Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State Caliphate

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Since the declaration of the Caliphate by the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS)—now named the Islamic State (IS)—many jihadist groups have taken a position either for or against the new entity. Online and through public statements, there has also been a great deal of debate among influential members of the jihadist community over the entire issue. One organization has, however, been noticeable for its absence in the debate: al-Qaeda’s (AQ) high command.

Given the challenge that IS poses to Zawahiri and AQ’s leadership of the global jihad, it would have made sense for AQ to respond quickly to the declaration, but so far there has been none.  While we wait for the organization to give its official position, it might be possible to assess how AQ understands this new state and what its reaction to the declaration by IS might be by looking back at how AQ has viewed the creation of an Islamic state in the recent past.

Public statements by Zawahiri and other leaders, as well as captured documents, suggest that AQ has specific elements the group believes are necessary for the successful creation of a state, to say nothing of the crowning achievement of the Caliphate.  Although there is no comprehensive list of the elements, AQ has consistently argued that attempts to create a state will fail if they were not correctly aligned. The Abbottabad documents, in particular, are full of warnings about precipitous action, with much discussion of the need for caution and care rather than hasty endeavors that will set back the entire enterprise.  At some point in 2010, for instance, Osama bin Ladin wrote a letter arguing there were necessary pre-requisites and conditions for the creation of the coming Caliphate, including “the essential foundations to function and defend itself.  If our state is not supported by the proper foundations,” he wrote, “the enemy will easily destroy it.”

Another document, captured in Mali, shows that this attitude had been communicated to AQ’s affiliates as well.  Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd al-Wudud, head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM), castigated Ansar al-Din (a group aligned with them) for their hasty imposition of shari’a when the population was not yet ready for it—a move which threatened to cut short the attempt to create an Islamic state in Northern Mali. ‘Abd al-Wudud quoted bin Ladin on the impossibility of building a state overnight and the need to make certain that they had all the necessary “elements of success” on hand, naming specifically the allegiance of the most important tribal leaders. He also carefully delineated a series of political and institutional policies that would be necessary to first allow the creation and then the thriving of any Islamic state.  His entire message, framed as “directives” and “orders” to Ansar al-Din, made it clear that this was a lengthy and detailed process that could take years to complete.

Recent statements by Ayman al-Zawahiri have supported these views and make clear that he—and al-Qaeda—would reject the way IS has chosen to declare their Caliphate.  In January, he affirmed the need and duty to set up a state in “Sham” (the Levant), but added that “we will not accept anyone who imposes himself” on the people of the region, that is anyone who does not come to power without the consensus of the population.  He also listed six duties that the Caliphate must perform, including the need to engage in “consultation” (shura).  In an interview with al-Sahab Media in April, Zawahiri was even more explicit.  To explain the differences in methodology between AQ and IS, Zawahiri said that AQ’s concern was to unify the entire Muslim community and work “to restore the rightly-guided Caliphate that is based on consultation and accepted by Muslims.”  He also noted that it was impossible to gather the community if “our image is that of dominator, someone who usurps the rights of others, and an attacker”—an obvious swipe at IS, which has been branded with precisely that reputation in Syria.

If, as these sources suggest, AQ has worked out a slow and cautious methodology for establishing a state, one that they believe will be successful only when certain basic criteria are met, the contrast between AQ’s views and the path taken by IS could not be more stark.  ISIS chose to declare their state immediately after having seized an immense amount of territory, without yet having secured Baghdad or the rest of Iraq, and in the middle of a war that was not yet decided.  It is also significant that, in their public statement on the creation of their Caliphate, IS itself said that their process of decision-making about declaring this state included only their own members, rather than the broader society recommended by AQ. The statement also refrained from any mention of fulfilling any of the other “elements of success” described in the captured AQ documents (i.e. the ability to function and defend itself, the support of leading tribes, and so on). 

Given these views, AQ might see the IS declaration of the Caliphate as rushed and fundamentally flawed.  This idea is supported by a report that Zawahiri “laughed” in response to the news about the Caliphate, and that he declared al-Baghdadi was “following falsehood and had to be corrected.”  It might also explain the slow and careful way that Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, the leader of AQ’s affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra Front, is going about the establishment of a state.  In an audio recording, he announced that the process for creating an Islamic emirate had begun, but denied in a written statement that this was completed. His statement also laid out a few of the initial stages the group was following to culminate—when conditions were right—a state in Syria. Given earlier pronouncements by Zawahiri and other AQ leaders, it seems likely that this methodology, and the eventual appearance of a new Islamic emirate in Syria, will be met with far greater support from AQ than will the IS Caliphate.