Quilliam’s Charlie Cooper explores the history behind ISIS and al-Qaeda in an op-ed for The Telegraph.
Over the past week, the media spotlight has shifted from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Syria to ISIS in Iraq, where the jihadist group has made impressive gains. So impressive, in fact, that Washington is considering air strikes against it, at Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki’s request.
In almost all mainstream coverage of these events, two phrases keep popping up in relation to ISIS: “al-Qaeda-linked” and “al-Qaeda-affiliated”. These are misleading categorisations, we need to move beyond them. Certainly, ISIS is al-Qaeda-inspired, but no more is it linked or affiliated. Those ties were severed long ago, and what it is now is something far more troubling.
Things are moving fast in Iraq. It is nearly impossible to navigate through the thousands of conflicting accounts that are emerging over the Twittersphere and beyond. However, one thing that we do know for sure is that ISIS is fast eclipsing al-Qaeda as the bête noire of international politics.
While al-Zawahiri is sitting stagnant in a safe house, ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has taken control of nearly a third of Iraq and much of Syria, amassed a fortune that rivals the economy of some small states, and commandeered millions of dollars’ worth of state-of-the-art American-made weaponry.
In recent years, al-Qaeda has paled in comparison with ISIS in terms of operational capacity. What’s not so well known is that al-Qaeda pales in comparison ideologically as well. While both groups strive for a global Islamist caliphate in which all will live under an austere, medieval version of the Sharia, ISIS take things a little further.
Al-Baghdadi’s creed is a refined version of the philosophy of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – the Butcher of Baghdad – whose ideological direction parted ways with al-Qaeda’s years ago when he announced the formation of ISIS’ forebear, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
When the Syrian uprising descended into chaos, the ISI, which had recently struck hard times, saw an opportunity. Now, instead of waging jihad against civilians and the US-backed government in Baghdad, it could go “legitimate” and fight against the tyrannical Assad regime. After joining the fray, al-Baghdadi announced a merger between his group and al-Qaeda’s designated Syrian branch, Jabhat Al-Nusra. What he didn’t do was get prior approval from either Jabhat Al-Nusra or al-Qaeda’s leader.
The announcement came as a shock to all, no one more so than al-Qaeda leader, al-Zawahiri. His authority, his position at the peak of global jihad, had just been snubbed by one of his minions. By absorbing it into ISIS without permission from above, al-Baghdadi had subordinated Jabhat Al-Nusra and, in doing so, subordinated al-Qaeda. It was at this point that ISIS went from being al-Qaeda-linked to just being al-Qaeda-inspired.
After the “merger”, al-Zawahiri was quiet until, a month or so later, he annulled it and called for Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS to work together in jihad, not as one. Al-Baghdadi ignored him and had the chief mediator between the two groups assassinated. Clearly, the ISIS leader was now intent on going it alone. What came as something of a surprise was that much of the global jihadist community went with him.
Repeatedly now, ISIS has broken with the al-Qaeda norm and a new monster has emerged. We are closer than ever before to seeing a jihadist state in Mesopotamia. This is one of ISIS’ greatest selling points and one that draws jihadists in from around the world – to go to Iraq or Syria and fight with it is to go and fight for the utopian caliphate.
To call ISIS an al-Qaeda-linked or al-Qaeda-affiliated group is a dangerous game. We are dealing with a new set of actors here, a more extreme ideology and a far more aggressive (and, seemingly, effective) strategy. Certainly, ISIS is al-Qaeda-inspired, but al-Baghdadi left al-Qaeda behind long ago.
This is not just semantics: we mustn’t muddle the two groups because they require two different approaches – and one is more threatening than the other. ISIS, now, is more relevant and influential than al-Qaeda. It is driven by a dogma that puts it far beyond any kind of engagement or dialogue. As one Iraq official put it this week, “we are fighting devils and not ordinary people”.
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