begin with, al-Qa’ida have never had a state of their own; ISIS have gone ahead and set one up. In doing so, they have given an impression of what sort of a place an Islamic state ruled by al-Qa’ida would be like, as they have much the same ideological underpinnings. In fact, al-Qa’ida contributed directly to the downfall of two Muslim countries (Chechnya and Afghanistan) by using them as bases for their activities. It is no surprise that donors have switched their allegiance to ISIS as they can see the fruits in conquests on the ground, not pointless acts of destruction. It is no surprise that jihadi fighters would rather fight for ISIS, since the surviving members of al-Qa’ida are all either in jail, on the run with prices on their heads, or living in countries that are hostile to them (including Jordan), or in small pockets of territory, rather than in a large pocket of territory spanning two countries. Work for al-Qa’ida and you never know if your comrade is about to turn you in to the FBI; that won’t happen if you’re in ISIS territory.

Al-Qa’ida has nothing to show for nearly 20 years of bloodshed. Only one of the dictatorships of the Arab world has fallen (Tunisia), and that was nothing to do with them; all the Gulf dynasties remain in power, still supported by Western powers, many of them remain popular and some have increased in power and wealth since the 90s when al-Qa’ida started. They thought they could start a big war and force Muslims to side with them in the face of oppression from non-Muslims and their client rulers, but it failed to produce the tide of recruits they had been hoping for. People blamed them for the consequences of their actions or denied that the actions were the work of al-Qa’ida at all, attributing them to the government or a Zionist conspiracy, or both. They perhaps overestimated the anger of Muslims at the stationing of American troops in the Arabian peninsula during and (long) after the Gulf war, and in any case failed to capitalise on it. The al-Qa’ida remnants accuse ISIS of using their ‘scholarship’ to justify their ‘savagery’, but al-Qa’ida used it also to justify bombing innocent people in Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam, New York, London and many other places.

The two articles have some amusing revelations about how the US, so invested in fighting al-Qa’ida that it has military bases in every Middle Eastern country except Iran, still insists that the major terrorist threat comes from al-Qa’ida. In a sense they may be right, as ISIS may turn out to be less of a terrorist threat than a straightforward military one. But the anger of Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi sounds like resentment that some young whippersnappers have usurped their elders’ role and achieved rulership when they did not. They hate ISIS because they stole al-Qa’ida’s thunder. They have not become moderates, and are not moderates compared to ISIS; they are just an older version of the same thing with a discredited methodology, and are tolerated by some rulers now because ISIS are more feared, and al-Qa’ida cannot get recruits. They are yesterday’s men, and both they and the authorities know it.

Image source: Wikipedia, originally from the UK Home Office, released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence.

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  • George Carty

    Just out of interest, why don’t you use the term Da’esh rather than ISIS?

  • I don’t use Da’esh because it’s not a recognised term in English, even if it is the Arabic acronym. Everyone knows who ISIS refers to.

  • M Risbrook

    What is the correct name? The British tend to refer to it as ISIS but the Americans use ISIL. The BBC uses Islamic State.

  • George Carty

    “Islamic State” is the English translation of the name the group currently uses to refer to itself, while “ISIS” and “ISIL” are variant translations of the group’s previous name, depending on which translation of “ash-Sham” is considered more accurate.

    “Da’esh” (an acronym from the original Arabic – “Dawlah fi al-`Iraq wa ash-Sham”) is the preferred term of the group’s enemies in the Middle East, and has been embraced by the French goverment et al in an effort to delegitimize them.

  • My preferred name would be “the so-called / self-styled Islamic State” but that’s too long to write every time. As a territory (as opposed to outlying groups) they’re confined to Iraq and Syria (and nowhere else in the Levant) so ISIS will do for common usage.

  • M Risbrook

    There’s something deeply suspicious about the disappearance of Al-Qa’ida since ISIS / Daesh came on the scene. According to various sources all evidence points to the CIA being behind both organisations and has effectively renamed Al-Qa’ida. It’s a similar parallel to how the British state renamed the ANL to the UAF.

    Meet the new boss, err the old boss again.

  • The simple answer is that ISIS took territory in Iraq and Syria and began to operate as a state, which is what those who previously supported al-Qa’ida wanted all along. Al-Qa’ida never built anything; they only blew things up and they in fact caused the downfall of the Taliban (and a similar grouping — whether linked to al-Qa’ida or not — did the same for Chechnya). So ISIS are naturally more attractive to their supporters and the old leadership of al-Qa’ida don’t like it, hence their complaints that ISIS are barbaric or usurpers when they are really no better than that themselves.

    The US helped lay the ground for ISIS and no doubt helped them inadvertently (e.g. by supplying vehicles to weak Syrian rebel groups which then fell into the hands of ISIS, because those groups didn’t get the backing they needed), but that doesn’t mean the Americans are behind them.