The Islamic State's War on Al Qaeda Heats Up

Takfiri jihadism is likely to bring about its own demise well before it even remotely poses an existential threat to the West. 

The latest edition of Dabiq, the flagship publication of the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS), includes an eviscerating, accusation-laden polemic against al-Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The article, titled, “Al-Qa’ida of Waziristan – A Testimony of Within,” was written by Abu Jarir al-Shamali, an al-Qaeda commander who spent around seven years in an Iranian prison followed by three years in FATA, and defected to IS earlier this year (some media reports claim al-Shamali actually spent the immediate post-9/11 years in Iraq rather than Iran).

Al-Shamali’s salvo, which is perhaps unprecedented in its detail and airing of dirty laundry, is the latest in the public war of words between al-Qaeda and IS that has been taking place for much of the past year. One pro-al-Qaeda commentator speculates that the article could lay the groundwork for takfir (excommunication) of al-Qaeda’s central leadership by IS.

Al-Shamali’s account is a striking attempt at offering an alternative narrative of the global jihad to counter the one shaped by al-Qaeda. His revisionist narrative places Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq (the progenitor of IS), at the center. Al-Zarqawi, according to al-Shamali, isolated himself in Afghanistan from the doctrinally impure jihadists of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Al-Qaeda, rather than being the vanguard of the global jihad, has been an irja’i group, or one that works in the service of current infidel regimes. Bin Laden may have had his heart in the right place, according to al-Shamali, and the 9/11 attacks demonstrated the “truthfulness in his soul,” but he had to be convinced to declare the rulers of Saudi Arabia as apostates and later wrongfully resisted the implementation of shari’ah (Islamic law) in Pakistan.

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Al-Shamali also attempts to counter the idea of Khurasan (a historical area encompassing Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Pashtun border regions) as the locus of the global jihad today. Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban leader, he says, is unworthy of making the oath of allegiance to as he’s not only made many jurisprudential mistakes, but has also implicitly recognized the nation-state system. Pakistani jihadists, according to al-Shamali, have been weakened by the Pakistan Army’s operations in North Waziristan and fractured by collaborators and provocateurs associated with Pakistani intelligence. Waziristan, he says, was always far from being an ideal land to establish an Islamic state. Tribalism remains dominant; and even when the Taliban dominated there, local students still attended government schools. Migrating to Khurasan, al-Shamali warns, places sincere jihadis “between the hammer of nationalism and anvil of tribalism in Afghanistan and Waziristan.” [this appears to be a play on words of an al-Qaeda statement entitled, “Between the Hammer of the Jews And Crusaders and the Anvil of the apostates.”]

Ultimately, al-Shamali’s grievances stem from al-Qaeda’s strategic restraint. While al-Qaeda, like IS, is a takfiri jihadist group—meaning that it makes rampant use of takfir, or excommunication, against fellow Muslims, thereby legitimizing violence against them—it has also been eclectic and pragmatic in some ways.

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Al-Qaeda, al-Shamali alleges, tried to convince the Pakistani Taliban to delay the implementation of shari’ah in the Swat region of Pakistan in 2009 out of fear that the population was not yet ready. It has long associated with non-Salafi jihadist groups in South Asia, namely the Sunni Deobandi groups—such as the Afghan Taliban and Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami—that form the majority of jihadist groups in the region. Salafis like al-Shamali view the ‘aqeedah (creed) and manhaj (methodology) of non-Salafis like the Deobandis to be incorrect and deviant. And al-Qaeda has also attempted to leverage secular causes and movements. Bin Laden, in his latter years, issued a statement on global warming. His successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, spoke in positively (albeit with major caveats) about the Arab Spring, which al-Shamali decries.

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Perhaps embittered by his time in an Iranian prison, al-Shamali angrily condemns al-Qaeda’s soft approach toward Iran and Shias. He says that a senior al-Qaeda official demanded that he refrain from using the pejorative term “rafidhi” (rejectionist) toward the Shia. Both Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, for strategic reasons, avoided conflict with Iran.

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