Has ISIS all but buried Al-Qaeda?

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. Isis has been sufficiently worried by the increasingly vehement criticism from Maqdisi and Abu Qatada to embark on a social media campaign against them – said to have been sanctioned by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, Isis’s chief propagandist. Isis social media accounts berate the two al-Qaida clerics as “stooges” of the west, part of a growing conspiracy against the caliphate. The sixth issue of Isis’s English-language magazine, Dabiq, featured a full-page picture of Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, labelled as “misleading scholars” who should be avoided more than the devil himself. “Qatada and I have been critical of them,” Maqdisi said. “They hate that.”

This all may seem a little surreal to the reader. To the extent that ISIS and Al-Qaeda differ, it’s only in degrees, yet here are two leading Al-Qaeda thinkers vehemently criticizing ISIS for “cloak[ing] its savagery in ideological legitimacy” (whereas Al-Qaeda, I guess, cloaks its ideological legitimacy in savagery, or something). There also seems to be a little mythologizing going on here (not by the reporters, but by Abu Qatada and Maqdisi), in that they put so much of the responsibility for Al-Qaeda’s decline on ISIS. The degradation of Al-Qaeda Central’s status within the jihad movement is the product of a lot of developments, of which ISIS’s rise is only one and maybe not even the most important one. The Guardian piece suggests a much more obvious inflection point:

When Zawahiri took over after Bin Laden’s death in 2011, he found himself geographically isolated. While he was hiding out, according to numerous sources, in the mountains on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the centre of jihadi activity had moved thousands of miles away, to Syria and Iraq. As Pakistan’s army and American drones tightened their net around al-Qaida central, it became harder and harder for Zawahiri to maintain contact with his commanders in the field. “What is leadership,” Samara asked, “if your leader is in Afghanistan and your soldiers are in Iraq?”

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi felt comfortable telling Zawahiri to go f himself in June 2013, when Zawahiri told him to stop meddling around in Syria and leave Jabhat al-Nusra alone, and at that point ISIS was still nominally under Al-Qaeda’s, and Zawahiri’s, control. For all of Zawahiri’s ideological and operational abilities, he’s no Osama bin Laden when it comes to inspiring followers, so some devolution of authority from the Af-Pak core group to the regional franchise networks was probably inevitable. The toll of losing their main safe haven in Afghanistan and never really finding a replacement also was probably bound to catch up to them. But it wouldn’t be good messaging for Abu Qatada and Maqdisi to admit that Zawahiri hasn’t been up to the job, so they blame ISIS instead (and to be fair, to the extent that these groups are competing for the same population of stunted, disaffected Muslim youth, right now ISIS is dominating that competition and strangling Al-Qaeda’s lifeblood).

I highly recommend reading the whole Guardian piece, plus their companion piece that examines whether the US has been too slow to recognize Al-Qaeda’s decline. There seems to be some real truth to that; by outward appearances, anyway, America was slow to catch on to the transformation of the jihad away from one stateless organization focused on carrying out terrorist attacks against Western targets and toward a loose collection of regional groups whose aims are more local and paramilitary than global and terrorist, at least for now. Again, though, I’m unconvinced that ISIS was the cause of that transformation, rather than the most successful example of it. Al-Qaeda’s situation is dire enough that it seems actually to have forced Abu Qatada and Maqdisi to reexamine the very nature of their jihad; for one thing it needs to be more selective about who it recruits, they argue, which may not even be possible at a time when ISIS is eating Al-Qaeda’s lunch so thoroughly on recruitment. They also suggest a more radical shift toward providing social services and even, in hindsight, question the logic behind the 9/11 attacks. It’s a fascinating interview.

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