Al Qaeda Is Taking Advantage of Islamic State’s Bad Reputation
Al Qaeda knows it has an image problem. To set itself apart from its rival Islamic State, the terrorist organization’s propagandists are trying to portray their group as relatively moderate.
Emphasis on relatively. That’s all according to the second issue of the English-language Syrian jihadist magazine Al Risalah, Arabic for “the letter.”
The magazine published an interview Usama Hamza Al Australi, an Australian army veteran who joined Al Qaeda and fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Qaeda’s leadership then deployed him to Syria, where he trains fighters for Jabhat Al Nusra as he previously did for militants along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
“The publication, which was distributed via social media earlier today, is a thinly-veiled piece of Al Qaeda propaganda,” Thomas Joscelyn wrote for The Long War Journal. “It isn’t officially published by the organization, but its Al Qaeda messaging is obvious.”
Al Australi commented that Islamic State’s brutality is short-sighted and alienates potential allies. Al Qaeda, he wrote, is trying to build a broader coalition over the longer term.
“One of the greatest things about I.S. is that before people saw Al Qaeda and the Mujahideen (in general) as the extremists, and those that abstain from jihad as the normal ‘moderate’ Muslims (following the middle-way),” Al Australi wrote. “But now the truth has come out — the Mujahideen are in fact upon the correct and ‘moderate’ path, with I.S. being the extremists.”
The Islamic State of Iraq, the predecessor to Islamic State, earned such notoriety for its violence toward Muslims that its former supervisors in South Asia condemned and blacklisted it. While Islamic State wants to be the sole caliphate that all Muslims join, Al Qaeda considers itself first among equals — leading resistance movements throughout the world toward an Islamic revolution.
Islamic State, however, has attacked former Iraqi and Syrian allies with car bombs and improvised explosive devices, ensuring that it remains the only power to control the territory in which it operates.
Its unilateral radicalism has been a problem since before Al Qaeda denounced Islamic State, when Abu Sulayman Al Utayb — one of ISI’s judges — abandoned the subunit for the leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
According to Brian Fishman from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point:
Abu Sulayman was named Chief Judge of ISI in March 2007, almost a year after Zarqawi’s death. Although he released public sermons in April and June 2007, Abu Sulayman had deep reservations about the Islamic State of Iraq and its leadership. He worried that Abu Hamzah, the group’s military leader, was dangerously divorced from the battlefield, which had allowed lower-level commanders to exploit and oppress the Sunni community they were ostensibly defending.
The problem was familiar to broken bureaucracies in government, companies, and terrorist organizations around the world: a leader dependent on reports produced by subordinates unwilling to deliver bad news.
“Mayors and emirs say they only provide accurate news to the state,” Abu Sulayman explained in his letter to Bin Ladin, but in fact “they only report the good news.” Abu Sulayman charged that this was obscuring a deeply dysfunctional organization — one in which local elements were abusing the population and running petty criminal operations, including prostitution rings.
Sulayman also expressed concern over Hamzah’s belief in the imminent apocalypse. Now Islamic State and Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s only affiliate on the front lines, remain as two of the most-powerful rebel groups in Syria.
But Al Australi’s wordplay may matter little if his group fails to defend itself. “The split between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State was bubbling long before the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate or the war in Syria,” Fishman concluded.
“The intellectual clash between the Islamic State and Al Qaeda is important, but it has not been and will not be strategically determinative. The Islamic State’s authority is a function of its power on the ground, not the approval of Ayman Al Zawahiri or any jihadi scholar.”
Military power, not political legitimacy, will determine the winner.