AQ vs ISIL – No Country for Old Men? Not so Fast!
I read with interest the TPM Café opinion piece by Michael J. Quigley on the origins and differences between ISIL and al-Qaeda.
Its an admirable effort by an an author with some experience but unfortunately, the article is critically flawed in its main analytic thrust. To Quigley ISIL is something radically different from al-Qaeda -this is just not the case. The aerticle is also just plain wrong on some key historical facts, definitions in the beliefs, practices and origins of both groups. Like many pundits and analysts loudly proclaiming ISIL as different from al-Qaeda, the article really misses the big picture because of his unforced errors.
ISIL is almost alarmingly identical to every AQ group that has been spawned since the early 1990s and even similar to some Egyptian, Pakistani and Saudi radical groups from the early to mid-20th century that guided Bin Laden’s earliest thoughts on how to conduct his global jihad. ISIL has a direct and consistent ideological lineage that is completely in line with all of AQ’s strategic goals. They are absolutely hard rooted in the fundamental philosophy and ideological doctrine of al-Qaeda which was developed by Osama Bin Laden a quarter century ago. ISIL is nothing new except to the news media and hair-on-fire pundits who are easily distracted by something shiny or bloody.
The reason AQ, ISIL and all Jihad franchises are so similar is because they all are of the same confession – Osama Bin Laden called it “Victorious Denomination Ideology” (aka AQ-VDI, al-Ta’ifa al-Mansoura). The “Victory” would be defeating Muslim dictators, royalty, strongmen and rulers to establish a New Islamic Caliphate (NIC) in AQ’s re-engineered version of Islam. When that is done they would lead the Islamic world against the West and claiming the world for God. Each of the groups and individual we are confronting, from Africa to Iraq and from Syria to Ft. Hood follow OBL’s corrupted version of deviant neo-Salafism.
Neo-Salafism is the AQ version of the practice of living an orthodox life exactly like the companions of the Prophet Mohammed, without any individual veneration at shrines, special sites, statuary or objects. The behavior was popularized by Mohammed Abdul al-Tamimi in the 18th century and brought into common parlance by Mohammed Abduh’ in the late 19th century. AQ-VDI followers also reject virtually all Islamic interpretations given after the Mongol Hulagu Khan captured Baghdad in 1258. Except for strict constructionism of the Qu’ran as it was written in its period of origin and writings of trusted ideologs. To them, all other Islamic thought and discussion that disagrees with neo-Salafism is bunkum.
Everything that ISIL and its previous iterations in Iraq have done this past year from beheadings, massacres, slavery and establishing the “Islamic State” was conceptualized, nurtured and promulgated by Osama Bin Laden decades earlier.
There was an assertion that there is a distinct generational difference between the two groups is again in error. By his reading AQ is made up of old fighters from the 1980-90s and ISIL young fighters from Iraq and abroad are young kids working like jihadi millennials – this interpretation is just devoid of any fact. The entire al-Qaeda organization since its birth has been pan-national, young, aggressive and quick to adapt with the times to rapidly deploy innovational technology. The entire jihad concept is intended to be a multi-generational revolution. They all recruit the youngest and teach them in the ways of AQ-VDI. Age has nothing to do with either group’s membership – the senior leadership of ISIL is in their 40s and 50s. The core body of all AQ groups has always been of military age men between 18-40.
The article also would have you believe that another serious difference between Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi and Bin Laden was that Zarqawi believed AQI battle commanders gained legitimacy by fighting at the front and Bin Laden did not. There is no basis in fact for this historically or even anecdotally. Proving one’s leadership authority by surviving as a frontline battle commander was the standard operational leadership concept developed by Abdullah Azzam and employed by all of the Afghan Arabs in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It is Islamic in basis from the Quran that said the most blessed are fighters who stand in the “first rank”. Every AQ commander wants to prove himself through frontline combat. OBL himself went to Afghanistan and turned from logistician to combat commander by fighting the Russians at Jalalabad in the mid-80s. That leadership and the wounds he sustained there gave him legitimacy to create AQ.
ISIL did not come up with the concept of the Caliphate or how to achieve it. They are executing Bin Laden’s plan. From the earliest days Bin Laden developed a three tier concept of how he thought the global Jihad movement would advance. First he established a centralized base of Jihad in Afghanistan … in fact it would be called al-Qaeda al-Jihad “Headquarters of the Holy War.” We refer to it as AQ Central (AQC). AQC would act as an international command center, corporate headquarters and terrorism center of excellence. That honeymoon under the Taliban’s Afghanistan lasted from 1991-2001. His deputy Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) terror group developed the concept of attacking vulnerable Arab nations (the “Near enemies”), particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt after the Mujahideen terrorists spectacularly attack the “Far enemies”– America, the UK and France. When these nations leave the Muslim world the near enemies would be quickly toppled by the vanguard mujahideen who returned home from the global jihad.
Second, self-starting neo-Salafist Jihad groups were fostered, encouraged and financed in all Muslim and non-Muslim countries to destabilize their governments or create fear of the jihad. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was a direct result of this policy. Individual attacks were encouraged very early on in the 1990s. Jihad and Martyrdom were two additional obligations for all Muslims and that AQC wanted to encourage ANY group or individual to “join the jihad.” AQ doctrine also stated that people who could not carry out the attacks should go on holy emigration (Hijra) to an isolated Jihadi community (like remote Yemen, Iraq or Somalia or Pakistan), join a neo-Salafist group, learn combat arms and become an itinerant “Knight.” They were to join pan-Islamic brigades to fight wherever, whenever. We saw the first of the “Itinerant” AQ “Knights” fighting to establish the “New Islamic Caliphate” pop up and conduct attacks in Yemen in 1991, Somalia in 1992, Bosnia and New York City in 1993, Saudi Arabia and Chechnya in 1994, Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the Philippine’s in 1999 and attack the USA in Yemen and from Canada in 2000, etc. ISIL is the same ilk of fighters operating precisely as the AQ did under the Taliban, except now they are in charge of city administration. This is where they will fail.
The ISIL use of Internet social media and shock through beheading is also nothing new, AQ pioneered virtually all of it. The first viral video in the early World Wide Web was a Jihadi beheading a Russian soldier in Chechnya in 1996. Although ISIL uses the internet and social media aggressively,. AQ created the first centralized media group, print and online magazines, email bulletin boards, forums, webinars and answer-bots for fatwas and jihad questions. ISIL inherited this entire network, they didn’t build it. YouTube and Live Leak was long ago an AQ new media platform. In fact virtually all Iraqi insurgent groups from 2003 used viral video and social media to produce thousands of slick attack videos.
There is an additional unfortunate technical error where it claims Abu Mussab Zarqawi was a “Kharajite” or what he referred to as “an extremely violent and strict sect within Islam… distinguished by a willingness to deign other Muslims to be unbelievers.” That’s not right at all. AQ doctrine of declaring any Muslim an infidel and executing them is called” Takfir” (from the Arabic verb variation “to make a Kafir [Infidel].’) not a Kharajite. Takfir was used in the 7th century but expanded on by interpretations of the work of the 18th century Islamic Scholar Ibn Tamiyyah and 19th century scholar Abdul Wahab al-Tamimi.
The Kharajites were an Islamic sect who rebelled in 658 after the battle of Siffin during the First Islamic Fitna (civil war) between the governor of Syria and Caliph Ali. Kharajite is an Anglicization of Khawarij (Arabic: to be those who went outside). The nine surviving members of this group would eventually assassinate Caliph Ali and cause the irreparable fissure between Sunnah and Shiite Islam. The Kharajites were religious anarchists who believed no human one could guide Islam on earth so they behaved like pirates. AQ’s neo-Salafists adopted some Kharajite practices towards civilians and non-Muslims such as the practice of willfully killing women and children, selling captives into slavery, stealing treasures and ignoring the Quranic writings about tolerance and behavior towards non-Muslims. In fact the term Kharajite is a deep, deep insult to any Muslim and definitely to ISIL Jihadists. It is an official Assad regime slur used towards all Islamic rebels in Syria. Abu Mussab Zarqawi was not a Kharajite but like, all AQ adherents he was a (neo) Salafist and Takfiri.
The concept of Takfir did not create a rift between Zarqawi and Bin Laden either. The entire neo-Salafist world has used Takfir as a birthright for all Jihadis. Also Bin Laden never had even the slightest hesitation to kill other Muslims. He personally had his mentor, the reknown jihadi Abdullah Azzam and his sons killed with a carbomb at a Peshawar mosque in 1989 to take over the Jihadi movement. It was AQ dogma that entire Arab nation-states would need to be overthrown and their leadership eliminated. Only when Zarqawi seemed to revel in beheading on al-Jazeera TV did OBL direct Dr Zawahiri to tell AQI to tone it down. AQC has never ever forbade beheading or killing Muslims in Iraq, they just wanted it done on the down low to take the heat off of Arab donors in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. Literally, every AQ group in the world does the same terror shock actions as ISIL but just not with the same media flare. Well before Zarqawi beheaded his first person OBL and AQ blessed a religious ruling that allowed the use of nuclear weapons against innocent civilians in the West. Then again AQ’s 9-11 attacks mass murdered thousands of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and other relgions on the same day. Also, did we suddenly forget about Daniel Pearl, Nick Berg and hundreds of others who were shot, crucified or beheaded during the Iraq war by AQI?
One group that did have a problem with ISIL’s Takfir order was Al-Nusra Front in Syria. They would not require jihadists apply Takfir in order to not alienate more moderate Islamic groups whom they were fighting alongside. This led to ANF leadership being ostracized by al-Baghdadi and losing most of its dedicated fighters to ISIL in 2013.
The oped also asserts that Zarqawi operated in Iraq pre-2003 and established a base for TWJ. I respect his confusion on this point because a key group is missing from his analysis. Zarqawi did indeed transit through Iraq from Afghanistan through Kurdistan. While in Kurdistan he did meet with Kurdish neo-Salafist Jihadis of Ansar al-Islam (AAI) in their stronghold of Halabja in the US protected No Fly Zone (Yes, that Halabja – the one Saddam dropped WMDs on). The AAI were fighting and defeating the US backed Kurdish KDP/PUK in battles years before the US invasion. Zarqawi never had contact with Saddam Hussein or Iraqi intelligence … until March 2003 when TWJ moved to Fallujah a few weeks before the US invasion to seize as many arms as they could and hole up to fight Americans after Iraq would fall of the Baathists. So Colin Powell was right about Saddam letteing terrorist into Iraq only after we made it clear we would invade.
Allowing Zarqawi’s TWJ to be rebranded as the official AQ in Iraq was Bin Laden’s chance to jumpstart the jihad against the Americans and establish the new Islamic Caliphate quickly. Zarqawi was not just a terror commander and but a jihadi talent aggregator who sought to fold smaller foreign jihadi groups in Iraq into AQI. Using AQC doctrine and guidance AQI would morph from an all-foreign Jihadi group under Zarqawi eventually into a unified Iraqi-pan-Islamic group under his successors.
However, the article also misidentifies successor to Zarqawi when he was killed in 2005. AQI was taken over by Abu Ayyub al-Masri (aka Abu Hamza al-Muhajir) an Egyptian who was also a former army officer, member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad under Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, operational commander in AQC and chief of AQ recruiting for Europe and the MENA region. When he arrived in Iraq, Abu Ayyub understood the need to merge the strengths of both foreign fighters and Iraqi Islamic groups into one major combat group as well as move towards the concept of reestablishing a Caliphate. To further these goals AQ chose to groom an Iraqi commander to act as AQI’s combat operations officer and share command. He was Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. In 2005 AQC also sent al-Masri and Abu Omar a strategic policy advisor, Khalid al-Mashadani. He was sent to ensure that all Jihadi groups would merge into a single combat coalition and that the strategic rgoals of OBL were bring carried out. It was al-Masri, Abu Omar and al-Mashadani that literally planned out the path that would change AQI into the Islamic State of Iraq and then ISIL. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the next commander took their 5 years of hard work and ran with them. AQI merged and changed names several times between 2005-2011 including being called The Islamic Emirate of Iraq (IEI), the Mujahedeen Advisory Council (Majlis al-Shura al-Mujahideen), and they created the Nobility Council (Khalf al-Mutayibeen) for all Islamic groups both Baathist and AQ to oppose the Anbar Awakening Councils. In fact the Khalf al-Muyatibyeen inaugural communique in 2005 written by al-Masri and Abu Omar actually called for all Jihadi combat groups to join and create the “new Islamic Caliphate.”
In 2010 al-Masri and the Abu Umar al-Baghdadi had a terrible, no-good, too bad day at the hands of US/Iraqi Special Forces. Their meeting was disrupted by missiles and they joined Zarqawi for consultations in hell. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had just been released from what the army called Camp Bucca but we called the Jihadi War College, Southern Campus (the other JWC , Western Campus, was Abu Ghraieb prison). Abu Bakr took over the mantle and renamed AQI the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in line with Bin Laden’s goal to legitimize the insurgency as more than a terror war. References to ISI as an insurgent group were as early as 2006. In 2011 Abu Bakr would branch out. At the urging of the Syrian fighters in ISI he created the al-Nusra Front branch in Syria and deployed them to fight al-Assad’s army. When he became jealous of their success he then rename ISI the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL aka ISIS). It was not a far leap for him to declare the “Islamic State” and declare a new caliphate – just as Bin Laden wanted all along. Naming himself “Caliph Ibrahim” was ambitious as it was narcissistic and it angered the old school jihadis.
So why is ISIL “worse” than AQC and why were they kicked out of AQ? They aren’t and they weren’t. ISIL declared in May of this year that old men in the mountains of Pakistan can no longer achieve Bin Laden’s goals like they could. “Caliph Ibrahim” said that ISIL has now achieved the Caliphate -so they are now they are calling the shots. Technically ISIL just performed a hostile takeover of the corporate headquarters and moved it from the Hindu Kush to Raqqa, Syria.
However, Al-Baghdadi is shouting to the Muslim world much like the French cartoon Vazir Iznogud “Je veux devenir calife à la place du calife!” (I want to become Caliph in the place of the Caliph!)
The author is a learned analyst who should further study the historical linkage between the old and the seemingly new AQ/ISIL relationship in relation to the overall strategy of al-Qaeda. I have noticed many pundits and analysis making the mistake of saying ISIL is “the new al-Qaeda” and completely forgetting the past quarter century of evidence that what is old is just new again –especially if it’s wrapped in glitter and sent using an iphone. Bin Laden must be smiling from hell, but smiling all of the same.