Al-Qaeda and ISIS’s war of words intensifies in English

Friday 24/07/2015

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.”