A senior al Qaeda official, Muhammad bin Mahmoud Rabie al Bahtiyti, also known as Abu Dujana al Basha, has released a new audio message seeking to undermine the Islamic State, which was disowned by al Qaeda’s general command in February.
Al Basha’s speech was released by al Qaeda’s official propaganda arm, As Sahab, on Sept. 26. It was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Al Qaeda’s senior leaders have not directly addressed the Islamic State’s claim to rule over a caliphate stretching across large portions of Iraq and Syria. Instead, they have sought to undermine the Islamic State’s ideological legitimacy in a variety of more subtle ways. (Other parts of al Qaeda’s international network have specifically rejected the Islamic State’s caliphate claim.)
Al Basha does not name the Islamic State, but his speech is clearly aimed at the group and its supporters.
Al Basha sets forth al Qaeda’s goals, saying the group is dedicated “to the oneness of Allah…as we call to disbelieve the tyrant and disavow polytheism and its people.” Al Basha says al Qaeda seeks “to establish the absent Shariah and empower this religion.”
It is often claimed, wrongly, that al Qaeda is only interested in attacking the West, or carrying out mass casualty attacks. But the organization has repeatedly stated that its jihadists seek to create societies based on their radical version of sharia law. Al Qaeda wants to build Islamic emirates, or states, based on this sharia. It is for this reason that most of al Qaeda’s resources since its founding have been devoted to waging insurgencies against governments in the Muslim-majority world that it deems to be corrupt.
Imposing sharia and creating Islamic emirates are steps to al Qaeda’s ultimate stated goal, which al Basha explains.
“We call to restore the rightly-guided Caliphate on the prophetic method, and not on the method of deviation, lying, breaking promises, and abrogating allegiances – a caliphate that stands with justice, consultation, and coming together, and not with oppression, infidel-branding the Muslims, killing the monotheists, and dispersing the rank of the mujahideen,” al Basha says, according to SITE’s translation.
Although al Basha does not mention the Islamic State by name, his description of al Qaeda’s proposed caliphate is intended to undermine al Baghdadi’s claim to power. Al Basha’s reference to “abrogating allegiances” is probably a reference to the oath of allegiance (bayat) that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi swore to Ayman al Zawahiri and then broke.
Al Qaeda-allied jihadists have argued against the Islamic State’s caliphate claim, saying it was imposed on Muslims and even jihadists without consultation. And this is a theme in a Basha’s speech.
In al Qaeda’s ideological schema, the caliphate can only be resurrected after respected jihadists give it their seal of approval. Al Baghdadi’s organization has tried to impose its caliphate throughout much of Iraq and Syria, frequently fighting with other jihadist organizations, including the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. Leading jihadist ideologues have criticized Baghdadi’s caliphate on this basis, as well as for other reasons.
Al Basha warns against “extremism,” which, ironically enough, is one of al Qaeda’s key charges against the Islamic State. In Syria and elsewhere, al Qaeda has been attempting to portray itself as a more reasonable jihadist organization. Because the Islamic State refuses to consult with other Muslims and jihadist groups, not just in creating a caliphate, but also in other matters, al Qaeda accuses the group of pursuing an extremist path. Of course, al Qaeda is extremist by any reasonable standard, and has spilled more Muslim than non-Muslim blood throughout its existence. Still, because of the Islamic State’s excessive violence, particularly in Syria, al Qaeda has been marketing itself as a more mainstream jihadist organization.
Al Basha addresses the jihadists’ rank and file, urging them to avoid joining the Islamic State and subtly encouraging Baghdadi’s fighters to defect from his army. Al Basha openly worries that the jihad in Syria has been squandered because of the infighting between the groups opposed to Bashar al Assad’s regime. Al Qaeda blames the infighting on the Islamic State.
“I address my speech and my advice to my brothers on the frontlines in Sham [Syria] among those who have been deceived by slogans and titles, to use your heads and have insight, and to weigh the matters fairly,” al Basha says. “Rescue the ship of jihad, and reach it before it deviates from its course and settles on the path of the people of desires. Strive to turn off the sedition and restore cohesion among the mujahideen.”
At the end of his audio speech, al Basha addresses those jihadists who disapprove with al Qaeda’s understated response to the Islamic State’s caliphate claim. Al Basha says that he and others wanted to defend al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri’s reputation against the Islamic State’s slanders, but Zawahiri ordered them not to.
“The Sheikh [Zawahiri] ordered his brothers to be silent and not protect his honor,” al Basha says. “He considered that out of concern for the benefit of this Ummah [Muslim community], and a hope that Allah will fix the condition, and that the sedition will be suppressed.”
Al Qaeda’s leaders and branches have repeatedly urged the jihadists in Syria to reconcile. However, their efforts have been fruitless.
Veteran al Qaeda leader
Al Basha has taken on a more prominent and public role for al Qaeda in recent years. In Dec. 2013, he argued that jihad is necessary to implement sharia law in Egypt. In late August he issued a statement urging followers to strike American and Israeli interests in support of Muslims in Gaza.
Although al Basha was not initially a public persona for al Qaeda, he was well-known to US counterterrorism officials for years. In Jan. 2009, the US Treasury Department designated al Basha as an al Qaeda terrorist, noting that he was Zawahiri’s son-in-law. Al Basha was located in Iran at the time.
Treasury found that he “served on an al Qaeda military committee and provided military training that included urban warfare tactics for al Qaeda members.” Among other duties, al Basha “drafted training manuals for al Qaeda as well as a book on security that was used as a template for al Qaeda’s surveillance operations.”
Al Bahtiyti is a longtime member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al Qaeda and was reportedly involved in al Qaeda’s 1995 bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Zawahiri tasked al Bahtiyti with moving members of Zawahiri’s family to Iran after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.