By Michael S. Smith II

Last weekend, The Wall Street Journal published an essay titled “The New Jihad,” in which there are a number of factual and analytic problems. Some are minor; others are tremendously misleading for a public that pays little attention to Islam, Salafism, or Salafi-Jihadism (ie Salafiyya Jihadiyya). Yet as public (mis)perceptions of matters covered in that essay can serve to impede our government’s capabilities to combat terrorism, all problematic elements therein are potentially impactful on our national security.

A “New Jihad”

There is no evidence of a “new jihad,” as the title suggests.

Since its inception, al-Qa’ida has been concerned with the “reestablishment” of a caliphate. To achieve this goal, it is waging jihad against local so-called “apostate” governments that are unwilling to impose sharia (Islamic law, or al-Qa’ida’s notions of it and how to enforce it) and these governments’ “backers” in the West.

The same goes for all other elements affiliated with al-Qa’ida. This includes the group that is now known as the Islamic State (previously referred to as ISIS, ISIL, ISI, and AQI, among other names), which al-Qa’ida’s General Command ejected from the al-Qa’ida fold earlier this year.

Meanwhile, among jihadis — namely, al-Qa’ida’s senior leaders and the leaders of the Islamic State and its previous iterations — there are distinctly different views regarding just what constitutes a sound strategy for achieving their shared goal:  The reestablishment of a caliphate.

Still, as the doctrines of both al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State remain consistent with those promoted by deceased Muslim Brotherhood thought leader Sayyid Qutb in his 1964 jihadist manifesto Signposts on the Road (alternatively Milestones), there is no evidence of an ideological split having taken place between them. Indeed, in accordance with the logic promulgated by Qutb, both al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State leverage takfir (ie the practice of calling a Muslim an apostate, thus, in context, deserving death for turning their back on Islam) as a means to legitimize mass murders of government personnel and civilians alike. All for the purpose of expunging “unIslamic,” but especially Western influence on Muslim societies.

The Strategic Divide

On the one hand, as highlighted in the feature article contained in the Islamic State’s new English-language magazine, Dabiq, the Islamic State’s leaders have sought to foment maximum chaos in Iraq. To this end, the group has executed brutal, indiscriminate, persistent waves of bombings and other terroristic activities.

According to their strategic logic, generating maximum chaos will serve to severely degrade the capability of the Iraqi government to prevent them from establishing an emirate (state) in areas the Iraqi government cannot easily control. Further, this chaos will serve to elicit overreaction by the Iraqi government, whose countermeasures — not unlike those of the US following al-Qa’ida’s 9/11 attacks of 2001 — will almost certainly turn Iraq-based Sunnis against the government, making it easier for the Islamic State to formalize alliances with them.

On the other hand, al-Qa’ida’s senior leaders like bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have used lessons learned in jihad theaters like Algeria as the bases for their slower approach to achieving the same goal. To paraphrase one lesson learned they have frequently cited:  Jihadists who became terribly indiscriminate with their terror campaigns in Algeria — killing even a number of al-Qa’ida operatives dispatched to assist them after these operatives voiced concerns about the high civilian body count — encountered a great deal of blowback in the form of widespread public outrage (ie failure to establish widespread public support for their jihad).

According to their internal and external communications, al-Qa’ida’s senior leaders wish to draw out their jihad over a long period of time. According to them, this will serve to (a) deplete the political will in Western states to challenge al-Qa’ida, while also serving to gradually (b) deplete the resources Western states can apply to combat terrorism abroad.

Thus, according to al-Qa’ida’s theory, once al-Qa’ida declares a caliphate by uniting a number of emirates established by its various affiliates, the West will not be in a position to challenge the existence of this caliphate. Without the West’s help, proximate governments will also be less capable of denying al-Qa’ida the attainment of this goal. Not to mention far less capable of preventing al-Qa’ida from preserving this caliphate once it is declared.

This strategic logic of senior al-Qa’ida leaders is evident in a letter sent by either bin Laden or Atiyah to AQAP emir, now also AQ Deputy Commander Nasir al-Wuhayshi that was discovered by US Navy SEALs in bin Laden’s compound. This logic is also evident in another document discovered in Abbottabad that covers al-Qa’ida’s strategy. Further, this very logic is also articulated in al-Qa’ida emir Ayman al-Zawahiri’s last public statement, which he issued in May 2014.

“New Generation” vs “Veterans”

The essay’s depiction of the “split” between al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State as one pitting “a new generation of shock troops hardened by battle in Iraq and Syria against al Qaeda veterans” belies the reality on the ground in Syria. Put simply, many of the jihadi groups fighting in Syria whose ranks are filled with young fighters — not just Jabhat al-Nusrah — have rejected the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate, and its demands for support from these young jihadis. Moreover, the Islamic State’s leaders, particularly “Caliph Ibrahim” (formerly known to his followers as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), are hardly what one may reasonably call a “new generation” of jihadis.

The Rift

The General Command of al-Qa’ida disowned al-Baghdadi’s group earlier in 2014 because al-Baghdadi was insubordinate. His insubordination was essentially threefold, as evinced by the following:  (1) his failure to first consult with al-Zawahiri about his interest in merging al-Nusrah with his group to form the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” before announcing this merger; (2) his unwillingness to disband his fighters’ activities in Syria — not recalibrate his group’s brutal tactics — and (3) his rejection of al-Zawahiri’s ruling that Jabhat al-Nusrah would operate as a separate entity, subordinated to al-Qa’ida’s General Command, rather than be subsumed within ISIS, as called for by al-Baghdadi.

In the simplest of terms, the disagreement that led to ISIS being ejected from the al-Qa’ida fold concerned which group (ie Jabhat al-Nusrah or ISIS) al-Qa’ida wanted to manage its operations in Syria. ISIS was not ejected because of its brutality, as has been stated ad nausea by many news outlets. (Interestingly, al-Zawahiri’s reply to al-Baghdadi’s merger announcement, coupled with his issuance of “Guidelines for Jihad” in September 2013, confounds contemporary analysis of many prominent al-Qa’ida “experts” who have argued that al-Qa’ida’s senior leaders are no longer managing their network in a manner that reflects emphasis placed on the employ of a command-and-control model. But that’s a matter to be addressed in a forthcoming Downrange article regarding the deleterious effects on counterterrorism strategies of input from academics who must say something new or different to generate interest in their work among other academics, and publishers.)

Granted, al-Zawahiri may have viewed al-Baghdadi’s tactics as counterproductive. For al-Qa’ida is clearly interested in imbuing Syrians with perceptions of al-Qa’ida that will make it easy for al-Qa’ida operatives to continue exploiting Syrian territory over the long run. Given such, Jabhat al-Nusrah may have been looked upon by al-Zawahiri as a better fit for the job of cultivating goodwill toward, or at least a permissive attitude about al-Qa’ida among members of Syria’s Sunni communities.

Meanwhile, it is important to note: Unlike a letter al-Zawahiri sent to AQI founding emir Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to remind him of how certain Algerian jihadis’ brutal, indiscriminate campaigns prevented them from establishing the public support needed to establish the Islamic state they had envisioned for Algeria, al-Zawahiri’s communications in response to al-Baghdadi’s controversial claim that he had merged al-Nusrah with his group, paired with al-Baghdadi’s announcement of a new group called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Syria) formed by this merger, were not terribly concerned with the tactics employed by al-Baghdadi’s fighters.

Bayat and Jihadi Networks’ Hierarchies

Moving on, the essay suggests al-Baghdadi refused to pledge loyalty (bayat) to al-Zawahiri when the dispute arose between Jabhat al-Nusrah and ISIS over al-Baghdadi’s claim that his organization had subsumed al-Nusrah. As noted, al-Baghdadi’s power play was rejected by al-Zawahiri, who has noted it was made without permission from him and other senior al-Qa’ida leaders (which serves to indicate al-Zawahiri regarded al-Baghdadi’s power play as an affront).

Yet the bottom line is: al-Baghdadi did not need to pledge loyalty to al-Zawahiri at this time. He did so immediately following bin Laden’s death in 2011.

This pledge of loyalty to al-Zawahiri was covered by Reuters, and numerous other news organizations — making al-Baghdadi hardly the unheard-of-figure-outside-jihadist-spheres that he was portrayed as in the Journal essay.

To quote from al-Baghdadi’s 2011 statement:

While I remain certain that the martyrdom of our shaykh will only make his fellow mujahidin more unified and firm, I say to our brothers in the Al-Qa’ida Organization, with the mujahid Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri, may God preserve him, and his brothers in the leadership of the organization, first: May God double your rewards and confer upon you the utmost consolation for this tragedy. With the blessing of God, you may act as you see fit in this matter and accept our glad tiding: You have in the Islamic State of Iraq a group of loyal men pursuing the endeavor of truth; they shall never forgive nor resign. …

Indeed, in his last public statement (ca. May 2014), al-Zawahiri referenced this very portion of al-Baghdadi’s 2011 statement to highlight that al-Baghdadi and his associates had subordinated their organization to al-Qa’ida’s senior leaders following the death of bin Laden, the emir to whom they had previously pledged loyalty.

When jihadis pledge bayat to a group’s emir, they are issuing a religious oath that obligates them to obediently follow that leader. Organizationally, when an “affiliate” leader pledges bayat to al-Qa’ida’s emir, that affiliate leader is also subordinating the men who have pledged bayat to him to the emir whom the affiliate leader has subordinated himself.

The breaking of this oath is punishable by death. Unless, that is, the emir to whom bayat has been pledged acts in a manner that is unIslamic.

Hence, in order to legitimize (a) his refusal to accept al-Zawahiri’s ruling that Jabhat al-Nusrah would remain a separate group — one subordinated to al-Qa’ida’s General Command, not ISIS — along with (b) his refusal to disband his group’s operations in Syria, as was also demanded by al-Zawahiri, al-Baghdadi claimed al-Zawahiri’s instructions were unIslamic. Indeed, the reason al-Baghdadi characterized al-Zawahiri’s decision regarding the matter of whether al-Nusrah would remain a separate entity as “antithetical to God’s commands,” as described in the essay in The Wall Street Journal, is that this is a way for al-Baghdadi to legitimize breaking his own pledge of loyalty to al-Qa’ida emir Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Al-Baghdadi’s logic is essentially this: Jabhat al-Nusrah emir al-Jawlani almost certainly pledged bayat to al-Baghdadi before al-Jawlani was dispatched to Syria to help build a larger network of fighters there. Hence, al-Baghdadi regarded al-Jawlani’s rejection of his announcement that al-Nusrah had been merged with ISI to form ISIS as insubordination (ie al-Jawlani was breaking his oath to obediently serve al-Baghdadi). Thus al-Jawlani had acted, according to al-Baghdadi, in an unIslamic fashion. Thus, according to al-Baghdadi, al-Zawahiri’s support for al-Jawlani’s refutation of al-Baghdadi’s claim was unIslamic, for al-Zawahiri was effectively condoning al-Jawlani’s unIslamic actions.

Obviously, al-Jawlani was taking a big risk by rejecting al-Baghdadi’s claim that al-Nusrah had been merged with al-Baghdadi’s group. He was almost certainly guessing that al-Zawahiri had not preapproved the merger al-Baghdadi sought to engineer in order to subordinate al-Jawlani’s fighters to the group now calling itself the Islamic State. And, if this was the case, this would mean al-Baghdadi’s power play was unIslamic — making it possible for al-Jawlani to disobey him.

According to al-Zawahiri’s statements regarding these matters since, al-Jawlani guessed right. Indeed, al-Zawahiri says he was not consulted prior to the issuance of al-Baghdadi’s merger announcement. (Interestingly, the unapproved merger announcement was made just days after al-Zawahiri called on Muslims to unify in one of his external communications. So perhaps al-Baghdadi had taken the liberty of interpreting al-Zawahiri’s message to mean it would be prudent to merge al-Nusrah with his group.)

Furthermore, al-Jawlani almost certainly pledged bayat to al-Zawahiri while appealing for him to rule against al-Baghdadi’s merger announcement in order to shield himself from al-Baghdadi. Indeed, if al-Zawahiri were to accept this pledge of bayat — which he did — al-Baghdadi’s recourse for al-Jawlani’s insubordination would thus entail moving against one of al-Zawahiri’s immediate subordinates, and the head of an official al-Qa’ida affiliate.

This very self-preservationist logic is also evident in al-Baghdadi’s claim of having established a caliphate, and his assumption of the role of caliph:  If al-Baghdadi is recognized by jihadis as a caliph (ie the leader of Sunni Islam), there will be no religiously-justifiable recourse for his previous improprieties, as alleged by al-Zawahiri. If, that is, Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar subordinates himself, thus those jihadis subordinated to Mullah Omar (ie al-Zawahiri), to al-Baghdadi.

Misstatements of Facts and Misleading Attribution

Moving on, there are some glaring problems with the history described in the essay, as well as its author’s analysis of al-Zawahiri’s relevance in the history of the Global Jihad movement. First, al-Qa’ida was not recruiting and asserting influence over jihadis throughout the 1980s. The group was not officially formed until its founding members adopted its charter, and pledged bayat to bin Laden in the fall of 1988.

Next, one would be hard-pressed to find documentation that indicates al-Zawahiri was born prior to 1951, making it difficult for him to have grown up in the 40s and 50s alongside Qutb, who was executed by the Nasser government in 1966. As Qutb was imprisoned from 1954-1964, it is doubtful al-Zawahiri would have spent much, if any, time with him. Meanwhile, the essay correctly notes that al-Zawahiri was surrounded by Qutbist members of the Muslim Brotherhood during his formative years.

In 1964, Iraqi President Arif successfully petitioned the Nasser government to release Qutb. Qutb was serving a 25-year prison sentence for his alleged involvement in a 1954 assassination plot targeting Gamal Abd al-Nasser, who led a successful coup d’état that was supported by the Brotherhood roughly two years before Nasser turned on the Brotherhood in 1954. Arif had been an admirer of Qutb’s book titled In the Shade of the Quran, and it should be noted that, as the Brotherhood had become an international entity that reportedly comprised 500,000 members by the time Qutb was jailed, Qutb was by no means an obscure figure to Muslims beyond Egypt’s borders. Indeed, he had been appointed to a top post within the all-influential Egyptian branch of the Brotherhood before he was jailed. He was also the publisher of its weekly newspaper, and had quickly become one of its top thought leaders when he joined the Brotherhood after the assassination of its founder, Hassan al-Banna (d. 1949). The promotion of Qutb’s works by the House of Saud and Wahabbi religious figures as a means to counter Nasser’s secularist-oriented model for a pan-Arabism also boosted Qutb’s profile in Muslim communities beyond Egypt’s borders. This was especially the case in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where Qutb’s brother Mohamed became a university professor, attracting attention to his lectures from would-be jihadis like Usama bin Laden (whose father also demonstrated a penchant for jihadist “activism”).

Moving on, a portion of the essay concerned with the role played by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri — yes, he is a medical doctor — in shaping al-Qa’ida’s agenda states:  “Mr. Zawahiri honed al Qaeda’s basic tenets. He declared that the world, including most Muslim societies, languished in a state of impurity and that it was al Qaeda’s religious duty to cleanse it. The main culprits, according to Mr. Zawahiri’s teachings, were the secular West and its Arab allies, both marked as primary targets in al Qaeda’s holy war.”

To begin, Qutb’s works had a profound impact on not just al-Zawahiri, but on most all other jihadist ideologues, thus their followers.

Indeed, titled Militant Ideology Atlas, an exhaustive study completed by researchers at the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point in 2006 determined that, in the oeuvre of jihadist theorists’ works that inform the agendas of elements such as al-Qa’ida, Qutb’s are the most influential. Indeed, the Salafiyya Jihadiyya ideology and associated doctrines adopted by groups like al-Qa’ida was mostly formulated in Qutb’s final work, Signposts on the Road. Indeed, titled “al-Qa’ida al-Subah” (The Solid Base), the April 1988 article published in al-Jihad magazine by Afghan Jihad leader Abdallah Azzam (also bin Laden’s jihadist mentor) to provided a mandate for the creation of al-Qa’ida is essentially a condensed iteration of Signposts.

Ultimately, the essay’s aforecited paragraph would have been accurate if it stated the following:  “Sayyid Qutb honed al Qaeda’s basic tenets. Qutb declared that the world, including most Muslim societies, languished in a state of impurity and that it was the religious duty of a ‘vanguard’ that would lead an ‘Islamic revival’ (eg al-Qa’ida) to cleanse it. The main culprits, according to Qutb’s teachings, were the secular West and its Arab allies, both marked as primary targets in al Qaeda’s holy war.”

It was not al-Zawahiri who “honed” the basic tenets of this ideology and associated jihadist doctrines. Al-Zawahiri and other prominent jihadis part of bin Laden’s inner circle during the late 1980s simply harnessed Qutb’s guidance to orient bin Laden’s focus toward waging a global jihad. Although also concerned that the US would try to harness the jihadis’ “victory” over the Soviets to assert secularist interests in Afghanistan (as noted in his aforementioned April 1988 article), bin Laden’s mentor Abdallah Azzam was far more concerned with the Palestinian issue than with waging a global jihad. But his assassination in 1989 cleared the way for Mohamed Atef, al-Zawahiri and others to encourage bin Laden to focus his resources on waging a global struggle against unIslamic forces — leaving Hamas to spearhead the jihad against Israel on behalf of Palestinians.

Indeed, what the essay describes as al-Zawahiri’s Manichean stances regarding society — his takfirist notion that all Muslims, except those who have joined the ranks of al-Qa’ida and affiliated movements, are living in a state of jahiliyya (a state of ignorance that preceded the Prophet Mohamed’s work correcting misleading tenets of Judaism and Christianity), thus deserving of death should they refuse to join or support his jihadist “vanguard” — are excerpted from Qutb’s 1964 manifesto titled Signposts. This view was also held by bin Laden no-doubt long before he met Ayman al-Zawahiri, for, as noted, bin Laden regularly attended lectures delivered by Sayyid Qutb’s brother Mohamed in Saudi Arabia while a university student.

This Manichean worldview is also shared by the Islamic State’s leaders. Albeit, they are demanding submission to their vanguard rather than al-Qa’ida, which they have called on to submit to the Islamic State, declaring all pledges of bayat to other groups’ leaders null and void as Muslims are obligated by sharia to pledge loyalty to the caliph. Indeed, in the feature article of their new magazine, Dabiq, IS criticizes the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) because its leaders eventually became “embarrassed” about adhering to such “shar’i fundamentals” as the employ of takfir to label leaders unwilling to impose sharia as apostates.

Of course, Qutb was applying takfir with his claim that all Muslims were living in a jahili state (ie they were not true believers). A condition he attributed to the influence of secularist Western states on the political models adopted by majority-Muslim countries of the Middle East and beyond.

Again, the worldviews of al-Qa’ida and Islamic State leaders (ie their ideology and the jihadist doctrines derived from it) are effectively one in the same. Further, they are largely derived from Qutb’s final work, Signposts, which a number of jihadist ideologues have effectively plagiarized to produce what amount to textbooks for jihadis who are new to the ranks of al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State. The worldviews, agendas, justifications of abhorrent actions, etc that have been adopted and employed by both al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State remain consistent with the fundamentals of the ideology known as Salafiyya Jihadiyya, as formulated in Signposts.

In the introduction chapter of Signposts, Qutb noted that he penned Signposts to provide guidance for a “vanguard” that would lead an Islamic revival. A vanguard that would, “sooner or later,” Qutb wrote, engage in a “conquest of world domination.” Indeed, for those doubtful of Qutb’s global jihadist ambitions — for those analysts promulgating notions that it is bin Laden who should be credited with cultivating jihadis’ aspirations to strike the West — it is worth noting that Qutb not only spent roughly two years living in the US while completing graduate-level academic work. Qutb was also vociferously anti-American, viewing the US as the torchbearer of Western secularist traditions which, vis-à-vis the West’s influence in the post-Caliphate Arab world, had steered Muslim societies astray — and into their so-called jahili state.

By serving as the functional leader of the so-called “Global Jihad” movement, al-Qa’ida has fashioned itself as the revivalist “vanguard” envisioned by Qutb. Presently, al-Baghdadi is jockeying for leadership of this movement with his claim to be the world’s new “caliph,” thus both the political and religious leader of the Salafi-Jihadist trend.

Perceptions of the “Caliphate” — Whose Input Really Matters

With respect to al-Baghdadi’s efforts to subordinate al-Zawahiri to him, how Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar responds to al-Baghdadi’s claim will almost certainly be the decisive factor, for al-Zawahiri is effectively subordinated to him. That is, unless al-Zawahiri were to risk calling a decision from Mullah Omar to support the Islamic State’s claim “unIslamic” on the grounds that it serves to condone al-Baghdadi’s insubordination. (Contact us to hear more theories regarding ways al-Zawahiri could go about legitimizing a refusal to comply with any forthcoming calls from Mullah Omar for jihadis to pledge loyalty to Caliph Ibrahim.)

What Muslim Brotherhood thought leaders like Yusuf al-Qaradawi have to say about the Islamic State’s claim that it has established a caliphate is anathema to the concerns of jihadis. And the essay’s author was remiss in not more explicitly conveying this reality when highlighting that al-Qaradawi, who is arguably the most influential Muslim religious figure alive today (and who has at least twice declined offers to be made the official leader of the Muslim Brotherhood), has dismissed the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate.

Indeed, it is not “unclear” what the impact of al-Qaradawi’s input will be on the audience targeted with the Islamic State’s demands for support. Although he is the spiritual guide of Hamas, the impact of his input regarding the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate on the perceptions of jihadis who are not members of Hamas will almost certainly be negligible. For the jihadis Caliph Ibrahim seeks to unite under his command view the Brotherhood as an enterprise that has evolved to promote a “deviant” ideology — one that promotes working within the system to effect changes that will enable the imposition of sharia versus generating these changes by working against the system, as advocated by its founding leader Hassan al-Banna and, later, Sayyid Qutb.

Nor will jihadis’ perceptions be noticeably affected by the response from al-Azhar, where a number of al-Zawahiri’s relatives once held important positions.

However, these responses may very well serve to dissuade Muslims traveling to Syria from the West who have not yet adopted the Salafiyya Jihadiyya ideology from joining the ranks of the Islamic State’s network of fighters in Syria. Meanwhile, if the trend of foreign fighters joining the ranks of jihadist groups in Syria persists, such responses may dually serve to offer Jabhat al-Nusrah (ie al-Qa’ida) and groups affiliated with it a comparative advantage over the Islamic State when it comes to the recruitment of these new arrivals.

Additional Thoughts

The essay’s author was also remiss in not highlighting a glaring irony inherent in al-Qaradawi’s response: When al-Qaradawi and other muftis part of his influential International Union of Muslim Scholars proclaimed it is an “obligation” for Muslims the world over to support the jihad in Syria, they created a lifeline for Jabhat al-Nusrah and ISIS. Indeed, a majority of foreign fighters arriving in Syria have joined these and other groups whose agendas are informed by the Salafiyya Jihadiyya ideology that guides the Global Jihad movement.

One cannot help but to wonder how al-Qaradawi could not have foreseen such developments when he voiced his clarion call for Muslims the world over to join the jihad in Syria. This very trend emerged in Iraq roughly eight years earlier, after al-Qaradawi’s pronouncement that sharia permitted Muslims to travel to Iraq in order to support the anti-Coalition insurgency there.

Arguably, while the Brotherhood’s preeminent thought leader may have dismissed as a falsehood the Islamic State’s claim that it has established a caliphate, the Islamic State’s abilities to grow its ranks and resources to levels that have enabled the group to seize vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria are in many respects fruits of al-Qaradawi’s promotions of jihads waged in Iraq and Syria during the past decade.

Moreover, given that such guidance is proffered by al-Qaradawi to millions of his followers via his television programs aired by Al Jazeera, given that Al Jazeera is subsidized by the government of his host country, Qatar, one cannot help but ask: What has Qatar’s agenda entailed during and after the Arab Spring?

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