Assessing the ISIS - al-Qaeda Split: The Origins of the Dispute

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In my first post on the quarrel between al-Qaeda and ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham), I laid out the depth of the problem facing al-Qaeda. In this post, I’ll take a brief look back at the origins and root causes of the disagreement between the two groups as well as the appeals that are being made by ISIS and al-Qaeda in their attempts to convince other jihadist groups to support them. 

Two important issues need clarification beforehand: the concept of “bay’a” and the particular ideology that defines al-Qaeda. Bay’a is an oath of fealty with deep roots in Islamic history. Swearing bay’a binds the oath-taker to hear and obey his new lord in everything except for acts that would make him disobey God. Al-Qaeda has adopted this ancient oath and uses it as a marker for its hierarchy. Bay’a also keeps the disparate affiliates together in the network, making the organization stronger than it might otherwise be. 

Furthermore, as I mentioned in my previous post, the distinctive ideology that al-Qaeda espouses has three parts: a specific ‘aqida(creed), a defined minhaj(methodology for carrying out its activities), and a very extremist version of Shari'ah not accepted by any other Muslim on the planet. While these are complex terms and issues, the significant part of the dispute between ISIS and al-Qaeda involves a view in the ‘aqida that supporting or participating in democracy is evil, a piece of the minhaj that requires jihad rather than political work or da’wa (preaching), and rulings in their version of Shari'ah that protects Muslim blood while excluding from their definition of “Muslim” (a stance known as “takfir”) anyone who supports the “apostates” (i.e. the rulers of every Muslim-majority country) or refuses to follow their version of Shari'ah, and all Shi’a.

With this information, it is now possible to analyze the origin and cause of the disagreement between al-Qaeda and ISIS. The dispute began on April 8, 2013 with a statement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq known then as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Al-Baghdadi declared that Jabhat al-Nusra (or the Nusra Front), which operated solely in Syria against Assad, was nothing but “an extension” of ISI and that the two would now be known under the new name of ISIS.  This declaration was quickly answered by a conflicting statement from the head of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, which affirmed the group had been generously supported by ISI in its jihad, but implied that he had in fact sworn his bay’a to Ayman al-Zawahiri. In his statement, Jawlani renewed his oath to Zawahiri and declined to become part of the new ISIS.

The two statements were followed by a flurry of declarations from leading figures in the jihadi-salafist world, most taking the side of Jawlani in the growing dispute.  At least one prominent cleric accused ISIS of being infiltrated by intelligence services, others doubted the legality of creating the state at all, while a third published a lengthy tome justifying Jawlani’s disobedience to al-Baghdadi. The media center for al-Qaeda attempted to keep a lid on the arguments and accusations, but even the intervention of Zawahiri himself—who issued an order annulling the creation of ISIS, confining al-Baghdadi’s activities to Iraq, and the creation of arbitration through a Shari'ah court—was unable to stop the growing split between the groups.

The early dispute between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS was, then, about power: who would swear bay’a to whom and, therefore, which commander was subordinate and which was in charge. It was also about which commander and group would have a closer relationship with al-Qaeda’s leadership, showing how much the favor of al-Qaeda was prized. However, this began to change in late 2013 and early 2014, as ISIS disobeyed al-Qaeda itself and transformed the dispute into one aimed at the senior leadership, rather than at Jabhat al-Nusra. First, ISIS did not relinquish its new name, return to Iraq, or participate in Shari'ah arbitration. More, Abu Khalid al-Suri, sent by Zawahiri to conduct the arbitration, was assassinated—presumably by ISIS. The natural culmination of this stage was the mutual disavowal of ISIS and al-Qaeda, along with Zawahiri’s detailing of all the times that ISIS had recognized his right to command in the past, his repeated call for the group to return to Iraq, and the denial of all this by ISIS.

At the same time, another development showed there was more than just power behind the disagreement between ISIS and al-Qaeda; it was also about ideology. In January 2014, Abu Khalid al-Suri posted a statement that clearly showed he was reaching an unfavorable conclusion about ISIS based on violations of Shari'ah. He accused the group of arrogance, attacking other mujahidin, and of too much takfir. Al-Suri ended his statement by calling on ISIS to repent and return to God’s Shari'ah. Supporters of ISIS were changing the focus for their attacks on al-Qaeda at about the same time. In March, nine sheikhs broke with al-Qaeda to swear bay’a to ISIS, and based their repudiation on changes in al-Qaeda’s ‘aqida and minhaj.  Specifically, the sheikhs claimed that al-Qaeda recognized most Shi’a as Muslims, dabbled in democracy, did not engage in enough takfir, and were avoiding jihad.  The spokesman for ISIS agreed with these accusations and argued that al-Qaeda’s entire minhaj and ‘aqida had deviated from true Islam. This was quickly answered by Zawahiri, who rejected the claim that al-Qaeda’s minhaj had changed, and accused ISIS of refusing to follow orders and of spilling Muslim blood. Zawahiri and al-Qaeda were given important backing by influential clerics, including Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who also focused on the ideological deviations and extremism of ISIS.

The change in emphasis of the accusations is significant because accusing someone of departing from true Islam is another way of declaring takfir: that is, declaring them worthy of being killed. If the earlier argument over power and control left room for a peaceful resolution to the split, the transformation of the dispute to one over ideology showed that the argument had gone beyond reconciliation and could only be settled in blood. In my next post, I’ll look at how other jihadist groups have reacted to these appeals and which organization—ISIS or al-Qaeda—has been able to win over the majority of the movement to their side of the dispute.


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