Islamic State v. al-Qaida

Owen Bennett-Jones

  • Isis: A History by Fawaz A. Gerges
    Princeton, 368 pp, £19.95, March 2016, ISBN 978 0 691 17000 8
  • Isis: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan
    Regan Arts, 411 pp, £12.99, April 2016, ISBN 978 1 68245 029 1
  • Irregular War: Isis and the New Threat from the Margins by Paul Rogers
    I.B. Tauris, 224 pp, £18.99, June 2016, ISBN 978 1 78453 488 2

Should women carry out knife attacks? In the September issue of its Inspire Guide, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula argued against it. In October an article in the Islamic State publication Rumiyah (‘Rome’) took the opposite view. Having discussed possible targets – ‘a drunken kafir on a quiet road returning home after a night out, or an average kafir working his night shift’ – the magazine praised three women who, on 11 September, were shot dead as they stabbed two officers in a Mombasa police station.

After some years of mutual respect, tensions between the two organisations came to a head in 2013 when they tussled for control of the Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra. The arguments were so sharp that the al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, eventually said he no longer recognised the existence of the Islamic State in Syria. The former IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani hit back, saying that al-Qaida was not only pacifist – excessively interested in popularity, mass movements and propaganda – but an ‘axe’ supporting the destruction of the caliphate.

The disagreements reflect contrasting approaches. Bin Laden – with decreasing success – urged his followers to keep their focus on the ‘far enemy’, the United States: Islamic State has always been more interested in the ‘near enemy’ – autocratic regimes in the Middle East. As IS sees it, by prioritising military activity over al-Qaida’s endless theorising, and by successfully confronting the regimes in Iraq and Syria, it was able to liberate territory, establish a caliphate, restore Muslim pride and enforce correct religious practice. For al-Qaida it’s been the other way round: correct individual religious understanding will lead people to jihad and, in time, result in the defeat of the West followed by the rapid collapse of puppet regimes in the Middle East. Al-Qaida worries that establishing a caliphate too soon risks its early destruction by Western forces. In 2012, Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, the leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, advised his forces in Mali to adopt a gradualist approach. By applying Sharia too rapidly, he said, they had led people to reject religion. Islamic State’s strategy in Iraq and Syria has always been more aggressive. When it captured a town it would typically give residents three days to comply with all its edicts, after which strict punishments would be administered. Unlike al-Qaida, IS is not concerned about alienating Muslim opinion. It places more reliance on takfir: the idea that any Muslim who fails to follow correct religious practice is a non-believer and deserves to die. In 2014 it pronounced the entire ‘moderate’ opposition in Syria apostates and said they should all be killed.

Islamic State has killed many more Sunnis than al-Qaida. But the most important point of difference between the two concerns the Shias. For bin Laden and Zawahiri anti-Shia violence, in addition to being a distraction, undermines the jihadists’ popularity. Islamic State has a different view, in large part because it draws support by encouraging a Sunni sense of victimhood. Not only were the Sunnis pushed out of power in Iraq but Iran, after years of isolation, is now a resurgent power. IS has leveraged Sunni fears of being encircled and under threat. Announcing the establishment of his caliphate, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi spoke of generations having been ‘nursed on the milk of humiliation’ and of the need for an era of honour after so many years of moaning and lamentation. Class politics also come into it. As Fawaz Gerges observes in his history of Islamic State, al-Qaida’s leadership has in large part been drawn from the elite and professional classes. Islamic State is more of a working-class movement whose leaders have roots in Iraq’s Sunni communities, and it has been able to play on the sectarian feelings of underprivileged Sunnis who believe the Shia elite has excluded them from power.

These underlying tensions are likely to be exposed when the Iraq army and Shia militias take back the city of Mosul from Islamic State, which they hope to do by the end of the year. Some of the city’s Sunni population, however much they resent Islamic State, will come to miss the caliphate when the city is liberated and they are subjected to rape and pillage by the victorious Kurds and Shias. As things stand, with IS in control, the city’s residents can hope to escape notice by obeying the rules and keeping a low profile. Under the militias, that wouldn’t be enough. People fear IS but some fear its opponents even more. As Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan argue, the strategy of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq, the forerunner of Islamic State, has been posthumously vindicated. Zarqawi argued that the mass murder of Shias would provoke revenge attacks, and as the sectarian violence increased, force Sunnis into his camp. That is exactly what has happened.

Very little is known about Islamic State’s internal workings; no one knows, for example, how many of its officials once worked for Saddam Hussein. Weiss and Hassan raise the interesting possibility that two of Baghdadi’s uncles worked for Saddam’s secret police: he wouldn’t have got into the University of Islamic Studies in Baghdad had his family not been regarded as loyal Baathists. It’s clear that IS has always relied on having former Baathists in senior positions: every head of its Military Council has been what the Americans used to describe as a ‘former regime element’. The caliph has been far more effective in government than that other self-declared leader of the faithful, the Taliban’s Mullah Omar. In part this can be explained by the difference in levels of education in Iraq and Afghanistan, but again many of those who witnessed Islamic State’s victories in Syria detected the techniques and skills of Saddam’s intelligence services smoothing its advance. Gerges agrees that much of Islamic State’s organisational power is down to the Baathists, but he also believes that many former Baathists are true converts to the IS cause and rejects the idea that Baghdadi is little more than a front man for Baathist officers operating behind the scenes.

For Paul Rogers, violent jihadism is a symptom first and foremost of global inequality, a revolt from the margins by people who see no evidence that increases in total global wealth are a benefit to them. On the contrary, improvements in education and mass communication only mean that they can appreciate more clearly the extent of their disadvantage and marginalisation. In that sense they are not all that different from the Naxalites in India, the Maoists in Nepal and Peru and the Zapatistas in Mexico.

There are other, on the face of it more surprising, non-religious sources of jihadi violence. The jihadists may have severely disrupted the international system of nation states, but they have had support in doing so from ‘enemy’ governments. The story of the United States and Saudi Arabia helping Osama bin Laden fight the Soviets in Afghanistan is now familiar. Iran supported Zarqawi in Iraq, tolerating his slaughter of Shias because he offered the most effective opposition to the US occupation of Iraq. Syria took the same view, allowing al-Qaida in Iraq’s fighters to slip across the border. One of Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails reveals that as recently as 2014 she believed Qatar and Saudi Arabia were providing ‘clandestine financial and logistic support’ to IS. Turkey also helped both organisations in Syria in the hope that they would oust Assad. Even Assad himself helped them. Calculating that the jihadists would not have the strength to oust him, he released them from jail, bought oil from IS and bombed the Free Syrian Army while leaving IS positions alone. Assad’s idea was to scare either the Americans or the Russians into defending his regime. Putin took the bait.

These policies generally turn sour. A direct line can be drawn from American support for the Afghan Mujahidin to 9/11. Iran’s backing of Zarqawi may have helped Tehran gain influence in the power vacuum left by America’s withdrawal from Iraq, but the Iranians now find themselves having to raise militias to confront IS. Assad and Erdoğan both believed that, having used the violent jihadis to further their purposes in Syria, they could dispose of them when they were no longer needed. Whether that will be as easy as Ankara and Damascus hope remains an open question.

There is another aspect to these machinations. Governments of all types reckon it is better to export violent jihadism than to experience it at home. The Saudis have been the most brazen advocates of this policy but before 9/11 many Middle Eastern governments complained that the UK offered sanctuary to Islamists in the hope that London would not be attacked. And papers captured in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout revealed that the chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, offered al-Qaida a restoration of good relations with the Pakistan government in return for no attacks in his province.

It is possible to chart two very different futures for Islamic State. The caliph has reason to worry. He is facing significant territorial losses. His air of invincibility has faded and he can no longer rely on a steady supply of Western recruits. The flow of people out of his areas of control is much greater than the incoming flow. There are examples of Islamic State providing good governance – it has been willing to punish its own members, for example – but for the most part it rules by fear. Baghdadi’s sectarian outlook is also a problem. It has provided him with a solid support base, but it also risks turning his movement into little more than a Sunni militia, not very different from the Shia militias which oppose him. If that is the outcome it would fall well short of the caliphate’s grandiose ambitions. Finally, by being so deeply intolerant, IS has acquired a lot of enemies. Jabhat al-Nusra’s record of making compromises – it has even announced a break with al-Qaida (with al-Qaida’s blessing) – has enabled it to forge links with other opposition groups and grow deeper roots in Syrian society.

Maybe the future will be brighter for the caliphate. After the Arab Spring laid bare the illegitimacy of various Middle Eastern governments, people who have little prospect of earning enough to raise a family will still be looking for an outlet for their frustrations. And as both Rogers and Gerges point out, the violent jihadist ideologues have the advantage of thinking decades or even a century ahead. Islamic State may be on the back foot for now, but in the long term the establishment of the caliphate, whatever its immediate fate, has shown that reversing some of the losses experienced when the Ottoman Empire collapsed is a real possibility. Looking ahead, who is to say that the decadent, dysfunctional Saudi royal family will not fall? How different would things look then?

It is unclear what attitude Islamic State will take to attacks in Europe and the US in the future. Westerners have been transfixed by the ability of al-Qaida and Islamic State to reach their cities. Russia has been consumed by Chechen terror attacks in Moscow. But for Islamic State, at least initially, attacks away from the caliphate were something of a sideshow, a way to generate publicity, attract recruits, lift morale. It could be that its territorial reverses in Iraq and Syria will make it a more coherent global movement focused on a campaign of violence, particularly in Europe.

The failure of Bush and Blair’s ‘war on terror’ is well established. But the consequences of the failure are perhaps too little reflected on. After 15 years of conflict, there are now many places on earth where Westerners dare not tread and Western politicians are reduced to defining victory as an absence of attacks at home. For the caliph and his sympathisers those are remarkable achievements. Before 9/11 the idea of establishing a caliphate would have been written off as a fantasy. Even if there are setbacks to come, the caliph and his supporters believe that time is on their side. It’s hard to disagree with Rogers’s prediction that these wars will carry on for decades, however much military force the global elite deploys to maintain the status quo. The former US defence secretary Leon Panetta predicts thirty more years of conflict, which is another way of saying there is no end in sight.

21 October