Assessing the ISIS - al-Qaeda Split: Introduction


Over the past five months, critical events have occurred in the on-going dispute between al-Qaeda’s leadership and the Syrian-Iraqi jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). 

The problems between the two began in 2013, but the fight took a quantum leap this year after Ayman al-Zawahiri disowned ISIS.  Since then, numerous jihadist groups and prominent extremists have declared their allegiance to one side or the other, splitting the jihadi-salafist movement into two competing factions.  The outcome of these events may determine whether al-Qaeda survives as a unitary organization able to lead the global jihad, or the entire movement collapses into internal warfare.

A dispute between two influential brothers illustrates the depth of the crisis that al-Qaeda faces. On May 26, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a well-known extremist member of the ulama with links to al-Qaeda, published a stinging rebuke to the errant Levantine jihadists.  In his fatwa, Maqdisi listed the crimes of ISIS, including a refusal to accept arbitration and reconciliation, disobedience to its commanders (i.e. al-Qaeda and Zawahiri), shedding the blood of Muslims, and a heretical extremism.  Maqdisi disavowed the group, declared that it had deviated from Islam, and called upon all mujahidin in Syria to desert the organization and join instead Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), which has remained loyal to Zawahiri.

Just a month before this, Maqdisi’s own brother—Salah al-Din al-Maqdisi, or “Abd al-Aziz”—put his signature to a very different document. Together, with eight other al-Qaeda sheikhs, Salah al-Din accused al-Qaeda itself of numerous illegitimate acts: softness in dealing with the Shi’a, daring to declare that former Egyptian President Mursi was a Muslim, “excessive complimenting of what was called the Arab Spring,” supporting political work rather than fighting, and repudiating ISIS.  The letter ended with the nine sheikhs swearing fealty (bay’a) to the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and vowing to repent and do righteous deeds to make up for their acquiescence to these evil policies.  In a follow-up interview conducted by al-Battar, the media arm of ISIS, Salah al-Din confirmed that it was the “ideological deviations of al-Qa’ida” and the fact that it has “completely changed and degenerated” that led to his abandonment of the group.

The duel between these brothers matters because of the respect and influence they have within al-Qaeda and the broader jihadist movement. However, there is another reason to pay attention to their argument:  the split between the Maqdisi brothers is an apt representation of the ideological division within jihadi-salafism and the infighting between al-Qaeda’s leadership and ISIS.  The brothers focused on a series of deviations from the “straight path” committed by the other side, all of which depend on the particular interpretation of shari’a, ideology (‘aqida), and methodology (minhaj) held by the writer.  In much the same way, both the leaders and supporters of ISIS and al-Qaeda have accused each other of heresy, disobedience, and leaving Islam.  Within their extremist version of Islam, these are serious accusations that, in effect, condemn the guilty party to death.  In making their decision about whether to recognize Zawahiri or al-Baghdadi as the leader of the global jihad, other jihadists must take these charges into consideration, since they will find themselves accused of the same “crimes” by the opposing group.

It is significant too that the Maqdisi brothers held off expressing their views for nearly a year, but now felt compelled to take sides in the fight.  In much the same way, al-Qaeda and ISIS refrained from condemning the other group until this year.  That restraint ended with Zawahiri’s declaration and a contemptuously worded statement by the spokesman for ISIS, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani.  In his note, ‘Adnani demanded that leaders and mujahidin connected to al-Qaeda make a final decision and choose which faction was righteous and which was in error.  The responses by individual fighters as well as entire jihadist groups to demands like these will show if al-Qaeda has reached a breaking point as an organization, or if the group is resilient and will emerge from this infighting stronger than ever as new jihadists and groups choose to openly align with it.

The results of this infighting could also affect US counterterrorism policy.  If the group is on its way to dissolution, then the concept of al-Qaeda held by this administration and some al-Qaeda experts will be vindicated: al-Qaeda is indeed a weak organization made even weaker by the poor leadership of Zawahiri.  In this view, the current war of attrition has nearly eliminated the group that carried out 9/11 and the few remaining terrorists are incapable of carrying out attacks on the U.S.  Although there is a great deal of violence in Muslim-majority countries, none of this is under the control of the original al-Qaeda, which cannot rally groups with local agendas to its cause under the guidance of the uncharismatic and incompetent Zawahiri.  Because the split between Zawahiri and al-Baghdadi is seen as the final blow to this version of al-Qaeda, there is no need to change US counterterrorism policy.

There is, however, a second assessment of al-Qaeda that has always maintained that the group is far from destroyed, that the war of attrition has failed, and that the violence engulfing the Muslim world is the direct result of the organization and ideology of al-Qaeda.  In this view, local groups are part of a more closely knit network that responds to orders from the “core” according to Usama bin Ladin’s own dictum of “centralization of decision and decentralization of execution.”  This allows local groups flexibility in their implementation of an overall strategy to overthrow local leaders and replace them, eventually, with a global “caliphate.”  The experts who hold this view believe that al-Qaeda’s leadership has a good chance of defeating the dissidents and healing the divide in the organization.  If this view is right, then the al-Qaeda that emerges from this crisis will require a complete overhaul of U.S. counterterrorism policy, one that takes seriously the threat from the spreading violence around the Muslim-majority world.

For the next few weeks, I’ll assess the current status of the infighting and the chances for ISIS or al-Qaeda to win out through an analysis of the cause of the split, attempts by al-Qaeda and ISIS to rally jihadists to their sides, and the overall situation in Muslim-majority countries since the split developed in 2013.  In the end, however, only time will tell whether al-Qaeda survives this crisis or disappears forever.