Is al-Qaeda Finally Responding to the Caliphate?

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As I noted in a post last week, al-Qaeda’s failure to respond to the declaration of the Caliphate by the Islamic State (IS)—formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS)—has been rather puzzling.  Given the seriousness of the dispute between the two organizations and the challenge that the new state poses to al-Qaeda’s dominance of the global jihad, it would seem incumbent upon the more established group to answer the declaration in some convincing way. This week, at long last, al-Qaeda has issued a short newsletter that contains at least the beginning of a response to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s announcement.It also allows us to see that al-Qaeda might have been setting up this response over the past few weeks.

The newsletter, Al-Nafir (The Call to Arms), is presented as the first issue of a continuing series, although it consists of only a single two-page article.  Since the group tends to produce lengthy journals replete with analytical articles, this is an extremely short publication by al-Qaeda standards. The dedication of an entire first issue to just one short and significantly anonymous piece suggests that the newsletter is meant to be taken very seriously indeed, and perhaps represents the consensus of the network.  This conclusion is supported by the fact that the article purports to speak for “al-Qaeda and its branches everywhere” and by a listing of “lions of Islam,” which includes ten countries and regions with major militant groups that have claimed some sort of relationship with al-Qaeda in the past.

The first substantive paragraph of the newsletter provides a glimpse into al-Qaeda’s response to the IS Caliphate.  Here, al-Qaeda renews its bay’a (oath of fealty) to “Amir al-Mu’minin” Mullah Muhammad Omar (the head of the Afghan Taliban) and confirms that “al-Qaeda and its branches everywhere” are fighting under his banner and under his command until all Muslim lands are liberated and restored into the coming “Caliphate State.” There then follows detailed listings of the regions that must be liberated before the Caliphate can appear and those where retribution (“blood for blood, destruction for destruction”) must be exacted.

The newsletter thus offers three separate responses to the IS Caliphate. First, it argues that the real Caliphate cannot be declared until certain criteria are met, most notably the liberation of Muslim lands. The meticulous enumeration of which territory must be liberated, a point that has been unclear from previous statements by Zawahiri and other leaders of al-Qaeda, is also significant, since the small bit of land controlled by IS pales in comparison.  This point is given further emphasis by adding “Andalusia” (i.e. the Iberian Peninsula), Israel, and “the rest of all the usurped Muslim lands” to those territories that must be “restored” before the Caliphate is declared.  Since this has not, of course, happened, the implication is that the IS Caliphate is illegitimate.  

Second, the newsletter contends that, despite the pretensions of the Islamic State, the branches of al-Qaeda are still unified and have not been won over by its calls to recognize the IS Caliphate.  This is shown by the acknowledgement of Mullah Omar’s authority by “al-Qaeda and its branches everywhere” and by the repetitious greeting extended individually to ten of the “lions of Islam” fighting jihad, all in areas that have groups with some connection to al-Qaeda.  While it is too early to see whether all the branches are indeed still on the same page as al-Qaeda’s leadership, there is some early support for this contention.  Affiliates like al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) have explicitly rejected the new state, and none of the established affiliates of al-Qaeda have issued a statement in support of the new Caliphate.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Al-Nafir announces the renewal of bay’a to Mullah Omar. The question of whether bin Laden had ever really sworn bay’a to the leader of the Taliban has been a source of contention for some American experts, who have argued therefore that there is no real allegiance or connection between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.  Since Zawahiri swore bay’a to bin Laden, this “dubious pledge” would affect the current leadership of al-Qaeda as well.  This argument underlies American attempts to sever the Taliban from al-Qaeda, make a peace agreement with the Taliban, and therefore justify leaving Afghanistan.  Al-Nafir leaves no such doubt, since it clearly renews the bay’a to Mullah Omar and states that he is the commander and leader of all al-Qaeda (as well as the Taliban).

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It is significant that just a week before the appearance of the Al-Nafir newsletter, al-Qaeda’s media group (al-Sahab) issued a previously unknown video of Usama bin Laden, in which he affirmed that he had indeed sworn bay’a to Mullah Omar.  Even more importantly, bin Ladin asserted that this had been the bay’at al-akbar (“greater oath of fealty”), and added that the fact Mullah Omar was not from the Quraysh tribe did not matter in these “times of weakness.” The implications of this assertion and the renewal of it by Al-Nafir are stunning:  according to the extremist version of shari’ah followed by al-Qaeda, the “greater oath of fealty” is only given to the Caliph and not to any other leader. Bin Ladin’s statement that it did not matter Mullah Omar was not from the Quraysh supports this interpretation, since many Muslims believe that descent from Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh, is a requirement for the Caliph.  The video is thus declaring that Mullah Omar is the Caliph and that he has been recognized as such by al-Qaeda.

The implications for the dispute with the Islamic State are just as important, since al-Qaeda’s version of shari’ah judges that there can be only one Caliph at a time.  In several famous ahadith (sayings of Muhammad), Muslims are enjoined to accept the first claimant to the position of Caliph and behead the second claimant.  Since Mullah Omar has clearly made a claim to be Caliph, and al-Qaeda—as well as thousands of scholars and other people, according to the bin Laden video—have sworn an oath of fealty to him, the declaration of a new “Caliph Ibrahim I” is invalid and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi must be killed. It will be interesting to watch the reaction throughout the Muslim-majority world as the implications of this video and the Al-Nafir newsletter are digested.