Al Qaeda has published a response to the nine jihadists operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan who sided with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) in a letter disseminated in March. The ISIS, which was disowned by al Qaeda’s general command in February, has been attempting to solicit support from jihadists around the world. And the nine jihadists, led by a veteran al Qaeda leader known as Abu Huda al Sudani, constitute one of the few factions to have publicly rallied to the ISIS’ cause thus far.
Al Qaeda’s response to the nine jihadists was penned by Abu ‘Amer al Naji, a previously obscure al Qaeda ideologue who nonetheless writes that he has lived with the group for “many years.” Naji’s statement, which was posted on May 28, was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Naji responds to several criticisms levied by the nine jihadists, who blasted al Qaeda’s decision not to brand all Shiites as infidels, found fault in al Qaeda’s approach to the so-called Arab Spring, and believe that al Qaeda has been too lax in enforcing sharia law, among other criticisms.
Naji writes that al Qaeda’s decision to refrain from branding all Shiites as heretics is well-founded in its version of Islamic jurisprudence. He cites statements made by senior al Qaeda leaders several years ago, in addition to commentaries written by Abu Musab al Suri, Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi and Abu Anas al Shami, to support his case.
Al Suri is a major al Qaeda ideologue whose works are widely cited. It is likely that al Suri is currently imprisoned in Syria by the Assad regime, although there have been contradictory reports concerning his status. Al Maqdisi is an influential jihadist ideologue who is imprisoned in Jordan and has become a forceful critic of the ISIS from behind bars. Ironically, al Maqdisi’s brother was one of the nine signatories of the pro-ISIS letter.
Abu Anas al Shami was the spiritual adviser for Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the first head of al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Shami was killed during the height of the Iraq War, and al Qaeda’s reference to him is likely an attempt to influence the thinking of jihadists whose careers began in Zarqawi’s organization. Both the ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria and the ISIS’ rival, grew out of Zarqawi’s terror network.
As the nine signatories of the pro-ISIS letter revealed, not everyone within al Qaeda was happy with the group’s approach to the Arab uprisings that began in early 2011. The dissenting jihadists argue that al Qaeda should have opposed the crumbling Arab regimes through force, instead of initially taking a back seat to the millions of Muslims who protested in the streets.
The letter’s authors complained about al Qaeda’s supposedly “[e]xcessive complimenting of what was called the Arab Spring, and inciting unprotected people from the men and women to go out to the streets and squares to face the powers of apostasy that were well armed, so that people would change the regimes, and so that we would go after that to ride them [to power], and whenever they did not do enough.” The ISIS’ spokesman, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, has made a similar argument, criticizing al Qaeda’s leadership for not waging open jihad against all of the regimes, including those that supplanted dictatorships post-Arab Spring, throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
Thus, the ISIS and its supporters object to al Qaeda’s calibrated approach to the post-Arab Spring world, in which the jihadists sometimes use tactics other than violence, including proselytization, to spread their ideology. It is for this reason, among others, that the ISIS has accused al Qaeda of changing its own ideology, going as far as to claim that the al Qaeda of Ayman al Zawahiri is substantively different from Osama bin Laden’s organization.
Naji responds to these criticisms, saying that all of the “scholars and preachers in our time,” excluding those who served the existing regimes, agreed with the wisdom of supporting the revolutions. He writes, “I do not know what is the embarrassment in encouraging the Muslim people to revolt against its rulers in order to establish Islamic Sharia?” In fact, al Qaeda ideologues have repeatedly argued that the uprisings did not finish the job, because their version of sharia law has not been implemented in the societies that revolted.
Naji argues that al Qaeda’s rhetorical support for the uprisings did not reflect a change in the organization’s direction. He cites statements by Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri, Attiyah abd al Rahman, Abu Yahya al Libi, and Abu Dujana al Basha to prove his point. Indeed, one of the handful of documents released to the public after being recovered from Osama bin Laden’s compound reveals that the al Qaeda leader believed at least some of the Islamists rising to power in post-Arab Spring countries could be won over to al Qaeda’s cause.
In addition, Naji accuses the dissenters of “libel” for alleging that al Qaeda’s leaders argued that the jihadists should take a back seat (“we would go after that to ride them [to power]”) to the protesters. He says that unnamed works by Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi demonstrate the flaws in the nine disaffected jihadists’ thinking.
The pro-ISIS jihadists believe that al Qaeda has been lax in enforcing sharia law. Naji responds by pointing to the works of Abu Yahya al Libi, an al Qaeda leader who was killed in a US drone strike in 2012. Al Libi argued that the jihadists have the right to exercise discretion when implementing sharia law in conflict zones.
And in a bit of inside baseball, Naji points to an al Qaeda sharia hearing in which one of the letter’s signatories reportedly vouched for an unidentified person who fled the dispute. Naji rhetorically asks if sharia should not be applied in that case, too. The implication is that one of the letter’s signatories could be held accountable for backing an untrustworthy party.
Naji concludes by dismissing the nine jihadists’ religious credentials, arguing that not one of them “considers himself from the people of knowledge,” and Naji does “not think that anyone knows them as such and considers them like that.” The same could be said for how many other Islamic scholars view Naji and his ilk inside al Qaeda.
Naji’s statement is being promoted at the top of the Shumukh al Islam forum with the same banner that can be seen at the top of this article. Shumukh was initially supportive of the ISIS in its dispute with al Qaeda’s senior leadership, but the site, which has been taken down multiple times, did not remain in the ISIS camp for long.