By Thomas Joscelyn
May 4, 2020
On April 29, the Islamic State’s “province” (wilayah) in Yemen released a lengthy video that is intended to undermine al-Qaeda’s ideological legitimacy within the jihadists’ ranks. The 50-plus minute production, titled “A Documentary Shedding Light on Al-Qaeda Organization’s Deviation Following What Is Known as the Arab Spring,” repeats many of the same doctrinal accusations the Islamic State has made for years. The would-be caliphate’s ire is directed at Ayman al-Zawahiri and his lieutenants, as well as al-Qaeda’s regional branches and their allies. The Islamic State’s central charge is that al-Qaeda betrayed its own Salafi-jihadist ideology in the wake of the Arab uprisings in 2011 and 2012.
For those who have followed the Islamic State’s messaging since its rise to power in 2014, when the group mushroomed into an international menace, the allegations will be familiar. Indeed, the group’s literature, including its Arabic weekly newsletter, Al-Naba, and its English-language magazines Dabiq and Rumiyah, have advanced the arguments discussed below on multiple occasions. Indeed, the video was highlighted in the most recent edition of Al-Naba (Issue no. 232), with an article summarizing its arguments.
Al-Qaeda’s senior leaders and the group’s regional branches are not the only ones featured in the video. The Islamic State harshly criticizes various other Salafists and Islamists, especially Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s men in Egypt. There are brief glimpses of Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well. The former caliphate argues that all of them are insufficiently religious and have betrayed Allah’s Word. Those same figures are used mainly to impugn al-Qaeda’s own jihadist reputation, as the organization cooperated with some of those same parties, or took a lenient approach to them, during the so-called Arab Spring.
The production opens with scenes from the street protests that swept throughout the majority Arab countries in 2011 and 2012. Some of the footage shows Mohammed al-Zawahiri, the younger brother of al-Qaeda’s emir, and his comrades, including Ahmed Ashoush, leading rallies. At first, these same men didn’t advocate or encourage acts of terrorism within Egypt, but instead preferred to use the lax security environment for the purpose of proselytization (or dawa). Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership openly advocated this lenient approach in both Egypt and Tunisia, where Islamist governments initially came to power.
Mohammed al-Zawahiri and Ahmed Ashoush at a rally in Egypt after the protests against Mubarak. This image was included in the Islamic State video.
The main target of the Islamic State’s ideological attack is Ayman al-Zawahiri. A narrator in the video charges that the elderly Egyptian al-Qaeda leader disappeared for a long stretch, thereby shifting leadership of the global network to Yemen.
Screenshots of Zawahiri’s General Guidelines for Jihad, published in 2013, are shown, with certain passages highlighted to demonstrate al-Qaeda’s alleged deviancy. In that same document, Zawahiri urged his followers to “cooperate” with “Islamic groups” when they were in agreement, while offering “advice” and working to “correct” them when the jihadists disagreed. This stood in stark contrast to the Islamic State’s own declaration of all-out hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist extremists who don’t share the jihadists’ worldview.
In conjunction with the release of the video in late April, Islamic State supporters launched a social media campaign to highlight alleged complaints by current and former AQAP members against the group’s current leadership. AQAP has suffered a series of leadership losses, including the recent killing of its overall emir, Qasim al-Raymi. The detractors criticize AQAP’s handling of alleged spies and other security issues, while also accusing Zawahiri of being an absentee emir. The latter claim is intended to further undermine Zawahiri’s status as a global emir. It is difficult to judge how much truth there is in the critics’ claims, but the Islamic State is clearly attempting to undercut the authority of AQAP’s new leader, Khalid Batarfi.
In addition to Zawahiri, the Islamic State’s media team also critiques the role of Hossam Abdul Raouf, a veteran who has served as part of al-Qaeda’s senior management for years. Pro-al-Qaeda clerics such as Abu Qatada, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Hani al-Sibai and Tariq Abdelhaleem all receive condemnation in passing as well. All of these clerics have rejected the Islamic State’s caliphate claim.
The Islamic State’s pointed criticisms of Zawahiri include his allegiance to the emir of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhundzada. Thus far, there is no evidence that Zawahiri’s oath of fealty to Akhundzada has been broken as a result of the Feb. 29 withdrawal agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban. And Zawahiri’s detractors see his ongoing allegiance to the Taliban as a significant demerit.
The anti-al-Qaeda video includes an archival clip of Zawahiri swearing allegiance to the Taliban’s emir. A narrator uses this clip to chastise al-Qaeda for implicitly endorsing the Taliban’s approach to international diplomacy. Several images of the Taliban’s “political office” in Doha are shown. The Islamic State accuses the Taliban of recognizing the United Nations charter while guaranteeing that the jihadists will not target the “Crusaders and the tyrants.”
The narrator charges al-Qaeda with blessing the Taliban’s commitment “not to fight the Crusaders,” while it directly combats the Islamic State’s Khorasan branch. The video’s editors say the Taliban fights ISIS while reassuring the “tyrants and polytheists,” maintaining good relations with the Iranians, and consorting with “apostates” in Pakistan. On the latter score, the Islamic State’s narrator notes that the Taliban offered a glowing eulogy for General Hamid Gul, an “apostate” who was a member of Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus. Gul, who maintained close ties to jihadists, died in 2015.
Some AQAP members have defected to the Islamic State’s Yemeni province, and the group clearly hopes to poach more jihadists from AQAP’s ranks. Caliphate loyalists deliver their recruiting pitch in the video. One of them, Abu Yusuf al-Qurayshi, accuses al-Qaeda of changing after the events of the Arab uprisings, when AQAP allegedly began fighting alongside the Yemeni Army. Abu Yusuf criticizes AQAP for denouncing attacks on Houthi civilians in Sana’a, including at “rejectionist” “temples.” This reflects one difference in the two organization’s policies, as the Islamic State revels in indiscriminate attacks against Shiite civilians in multiple countries. Al-Qaeda views such operations as too costly from the perspective of public opinion, because many Muslims reject the wanton violence.
Original Headline: The Islamic State’s ideological campaign against al-Qaeda
Source: The Long War Journal