Al-Qaeda and ISIS’s war of words intensifies in English
London - The war of words that ignited between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) more than a year ago has intensified with the launch of Al-Risalah, the official English-language magazine of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. The magazine is a reflection of a broader struggle within the global jihadist movement as radicals struggle to come to terms with the success and brutality of ISIS.
Al-Risalah represents al-Qaeda’s English-language response to Dabiq, ISIS’s slick online magazine, in which ISIS calls JN members “apostates” and attacks al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahari for being out of touch and lacking authority, although it stops short of directly accusing him of apostasy.
The propaganda war between ISIS and al-Qaeda has raged since tensions between JN and ISIS devolved into open warfare more than a year ago. Thousands are believed to have been killed in fighting between the rival terror groups, which pits the al-Qaeda old guard against the upstarts of ISIS and has polarised the jihadist community. While ISIS has unabashedly paraded its barbarity in gruesome high-production-quality execution videos, al-Qaeda has tried to cultivate a more scholarly and reasonable image. In Al-Risalah, for example, al-Qaeda claims that the ultra-violence of ISIS often contradicts the sharia law it claims to uphold.
One example used is the killing of British humanitarian worker Alan Henning, whose blood Al-Risalah says was “inviolable” as he had been given a covenant of security by a Muslim. Without a trace of irony, the al-Qaeda mouthpiece claims “it is acts such as these that increase hatred towards Islam and the Muslims”.
In its premier issue, the al-Qaeda publication repeatedly makes the accusation that ISIS supporters are “young, foolish, and reckless” and lack an adequate understanding of Islam. The issue contains a fatwa signed by extremist clerics who enjoy prestige among the international jihadi community.
The fatwa declares it a religious obligation for Muslims to “repel their [ISIS] aggression and defend the land of the Muslims”.
The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi, is labelled a “criminal”.
A source familiar with the al- Qaeda leadership in Jordan, who requested to remain anonymous, told The Arab Weekly that the terror group is becoming increasingly alarmed at the capacity of ISIS to attract foreign recruits. Al-Risalah magazine, he claims, is an attempt to “provide counter-propaganda asking people indirectly not to join [ISIS] but to join us”.
The source added, however, that repulsion at the acts of ISIS by the likes of al-Qaeda should be regarded with scepticism: “This is the irony of al-Qaeda rhetoric. Always they criticise that people are not referring to Islamic scholars. They themselves when they started were a rebellious movement against the scholars.”
Al-Risalah is not the only platform al-Qaeda uses to present itself as a reasonable Islamist alternative to ISIS, however. Qatari news channel Al Jazeera has come under considerable criticism for airing a two-part interview with Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, which critics charge shows JN in a favourable light. The interviewer, for example, does not press al-Jolani on al-Qaeda’s extreme views towards those it considers non-Muslims or apostates, views that potentially have genocidal implications.
“I think Qatar will definitely be trying hard to open channels with al-Nusra but I always believe that jihadis are not the kind of people that can be easily manipulated by intelligence services,” claims the source.
While ISIS has declared all groups that fail to declare allegiance to it in Syria and Iraq apostates to be killed, Jabhat al-Nusra has tried to work with other opposition groups, a policy that has been the main line of attack against JN among more extreme jihadists. ISIS regularly accuses JN of being part of a “Sahwa coalition” of apostates and secularists. “Sahwa” refers to the Iraqi Awakening Councils, which played a large role in eliminating al-Qaeda in Iraq during the US occupation.
It is used as a term of abuse by those who share the extreme ideologies of ISIS and al-Qaeda. A particular criticism levelled against Jabhat al-Nusra by ISIS is the former’s tolerance of the “secular” revolutionary tricolour carried by some of the rebel factions with which it fights.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s extremist credentials should not be in doubt, however, and is a cause of great concern even among those fighting alongside JN against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Displaying sensitivity to accusations that Jabhat al-Nusra is somehow moderate, the entire fourth page of Al-Risalah carries a quote from the leader of JN in huge type, reading, “There are some groups which have some mistakes, we overlook these mistakes because of the enormous severity of the battle.”