Aaron Zelin at the Washington Institute recently provided us with a timely and interesting look at the battle between ISIS and al-Qaeda for supremacy in the global jihadist movement.
ISIS has its origins in Jamaat al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad or JTWJ which was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 1999. Zarqawi, a charismatic militant Jordanian Muslim, came from a poor, less educated background than Osama bin Laden, the head of al-Qaeda which was founded in the 1980s during the Afghani jihad against the Soviet Union occupation of the country. Zarqawi was sentenced to fifteen years in prison after a failed suicide bombing attempt in Jordan which was undertaken in 1993 to unseat the Hashemite Jordanian monarchy. Zarqawi was released from prison in the spring of 1999 and went to Afghanistan. The two key figures met in 1999 in Afghanistan; at that point, Osama bin Laden had the greatest leverage with the Afghani jihadists that were training in Taliban-controlled areas of the country. Zarqawi wanted to set up his own training camps with discharged Jordanian prisoners and was provided with around $5000 in seed money by bin Laden. Zarqawi's small group, headquartered in Herat, grew to between 2000 and 3000 members and quickly became a mobile army, ready to unleash acts of terror anywhere in the world.
At that time, the main goal of al-Qaeda was to overthrow what they viewed as apostate Arab regimes and liberate occupied Muslim territory. By lending support to fighters, they would be able to "cut off the head of the snake", the United States and its western allies. In contrast, the mission of JTWJ was to topple the Jordanian monarchy.
During the early 2000s and after the invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi became well known for a long series of attacks during the Iraq war including the execution of hostages by beheading and suicide bombings. He declared war agains the Shiites in Iraq after Iraqi forces launched an offensive on a Sunni town. As a result of his successes in the battlefield, Zarqawi's profile was raised and many fighters wanted to join JTWJ. In order to prevent himself from becoming irrelevant in the jihadist movement, bin Laden entered negotiations with Zarqawi and the two groups merged. JTWJ was renamed al-Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers or more commonly al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). As a result of the agreement, AQI gained control of the jihadist movement in Iraq and controlled the future generation of the jihad. The merger gave the new group access to al Qaeda's sources of funding and recruitment. What ended up separating AQI from al-Qaeda was the difference in age of their respective fighters; in the case of al-Qaeda, many of the fighters came of age in the 1980s and 1990s whereas the fighters in AQI (now ISIS) came of age in the first decade of the new millennium.
The ideological divide between Zarqawi and bin Laden can be attributed to one factor; Zarqawi believed that the only way to save the global Islamic community was to purge the apostates within it whereas bin Laden believed that salvation for Islam would not come through removing Muslims, rather it would come through the changing of apostate institutions. Bin Laden's second in charge, Shaikh Ayman al-Zawahiri (now the leader of al-Qaeda) and Sheikh Atiyat Allah Abd al-Rahman al-Libi, al Qaeda's operations leader, both contacted Zarqawi and advised him to stop his over-enforcement of sharia law and accompanying violence because it was alienating Sunnis and hurting their global agenda. In 2006, Zarqawi brought together several Iraqi insurgent factions and established Majlis Shura al-Mujahedin (MSM).
Zarqawi had a four-pronged strategy to defeat the coalition forces:
1.) Isolate United States forces by targeting its allies.
2.) Discourage Iraqi collaboration by targeting government personnel and institutions.
3.) Target reconstruction efforts by targeting civilian contractors and aid workers.
4.) Draw the United States into a Shia-Sunni civil war by targeting Shiites.
In the early years, the 15,000 members of ISI did not particularly have an easy time in Iraq. Its policy of criminal punishment, often death, which were based on very narrow interpretations of sharia law, proved to be unpopular with Iraqis. This led to a backlash and ISIS/AQI lost 2400 members that were killed by an alliance of U.S. troops and Sunni tribesmen and an additional 8800 captured. Unfortunately, the weakening of ISI did not last and the group grew in both numbers and influence.
Zarqawi was killed by American forces on June 7, 2006. He was replaced by a senior AQI leader, Abu Hamza al Mujahir, an Egyptian with ties to al-Qaeda. In October 2006, the group announced a rebranding with the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq or ISI under the leadership of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who was replaced by the current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after his death on April 18, 2010. The current leader of ISIS has not pledged any sort of allegiance to the current leader of al-Qaeda, Shaikh Ayman al-Zawahiri. The division between al-Qaeda and ISI grew in April 2013 when ISI announced that it was extending the Islamic State of Iraq into Syria and changing the group's name to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or ISIS. On February 2, 2014, al-Qaeda announced that ISI was not a branch of Qaidat al-Jihad, the official name for al-Qaeda. Both groups are now killing each other on the battlefield and a propaganda war has erupted with both groups using social media to lure fighters from one group to another. ISIS views Zawahiri's leadership as illegitimate and its current path as deviant from the path of Osama bin Laden. ISIS regards itself as the true heir of bin Laden's al-Qaeda as shown in this quote from April 2014:
"...the leaders of al-Qaeda deviated from the right manhaj, we say this as sadness overwhelms us and bitterness fills our hearts...Verily al-Qaeda today has ceased to be the base of jihad, rather its leadership has become an axe supporting the destruction of the project of the Islamic State and the coming khilafa (caliphate)...al-Qaeda now runs after the bandwagon of the majority and calls them as ‘the Umma,’ and softens in their stance at the expense of the religion, and the taghut (tyrants) of the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood)..."
In an attempt to end the policies of ISIS that were proving to be troublesome for the worldwide holy war, in October 2013, al-Qaeda's current head, Shaikh Ayman al Zawahiri, released a pamphlet to codify the rules for how a jihadi should behave that you can find here. Here are some quotes:
"Focus on spreading awareness amongst the general public so as to mobilize it. Similarly, focus on spreading a greater level of awareness and understanding amongst the Mujahid vanguard to create an organized, united, ideological, and aware Jihadi force that strongly believes in the Islamic faith, adheres to its rulings, shows humbleness to the believers and deals with the disbelievers with firmness. At the same time, full effort should be put in immediately to ensure that people with scholarly and propagational abilities come forth from within the ranks of the Mujahideen so that the our message & ideology may be preserved and the call to Jihad may be spread amongst Muslims.
In the military sector, focus should be maintained on constantly weakening the head of international disbelief (America) until it bleeds to death both militarily and financially, its human resources are drained and it withdraws to its own shell after reaching a stage of retreat and seclusion, (sooner rather than later, with the permission of Allah)...
Generally, avoid fighting or targeting those who have not raised arms against us or aided in any such hostile act and maintain focus primarily on the Crusader Alliance and then upon their local surrogates.
Refrain from killing and fighting against non-combatant women and children, and even if they are families of those who are fighting against us, refrain from targeting them as much as possible.
Refrain from harming Muslims by explosions, killing, kidnapping or destroying their wealth or property.
Refrain from targeting enemies in mosques, markets and gatherings where they mix with Muslims or with those who do not fight us."
Isn't it nice that even terrorists now have a do's and don'ts list?
To summarize, it is interesting to see how ISIS and AQI both emerged from the ashes of Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. When the delicate sectarian balance was disrupted after the removal of Saddam Hussein, the resulting insurgency provided very fertile ground for the establishment of anti-coalition forces. It is also interesting to note that two key decisions made in May 2003 by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the transitional government established by the coalition forces, fed the insurgency. The first order, disbanded the Iraqi security and armed forces, dismissing 250,000 security services personnel, and the second was banning the members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party from holding office. Estimates suggest that unemployment in Iraq reached 60 percent in 2004. The 30,000 jobs created by July 2004 were simply not sufficient to prevent Iraqis from joining the insurgency where they would get paid $100 just for planting a roadside bomb or shooting an American soldier. The moves by the Coalition Provisional Authority created hundreds of thousands of angry Iraqis who had the arms and skills necessary to create the base for the terrorist movement in Iraq.
Oh, the tangled web we weave when we don't really understand the cultural ramifications of our actions.