12 October 2017
By Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai
The “Islamic State” (ISIS) and al-Qaeda (AQ) commanders and clerics have been engaged in a dialogue for some time to try to put their differences to one side, in order to join battle against their respective enemies. Although both groups employ the same Salafi Takfiri ideology, they differ in objectives and priorities and they have an issue around recognising the “Caliph” leadership (ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Samarraei). But they have one element in common: both AQ and ISIS are losing the Levant and Mesopotamia.
AQ has gathered long experience since the beginning of its existence in the 80s, and learned from it. In marked contrast with ISIS, it recently adopted a relatively more friendly approach towards the population and towards other Muslims, even those religiously considered by the group as apostates. Keeping the society they operate in, if not on their side, at least not against them has been understood through Jihad al-Tamqeen (“maintain the holy struggle until you hold full power and control of territory”). This policy has been successfully demonstrated in the Levant and Yemen.
This is clearly AQ’s best approach in both the Muslim and non-Muslim societies where they operate, to avoid any distraction from their main “far enemy” objective. The first AQ generation started with Ayman al-Zawaheri, AbdallahAzzam and Osama Bin Laden who considered the “far enemy” to be the United States of America. The second generation produced Abu Mohamad al-Joulani, a chameleon ready to jump from one group to another to save his kingdom, but more productive of conflict between the groups that he demands allegiance from. Joulani fought against the “nearby local enemy” in Syria to expand his authority but hosted core al-Qaeda figures to benefit from their experience and prepare for the phase (Khorasan group) which will come after the “conquering” of the Levant. AQ in Syria has remained ambiguous about its long-term objectives.
ISIS adopted a more bloody approach and rushed headlong towards its impossible objectives (conquer the Middle East, Spain and Rome). It declared the entire world its enemy, hitting the “nearby enemy” as a priority and accepting Bay’a (loyalty) also through the Internet for those willing to carry out individual attacks in the western countries where they resided. “As long as the media talk about it, it’s ok.”
The modern ISIS generation (al-Qaeda in Iraq) was holding to the extreme Takfiri Salafi teaching of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and his more radical student Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi developed the extreme approach by targeting both Muslims and non-Muslims in Iraq, aiming to create a sectarian war to align the largest number of Sunni behind them. This behaviour created anger in Bin Laden and Zawaheri who reproached Zarqawi for unacceptably targeting Shia Muslims rather than the US- but in vain. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (who replaced Abu Omar al-Baghdadi), born in 1971, belongs to the second generation, more violent and bloodthirsty but competently using the latest technology to expand its message. Baghdadi murdered both Shia Muslims and Sunni s (including Salafi Jihadi) in order to sit on the “Caliphate Throne,” the throne that is falling apart today.
The race for power and control between al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria was detrimental to both groups but was manna to the multi-ethnic populations of the Levant and Mesopotamia. Had both joined forces, no army would have been able to stand against them. The split had been pronounced by ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani in his speech: ‘Othran (excuse us) Emir al-Qaeda”, using a condescending defiance towards AQ’s central leader AyamanZawaheri.
In fact it is unlikely that a new group will emerge from the combination of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, because the Salafi Takfiri arena is saturated with those same ideas and behaviour. In view of the obvious extremes they represent, and the tension between them (“temporarily less radical established al-Qaeda” versus the bloody ISIS who “invented all ways of killing”), no new group will be able to bring innovative religious doctrine (Takfiri Salafi Jihadi) or behaviour to their followers- who have already suffered such strong hits in Iraq and Syria, and are still suffering from it today, with the revenge aftermath.
The defeat of the Jihadi Salafi in the Middle East is making a noise that will be heard in all corners of the globe. Even if both groups decide to start again, based on their previous experience, the question will always remain: who is going to lead? Can they handle any kind of co-existence? Is ISIS going to appoint a new Caliph or a more modest new Emir to allow cohabitation? This is the problem of all extremist religious groups.
In the coming months, ISIS (who announced its existence in Syria in May 2011 under the name of Jabhat al-Nusraand before the split with the “Islamic State” in Iraq) is expected to lose all the territory it has controlled. This is equivalent to half of all Syrian territory (to-date only 15% of the Syrian territory is under ISIS control). ISIS is expected to retreat towards the Syrian and Iraqi deserts, hunted down and with no home or society to host its militants. ISIS is crumbling, and with it, its main objective and slogan: “remaining and expanding” (BaqiyawaTatamaddad). The Caliphate is fast disappearing with the loss of territory in both Iraq and Syria. That slogan is represented and dishonoured today by a perishable and shrinking group: it is on the run, adopting the old style guerrilla warfare (“hit-and-run“) as its only remaining strategy. It is no longer a “state” because it soon will be without any defined territory in the Middle East. Its “state” has dissolved.
Its late spokesperson al-Adnani, in his message entitled “This is not our creed and it will never be such” (ma kana Hatha Manhajuna walan Yaqun) prayed to Allah: “O God, if this “state” (ISIS) holds a group of Khawarij , please break its back [destroy it], kill its leaders, and bring down its flag…But if it be a real state of Islam, confirm it [its power], give it glory, victory and support its Caliphate”. As events unfolded, Allah clearly responded to Adnani, destroying the fake Caliphate and taking the life of most of its leaders, including that of Adnani himself.
At the beginning of its expansion, and as its main weapon, ISIS injected fear into the hearts of Iraqi and Syrian troops by beheading “Hollywood style” every prisoner captured; and they used knives, drowning, burning, explosives, and tanks to kill and crush the bodies of their enemy prisoners. With their suicide Person Borne Improvised Explosives Devices (PBIEDs)and their vehicles (VBIEDs) they created terror and managed to occupy many cities. Today, forces combatting ISIS have gathered enough willpower and experience to neutralise all methods used by the terror group, rendering these completely ineffective when it comes to confrontation on the battlefield.
ISIS’s only shelter today must be away from the population: civilians and societies who hosted the terrorist group for years for many reasons found their belongings destroyed- in fact due to the combats necessary to dislodge it. Many of their relatives and families were killed in the crossfire or while fighting the group. Sunni cities mainly suffered most and will need years to reconstruct what the war has destroyed. It cannot be excluded, however, that there are families who supported and continue to support ISIS in individual cases. These would be mainly in Iraq where the group was born. But that will not give the group sufficient strength to start again: the same campaign initiated in 2014 when it occupied the second city of Iraq, Mosul, along with many other Sunni groups is now out of the question
ISIS is expected to metamorphose into an insurgency group, becoming outlaws, hunted on both sides of the Syrian and Iraqi borders. Failing to conquer Bilad al-Sham (Levant) and Bilad ma Bayna al-Nahrayn (Mesopotamia) can only mean one thing: the heart of the Islamic Caliphate is no longer accessible or realisable to ISIS, indeed, to any other similar group. Damascus and Baghdad rejected ISIS attacks when the group was at the strongest moment in its history. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Samarraei, the ISIS group leader, destroyed any hope there may have been for Salafi Jihadi Takfirito re-establish the 1400-year-old dynasty- and this for any time to come in future modern history.
But ISIS will remain in Egypt, Afghanistan, Yemen, Africa, and Asia and its presence will be manifested by spectacular tactical attacks by a few sporadic “lone wolves”. These terrorist hits in Muslim and western societies are capable of causing tactical but not strategically effective damage worldwide.
An ISIS innovation was to open the door for an “internet Bay’a” (a pledge of allegiance) as long as a video is registered before any attack just to claim the responsibility. There was no real objective behind this apart from trying to spread fear and confusion in western societies. ISIS allowed youths on various continents to confuse reality with imagination through its excellent propaganda tools, its effective use of social media networking, and the excitement of mainstream media effectively “compelled” to help spread the ISIS message to a larger audience. All this is gone with the wind.
Today ISIS is surrounded and attacked on all fronts in Syria and Iraq. Its desperate situation has therefore pushed its leaders to accept a dialogue with the enemy, its competitor al-Qaeda. In fact, many encounters have taken place in various parts of Syria, including in the northern city of Idlib and in Turkey, with the objective of trying to reduce the gap between the two groups, both of which today face similar treatment. Al-Qaeda is cornered in Idlib and will be forced to change its name once more (from al-Nusra to Jabhat Fath al-Sham to Hay’at Tahrir al Sham), in order to hide under a new “moderate” dress, since they are no longer identified as “moderate rebels” by mainstream media and the western diplomats responsible for promoting regime change for years in Syria.
Al-Qaeda in Syria will have to join Turkey, who promised to “domesticate” the various groups in the northern Syrian city of Idlib, after declaring the city part of the four de-confliction zones. Al-Qaeda is expected to make a show, pulling out a few foreign militants, but it will definitely maintain its base. Al-Qaeda cannot give up on Bilad al-Sham and is used to working underground. The Levant is too important for the Salafist extremists, who are at the heart of the ancient Caliphate.
Al-Qaeda has a mission adopted for a few years now (unlike the bloody and brutal ISIS), to win “hearts and minds”. In Syria, both al-Qaeda in Bilad al-Sham Leader Abu Mohamad al-Joulani and Al-Qaeda central leader Ayman al-Zawaheri found a “marriage” suitable for both interests. Joulani protected himself from being overwhelmed by Baghdadi who asked him to return to his origin as a simple Emir within ISIS (before 2011 when he was in Iraq under Islamic State in Iraq). He chose to become an independent leader following a wider group,creating a huge division between the two groups. Zawaheri recognised the opportunity presented by Joulani that allowed the old AQ central chief to increase his followers and therefore jumped on the occasion, making the biggest mistake in his jihadi career, for the benefit of expanding his honorific authority into the Levant. Zawaheri’s decision to keep the split between Joulani and Baghdadi created a war between the same jihadists over who will control Syria. Today both AQ and ISIS are in the same situation, both losing territories and control.
However, AQ is not only based in the Levant but in around 50 other countries. Although the US drones and Special Forces killed over 60 of its leaders and operatives, it is producing a seemingly endless reserve of commanders. It is also managing to adapt to local conditions and protect the interests of its host society: in Yemen, AQAP (AQ Arabian Peninsula) pulled out of cities to avoid battles that could have destroyed homes. Moreover, AQAP called itself also “Abna’ (sons of) Hadramout”, to indicate the local involvement of the group.
The meeting of the two groups ISIS and al-Qaeda (the biggest losers after the “regime change” does not really come as a surprise, since they hold the same ideology. It emanates from a blend of the 20th Century Egyptian SayedQutub – who defined the Takfiri philosophy from his jail– and (before him) the 13th Century Islamic cleric Sheikh al-Islam Taqi ad-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyyah. Sayed Qutub wrote “Fi Thylal al-Quran”, “Ma’alem fil Tareeq (with its eight chapters on the Islamic creed), and “Khasaes al Tusawer Al-Islami” (on the cosmic and human existence). Sayed Qutub considered Islam a revolution, and that the Islamic societies are living a Jazziliyya (pre-Islamic Arabia ignorance), and in consequence in need of a renewed understanding of the religion in a harsher way. Ibin Taymiyyah wrote “Al Aqeedah al Wasitiyah (the principles of Islam), Al Uboodiyah (a true slave of God) and many other books calling all those who don’t follow the “real path and creed” as he sees it “worthy of being killed”- even if they are Muslims by birth and practice. His teaching emanates from the 780 AD Iraqi scholar Ahmad ibn Hanbal, whose teaching is, of course, recognised and followed by al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Therefore it is not simply a question of ideology and creed, but ultimately the development of a political approach based on the objectives, priorities and recognition of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph. As long as Baghdadi is alive, he declares himself the Caliph, imposing obedience on all Muslims. AQ discussed the shape of the Caliphate declared by ISIS: is it a particular one linked to a time and place? Is it a war Caliphate? Or it is a general Caliphate all Muslims should follow? Scepticism dominated Salafi jihadists around the Islamic World, aware that such a “premature caliphate” not holding the right circumstances around it to survive, is doomed to fall.
Al-Qaeda considers it is time to return to Iraq and call followers to prepare to fill the gap, predicting the fall of the bloody style of ISIS (the same style was used by AQ some time ago and recognised as ineffective and damaging to any host society). AQ may have a better chance than ISIS in Iraq, depending on the central government in Baghdad and its way of dealing with those Sunni areas devastated by the war with ISIS.
If Baghdadi is killed, the Caliphate and Bay’a given to him will fall, much as the ISIS dynasty (as a state) is falling into bits and pieces now but the group will remain. Therefore, the time of AQ will come, stronger than ISIS, with a solid base and plenty of experience behind it, unlike the ISIS followers, victims of a bushfire which consumed them. It doesn’t mean religious terrorist groups are hierarchical (led by one person who holds the group together and with it the grops falls if he disappears) but work horizontal (many can replace the leader in case of death or removal): there is always a new Emir that can lead the group. But in the case of the “Caliph” Baghdadi, the Bay’a was given to him for his “state”, for the seizure of the territory he controls, and the money he invested in other wilayats across the world. With Baghdadi removed, with ISIS losing its territory in the Middle East, with Baghdad and Damascus (the ancient Islam centre of the Caliphate) out of reach, and without money to distribute (surely ISIS kept financial backup to resurrect in one way or another but not enough to distribute), ISIS central will be weaker than any of itsaffiliates outside the Middle East, however small.
The era of Zarqawi (who considered Bin Laden soft!) al-Thab’bah” (the slaughterer) and that of Baghdadi after him (who attacked Zawaheri and belittled him) is fading. That danger is also reaching AQ. So the two groups are forced to collaborate without necessarily merging. The strong-headed ISIS can’t adapt to AQ Emir Abu Muhammad al-Joulani who flirted with atheists in the Free Syrian Army and tolerated groups with “weak” beliefs (among Islamic groups fighting within the Syrian rebels with loyalties to Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the US). ISIS will have to deal with Zawaheri and its inner circle in the Levant (not with Joulani considered a traitor).
ISIS is prepared for the “dark days”: today ISIS has lost all generated wealth (most oil fields are passing to the hands of the Iraqi and Syrian governments) and can no longer impose taxes similar to the one during its rule that generated millions of dollars daily. But its leadership is prepared for the era after defeat, mainly after the battle of Mosul (Iraq) and the fall of Palmyra and Deir al-Zour (Syria).
Both groups, as stated above, need to put their differences on one side and find common ground: this is not impossible given the situation both sides are in. Joint work is expected to take place between AQ and ISIS- but not a merger. A unified front against their enemies is very necessary and a kind of truce between them is soon expected. Alas, the ending of the war in Syria and Iraq does not mean that the troubles of the Middle East will be over.