How Isis crippled al-Qaida
The inside story of the coup that has brought the world’s most feared terrorist network to the brink of collapse.
Militant Islamic State fighters in a military parade in Syria’s northern Raqqa province. Photograph: Reuters
On 5 February, Jordanian officials confirmed that the intellectual godfather of al-Qaida, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, had been released from prison. Though he is little known in the west, Maqdisi’s importance in the canon of radical Islamic thought is unrivalled by anyone alive. The 56-year-old Palestinian rose to prominence in the 1980s, when he became the first significant radical Islamic scholar to declare the Saudi royal family were apostates, and therefore legitimate targets of jihad. At the time, Maqdisi’s writings were so radical that even Osama bin Laden thought they were too extreme.
Today, Maqdisi counts the leader of al‑Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as a personal friend, and he is held in the highest esteem by the rest of al-Qaida’s regional heads, from North Africa to Yemen. His numerous books and pamphlets are required reading for Islamic militants around the world, who eagerly follow the latest proclamations on Maqdisi’s website, the Pulpit of Monotheism and Jihad. But he may be best known for personally mentoring Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who founded the organisation that would later become Isis, while the two men were jailed together on terrorism charges in Jordan in the mid-1990s. Zarqawi was released in 1999 and, after swearing allegiance to al-Qaida, went on to become one of the most notorious figures in postwar Iraq, unleashing a brutal campaign of sectarian terror, which led Maqdisi to publicly upbraid his most famous student in a series of devastating public critiques.
Now the man US terrorism analysts call “the most influential living jihadi theorist” has turned his ire toward Isis – and emerged, in the last year, as one of the group’s most powerful critics. Soon after the Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of a caliphate last June, Maqdisi released a long tract castigating Isis as ignorant and misguided, accusing them of subverting the “Islamic project” that he has long nurtured.
Maqdisi’s war of words with Isis is emblematic of the new fratricidal split within violent Islamic radicalism – but it is also a sign that al-Qaida, once the world’s most feared terrorist network, knows it has been surpassed.
Isis has not simply eclipsed al-Qaida on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, and in the competition for funding and new recruits. According to a series of exclusive interviews with senior jihadi ideologues, Isis has successfully launched “a coup” against al-Qaida to destroy it from within. As a consequence, they now admit, al-Qaida – as an idea and an organisation – is now on the verge of collapse.
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On a sunny spring afternoon, three weeks after his release from prison, Maqdisi sat on a sofa at his friend Abu Qatada’s house, fuming about Isis: the group had lied to him and betrayed him, he said, and its members were not worthy of calling themselves mujahideen. “They are like a mafia group,” Abu Qatada added, while Maqdisi nodded his assent.
Abu Qatada – who successive British home secretaries tried to deport to Jordan on terror-related charges – has joined Maqdisi as one of the most prominent radical clerics to publicly attack Isis, and his statements of condemnation have been even more scathing. Initially, their strategy seemed to be to bring Isis back under the authority of al-Qaida, using something like a good cop, bad cop approach: Maqdisi played the role of the disappointed father, admonishing and giving guidance in equal measure, while Abu Qatada has poured increasing amounts of scorn on them.
The list of Isis’s crimes that have offended Maqdisi and Abu Qatada is long. They include creating division within the wider jihadi movement, publicly snubbing Zawahiri and establishing a caliphate to which Isis demands every other jihadi swear fealty or face death. For more than a year both say they have worked behind the scenes, negotiating with Isis – including with Baghdadi himself – to bring the group back into the al-Qaida fold, to no avail. “Isis don’t respect anyone. They are ruining the wider jihadi movement and are against the whole ummah [Muslim nation],” Abu Qatada said.
Isis has been sufficiently worried by the increasingly vehement criticism from Maqdisi and Abu Qatada to embark on a social media campaign against them – said to have been sanctioned by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, Isis’s chief propagandist. Isis social media accounts berate the two al-Qaida clerics as “stooges” of the west, part of a growing conspiracy against the caliphate. The sixth issue of Isis’s English-language magazine, Dabiq, featured a full-page picture of Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, labelled as “misleading scholars” who should be avoided more than the devil himself. “Qatada and I have been critical of them,” Maqdisi said. “They hate that.”
The two ideologues make an odd pair in the fight against Isis. Qatada is 6ft 3in tall, broad shouldered and lumbering, while Maqdisi is rake thin and full of hyperactive energy, bounding round the room and speaking at double speed; at serious moments, Maqdisi is given to making a sudden joke or bursting into giggles. Sometimes they will go for walks with each other in the Jordanian countryside. More often they travel long distances by road after being asked to attend funerals of fallen al-Qaida fighters.
Maqdisi’s notoriety has ensured that he has spent most of the past two decades in and out of jail. (He claims to have been subject to torture – which is indeed widespread in Jordanian prisons; pulling the hairs out of a radical’s beard, he said, is one favoured method of inflicting pain.) It is widely believed that the Jordanians released him again this February because they realised, with Isis rampaging across the region, that his stature made him a valuable ally in the struggle against the militant group.
But Maqdisi and Qatada have looked on as Isis’s young radicals rampage from victory to victory – cursing, mocking and betraying the old guard as they go, while al-Qaida, largely guided by veterans of the Afghan era, has been brought to its knees in this jihadi civil war.
As Qatada poured tea into small glass tumblers, he began reeling off images to better communicate the depth of his loathing for Isis. He likes speaking in metaphors. The group, he said, was “like a bad smell” that has polluted the radical Islamic environment. No, they were better described as a “cancerous growth” within the jihadi movement – or, he continued, like the diseased branch of a fig tree that needs to be pruned before it kills the entire organism.
Qatada, who was once described by the British Special Immigration Appeals Commission as a “truly dangerous individual … at the centre of terrorist activities associated with al‑Qaida”, has a strained, high-pitched voice, like an alto version of Marlon Brando in The Godfather; he speaks slowly, pausing for effect. His broad frame easily filled one of the throne-like Louis-XIV-style armchairs that line his reception room. Comfortably ensconced, he turned to yet another metaphor to describe how Isis has recruited a generation of young Muslims who barely remember the 9/11 attacks. “You go to a restaurant and they present to you this beautiful meal. It looks so delicious and tempting. But then you go into the kitchen and you see the dirt and the filth and you’re disgusted.”
Both men are particularly appalled, they said, by the way Isis has used their scholarship to cloak its savagery in ideological legitimacy, to gain recruits and justify its battle with al-Qaida and its affiliates. “Isis took all our religious works,” Maqdisi said. “They took it from us – it’s all our writings, they are all our books, our thoughts.” Now, Abu Qatada said, “they don’t respect anyone”.
Such impudent behaviour, the two men agreed, would never have been accepted in the days when Bin Laden was alive. “No one used to speak against him,” Maqdisi lamented. “Bin Laden was a star. He had special charisma.” But despite their personal affection for his successor, Zawahiri – whom they call “Dr Ayman” – they both admit that he does not possess the authority and control to rebuff the threat from Isis. From the “very beginning” of his tenure, Zawahiri lacked “direct military or operational control,” Qatada said. “He has become accustomed to operating in this decentralised way – he is isolated.”
According to Maqdisi, al-Qaida’s organisational structure has “collapsed”. Zawahiri, Maqdisi said, “operates solely based on allegiance. There is no organisational structure. There is only communication channels, and loyalty.” And unfortunately for Zawahiri, Isis has done its utmost to ensure that loyalty is in short supply.
The radical cleric Abu Qatada says Isis is a ‘cancerous growth’ within the jihadi movement. Photograph: Mustafa Khalili
Dr Munif Samara – a veteran of the jihad in Afghanistan and a close associate of Maqdisi and Qatada, who sat with both men as they were interviewed – painted an even more gloomy picture of al-Qaida’s position. A GP who runs a free clinic treating injured Syrian fighters and civilians, Samara has more experience than Maqdisi or Qatada with the day-to-day operations of jihadi organising, and has often handled the affairs of the two men during their frequent jail stints. He said that donations, which once came in waves of “hundreds of thousands”, have dried up as donors directed their money to Isis, or else refused to fund further bloodletting between the two groups. Another former al-Qaida member, Aimen Dean – who defected to become a spy for British intelligence – told the Guardian that one of his sources in Pakistan’s tribal areas said the finances of al-Qaida central in Waziristan were so desperate that it was reduced at one point last year to selling its laptops and cars to buy food and pay rent.
Samara described Isis’s fight against al-Qaida as an attempt to bring the older group down from within. “At this moment, we do believe there is a coup d’etat under way within al-Qaida itself,” he said.
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In the decade after 9/11, al-Qaida attracted money, initiates and prestige like no other jihadi group in history. It grew to command the loyalty of a wide network of terrorist branches and affiliates that stretched from Europe to Africa and South Asia. Never before had so many geographically disparate groups been united under one banner. Bin Laden achieved this feat, at least in part, by remaining ideologically flexible. He refused to be proscriptive on small matters of faith, avoiding the kind of disputes that had ripped apart other jihadi coalitions in the past. In keeping with its formal name – Tandheem Qaidat al-Jihad, The Organisation for the Base of Jihad – al-Qaida acted as a hub for militants to make connections and receive financial and organisational support. Regional commanders were entrusted with a great deal of operational freedom.
In return, al-Qaida’s leadership demanded one thing above all else: loyalty. Its commanders were strictly vetted before being appointed; only those known from the battlefields of Afghanistan, Bosnia or Chechnya – and deemed to have the requisite knowledge of Islamic scholarship – were elevated to the group’s upper echelons. On their appointment, these senior commanders swore a blood oath to Bin Laden himself.
When Zawahiri took over after Bin Laden’s death in 2011, he found himself geographically isolated. While he was hiding out, according to numerous sources, in the mountains on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the centre of jihadi activity had moved thousands of miles away, to Syria and Iraq. As Pakistan’s army and American drones tightened their net around al-Qaida central, it became harder and harder for Zawahiri to maintain contact with his commanders in the field. “What is leadership,” Samara asked, “if your leader is in Afghanistan and your soldiers are in Iraq?”
In fact, al-Qaida’s main branch in the Middle East, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), had long been a source of difficulty. Since its effective creation in 2003, under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, ISI had been happy to use al-Qaida’s brand name and its money, but often ignored pleas for closer communication with central command – even when they came from Bin Laden himself. In 2010, they crossed a line: ISI appointed a new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, without prior approval from al-Qaida, whose senior leaders knew almost nothing about the man – where he had come from, his military experience, whether he could be trusted.
In a revealing communique seized during the raid on Bin Laden’s hideaway in Abbottabad, Adam Gadahn – the American al-Qaida member and frequent spokesman – voiced his disgust with ISI’s lack of respect. Writing to Bin Laden in January 2011, he asked why ISI should be permitted to sully al-Qaida’s name with its indiscriminate slaughter when it could not even bother to keep in touch with the group’s leadership. “Maybe,” he wrote, “it is better for them not to be in the ranks of the mujahideen, as they are just like a polluted spot that should be removed and sanitised and cleared from the ranks.” Less than six months after receiving the letter, Bin Laden was dead. Now it fell to Zawahiri, a man of lesser standing, to deal with the problem.
By this time, ISI had been pushed to the brink of collapse by US and Iraqi forces – but the Syrian civil war gave the group a chance to rebuild. As the conflict began to intensify, Baghdadi quietly dispatched one of his junior officers, Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, across the border in late 2011 to take advantage of the chaos. Equipped with funds, weapons, and some of ISI’s best soldiers, Joulani’s group – which would soon be known as the Nusra Front – quickly became the most formidable fighting force in Syria. By 2013, Joulani was such a powerful commander in his own right that Baghdadi feared he was on the verge of obtaining Zawahiri’s support to elevate himself as the leader of an independent al-Qaida branch in Syria.
On 8 April 2013, Baghdadi launched a pre-emptive strike – whose consequences would rip apart the banner of unity that had long presided over the jihadi movement. In an audio recording released online, Baghdadi declared that the Nusra Front and ISI would officially become one organisation. Nusra’s battle-stained banners, which hung over their newly captured headquarters in Syrian cities such as Raqqa, Aleppo and Homs would be replaced. The merged organisation would be called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or more simply Isis. The rebrand was effective immediately. Two days later, Joulani replied with his own audio message. He rejected Baghdadi’s “invitation” to merge – and pledged an oath of loyalty directly to Zawahiri, appealing to the “sheikh of jihad” to resolve the dispute.
Within 24 hours, Zawahiri dispatched a private message urging calm. He said he wanted both commanders to send him representations before he would rule on this spat, which had, thanks to the internet, become embarrassingly public. Baghdadi made it clear that he was not willing to compromise: in a personal message, he warned Zawahiri that any hint of support for the “traitor” would have “no cure except the spilling of more blood”.
On 23 May, Zawahiri delivered his verdict: Isis, which had been created without prior approval, would have to be “dissolved”; Baghdadi was ordered to restrict his operations to Iraq. Meanwhile, his former junior, Joulani, would become the leader of al-Qaida’s official branch in Syria. Both men, Zawahiri added, had a year to prove themselves, after which al-Qaida central would decide on what measures to take next. Like any suspended sentence, it was both an offer of redemption and a threat: Baghdadi could prosper by playing nicely within the new rules, or lose his position within al-Qaida entirely. Finally, to ensure his accord was adhered to peacefully, Zawahiri dispatched an emissary, Abu Khalid al-Suri, in whom he vested the power to resolve any further disputes.
One former senior member of ISI who did not want to be named told the Guardian that Baghdadi was incensed by Zawahiri’s letter: he was shocked to be treated as an equal to Joulani and ordered to stay out of the Syrian conflict into which he had invested so much. According to Maqdisi, Baghdadi contemptuously dismissed Zawahiri’s envoy. “Suri told Baghdadi, if you stick to these points and you go back to Iraq, I will not make this order public,” Maqdisi said. “Instead, Isis refused the orders, and then started attacking Zawahiri – saying, ‘Al-Qaida is gone, it’s burned out.’”
After Suri made good on the threat to go public with Zawahiri’s humiliating diktat – which was released to al-Jazeera in June – Baghdadi issued his own blunt and unbending reply: “As long as we have a pulse or an eye that blinks,” he said, Isis was there to stay. It was the first time a major al-Qaida figure had ever publicly defied the organisation’s leader. “That was an alarm bell,” Abu Qatada recalled.
That summer, Isis began preparing for war: swelling its ranks and readying itself to claim back Syrian territory from Nusra, which it believed was rightly its own. In an astonishing series of prison breaks, it freed hundreds of Iraq’s most dangerous inmates by firing mortar rounds at walls and using car bombs to blow apart entrances. According to secret documents recently obtained by Der Spiegel, Isis also began implementing plans to take advantage of the stream of thousands of men who were flooding into Syria from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Europe. Without ties to native Syrians, these foreign fighters were likely to remain loyal. And they needed to be loyal, because instead of fighting Assad – as they had come to Syria to do – they would be used to stab the homegrown anti-Assad rebel groups in the back.
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One of Maqdisi’s close associates in Jordan is a man who we will call Raheem, a personal aide to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who helped found the organisation that evolved into Isis – and who had an inside view of the group’s transformation after Baghdadi took power. A hulking figure, standing at more than 6ft 4in, he appeared suddenly one day at Maqdisi’s house, after hearing a rumour that Isis followers had assaulted his sheikh. In an interview a few weeks later, Raheem described the men running Isis as a different breed from the religiously inspired jihadis of al-Qaida; in fact, he said, the group had been run for several years by men who once served Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime.
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