Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
By Brian Fairchild:
On August 17, 2014, The British Prime Minister announced that ISIS foreign fighters represent a “clear danger” to citizens “on the streets of Britain”. In the United States, intelligence agencies report a significant rise in the number of foreign fighters pouring into Iraq and Syria, and warn that ISIS is now establishing cells outside the Middle East. Any ISIS activity detected in the United States would represent a clear and present danger with national security implications, but to fully understand the nature of the threat, one must first understand the profound ideological and operational differences between core Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Al Qaeda is a Salafi-jihadi organization with a clear ideology, but it is also a practical organization willing to compromise on ideological matters for the sake of obtaining its goals. Since its creation, it has focused its efforts on creating covert operational and support infrastructures in countries outside of the Middle East, while carving out niches for jihad groups in the ungoverned hinterlands of Yemen, Somalia, and the deserts of Algeria.
According to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, the entire jihad movement is dependent on Muslim popular support for its survival. Therefore, he refuses to sanction any operation that would alienate the Muslim community. While he regards the majority of the world’s Muslims as misguided and ignorant of their “true” religion, and sees his mission as creating an Islamic state ruled by Sharia law, he doesn’t demand that Muslims immediately accept and live according to strict Sharia practices. On the contrary, he has often advised jihad groups not to implement Sharia too rapidly for fear that the population would rebel.
Embracing the old Arabic adage – “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – he also makes alliances with ideologically tainted entities, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Iran, and he has steadfastly refuses to sanction sectarian war with Shia Muslims. He adamantly rejects the public slaughter of hostages.
Not all of his associates, however, have held the same convictions. One in particular, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, rebelled against him. Zarqawi was the original leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), from which the new Islamic State emerged, and he is revered by the Islamic States leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Despite Zawahiri’s preoccupation with popular support, Zarqawi personally beheaded two Americans on video, and uncompromisingly attacked Iraq’s Shia population in an attempt to foment sectarian war, both of which caused negative blowback from the Muslim community. This prompted Zawahiri to write a revealing letter of reprimand to Zarqawi on July 9, 2005. The following excerpts from the letter reveal Zawahiri’s preoccupation with maintaining Muslim support and his fear that Zarqawi’s actions jeopardized that support:
On the absolute need for popular support, Zawahiri stated:
- “…the strongest weapon which the mujahedeen enjoy…is popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq, and the surrounding Muslim countries. So, we must maintain this support as best we can, and we should strive to increase it…the mujahed (jihad) movement must avoid any action that the masses do not understand or approve…”
On his willingness to compromise on ideology for the benefit of the movement, Zawahiri stated:
- “Also, the active mujahedeen ulema (Islamic clerics) – even if there may be some heresy or fault in them that is not blasphemous – we must find a means to include them and to benefit from their energy”.
Revealing his belief that bringing proper Salafi-jihadi ideology to the masses would take generations, he wrote:
- “…correcting the mistakes of ideology is an issue that will require generations of the call to Islam and modifying the educational curricula…the mujahedeen are not able to undertake this burden, rather they are in need of those who will help them with the difficulties and problems they face…it is a duty of the mujahed (jihad) movement…to fill the role of leader, trailblazer, and exploiter of all the capabilities of the Umma (Muslim community) for the sake of achieving our aims…”.
Regarding his belief that attacking the Shia was a mistake, Zawahiri opined:
- “…the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shia. My opinion is that this matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue.
Revealing his total rejection of Zarqawi’s public beheadings of hostages, he said:
- “Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace…will never find palatable…are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages.”
In response, Zarqawi ignored Zawahiri’s reprimand, and, approximately two months later, he launched an “all-out war” on the Shia. His insubordination only ceased when he was killed by US forces in July 2006.
In 2013, Zarqawi’s successor and the current leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, received the same kind of reprimands from al Qaeda, and like Zarqawi, he rejected them. His insubordination caused relations between him and al Qaeda to steadily deteriorate, and finally, in February 2014, the organization officially disowned him. Al Baghdadi was not deterred, however. Rather, he went to war with its Syrian affiliate the Nusra Front, and won, and in the process, walked-away with an estimated 80 percent of al Nusra’s foreign fighters. By early July 2014, al Baghdadi’s ISIS forces swept through Syria and Iraq and established a new “Caliphate” in the heart of the Middle East, which claimed leadership of the worldwide Muslim community. When al Baghdadi called for Muslims to emigrate to support the Caliphate the number of foreign fighters flooding into Syria and Iraq increased significantly.
In a disturbing new development, the main al Qaeda organizations, heretofore loyal to Zawahiri, appear to be switching sides. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered by the US government to be the leading threat to the homeland, expressed solidarity with the Islamic State after US airstrikes against it, and pledged to conduct attacks against the US in retaliation. In addition, the leadership of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is reportedly fractured over support for the Islamic State, and analysts believe the leadership will either come out in support of al Baghdadi, or break in two with one faction supporting him while the other remains loyal to Zawahiri. The notorious Boko Haram and other Salafi-jihad groups have also pledged allegiance to al Baghdadi.
Al Baghdadi is supremely confident in his leadership and the capabilities of the Islamic State. So confident is he, that in March 2014, he challenged his nemesis, the al Nusra Front, to Mubahala – a ritual Islamic prayer asking Allah to show his favor for one of the parties while cursing the other. In Muslim tradition repeated military success can only occur if Allah wills it, and al Baghdadi believes that his series of successes proves that Allah has chosen the Islamic State as the winner. Moreover, in the latest issue of its official publication, Dabiq magazine, al Baghdadi goes one step further by using the story of Noah and the Ark to legitimize his strict adherence to Sharia law. No doubt the article also reveals how he views his role as the new “Caliph”. In the story, Noah is described as an uncompromising prophet who gave his people a single but profound choice:
- “He didn’t say to them, for example: “I have come to you with the truth, and your leaders are calling you to falsehood, so you are free to choose whether to follow me or to follow your leaders.” In fact, he didn’t even say anything to the effect of: “If you follow me then you would be correct, and if you follow your leaders then you would be mistaken.” Nor did he say anything to the effect of: “If you follow me you will be saved, and if you oppose me and follow your leaders then your reckoning is with Allah, and I have done what is required of me and you are free to choose.” Rather, he told them with full clarity: “It’s either me or the flood.”
Armed with new success, swelling ranks and funds, and the belief that Allah is on their side, the Islamic State’s leadership and fighters offer a stark and severe contrast to old guard al Qaeda:
- They don’t care about Muslim public opinion or opposition from core al Qaeda and other jihad groups.
- They believe that Muslims have no degree of free choice regarding their beliefs.
- They embrace an “it’s either me or the flood” mentality in which they see themselves as Allah’s chosen vanguard on earth that all other Muslims must follow.
- They believe that all Shia Muslims are apostates and must be killed.
- They embrace brutal public executions, beheadings, and crucifixions to send the simple message – Muslims rule, apostates die.
- They believe their success is a result of divine intervention by Allah.
These attributes, then, define the threat from ISIS’ foreign fighters. Zawahiri’s reticence to conduct any operations that would offend the worldwide Muslim community is no longer operative. ISIS fighters have disdain for Muslim public opinion – to them, anything goes. In 2003, al Qaeda had a terrorist plan to attack the New York subway system with cyanide gas. The device they created worked and it would likely have killed hundreds, but Zawahiri called the attack off at the last minute, most likely because he assessed there would be a negative backlash from his Muslim support base. Al Baghdadi’s fighters would have launched the attack.
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