Al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri has a problem: he is seen as too moderate. Hard to believe, but al Qaeda and its late founder Osama bin Laden are being seen by today’s jihadis as not hardline enough. As a consequence, says Alon Lund, editor of Carnegie’s Syria in Crisis website, “The movement is purging itself, with the most extreme elements seceding from the al Qaeda school of thought.”
Two recent events were striking
One was the refusal of the al Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) to obey a Zawahiri diktat that it limit its activities in Syria and leave them to another terror group Jabhat al Nusra. In February, al Qaeda officially declared that “ISIL is not a branch of (al Qaeda), we have no organisational relationship with it, and the group is not responsible for its actions.” This is the first known repudiation by al Qaeda of one of its member bodies. ISIL, notes a UN report on al Qaeda issued last month, had already changed its name from al Qaeda in Iraq.”
Two was Zawahiri’s recent iteration of a line set by bin Laden that the Syrian-based jihadis should stop attacking Shias and restrain their killing of Muslim civilians. A recommendation that was given lip service — some Syrian fighters offered apologies — but changed little on the ground. The Syrian civil war, part of a larger jihad that includes western Iraq, has become the primary incubator of an even bloodier, even more intolerant jihad.
What is noticeable is that in Syria and other places marked by GenNext terror, al Qaeda proper is struggling to maintain leadership. The UN report noted that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was being challenged by the younger more radical fighters of the Mouvement pour l’Unification et le Jihad en Afrique d l’Ouest. Many new faces of terror like Boko Haram in Nigeria, Takfir wal Hijra in Egypt and many groups fighting in Syria and Iraq do not even give rhetorical obeisance to Bin Laden. Fawaz Gerges, author of The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda, has said of the original global terror group, “It’s gone. It’s dead. It’s a shadow of its former self.”
The resurrection of Takfir Wal Hijra, presently in a bitter fight with Egyptian security forces in the Sinai, exemplifies the new Islamicist fighter. Takfiris see al Qaeda leaders as weak because they maintained family ties.
One sign of gap how the new jihadis fight
One, today’s militants are openly sectarian. Fighters in Syria and Iraq see their struggle almost solely as one between Sunnis and Shias. Bin Laden had urged that “deviant sects” should not be targeted. Al Qaeda was never a fan of Shi’ism but saw it as a diversion from the real enemy. Two, the level of brutality being seen in Syria or Nigeria makes al Qaeda’s actions almost benign.
Lund says bin Laden was influenced by the Algerian civil war where the extremist faction Armed Islamic Group’s slaughter of civilians discredited the jihad altogether. The new jihadi groups have ignored these lessons, happily displaying their willingness to torture and kill civilians on YouTube and social media.
Ajai Sahni of the South Asian Terrorism Portal says the savagery being displayed in Syria or Nigeria “cannot fit into the principles of jihad or Islamicism.” Al Qaeda under Osama bin Laden, he notes, was “moderate” in comparison in part because al Qaeda was a “logical group who’s actions followed directly from the political principles it believed in.” The present jihadis seem to kill for the sake of killing.
Three, the new jihadis are no longer only Sunni — some 10,000 Shia fighters have joined the battle in Syria and Iraq. Until now, a Shia militant was a rare entity outside of Lebanon or the ranks of Iranian agencies. The freelance Shia terrorist may emerge as a new international concern.
The upper end of Britain’s counter-terrorism threat matrix is almost 60% Syrian returnees, say British officials. “There are about 400 in the country — that’s 10 times more than went and came back from Iraq,” said one. France has even more, Germany about 300. The first Australian suicide bomber blew himself up in Syria last year.
European jihadis of Indian origin have been found, but none are Indians. But Pakistanis are arriving. Aaron Zelin of the Washington Near East Institute closely monitors foreign fighters in the Syrian war has calculated three Pakistanis jihads have been verified and about 300 more are suspected. It is unclear if India will be directly affected by the new jihadi terror. The fighters who are going to Syria are largely Arab, if they begin to export their terror it will be to Europe, Africa and West Asia. India does not register in their worldview.
India, home to the world’s second largest Shia population and third largest Sunni population, will rightly be concerned as the Islamic world becomes increasingly consumed by this sectarian polarisation. So far, the Indian Muslim population has been resilient. Says Sahni, “My sense is that we are seeing a far greater degree of moderation among Indian Muslims than we had, say, five years ago. They are far less likely to look at Pakistan as a model or swear allegiance to the global ummah.”
Bin Laden's thought
* Osama bin Laden believed “the only Islamic country” in the Muslim world was Afghanistan under the rule of Mullah Omar’s Taliban before that regime was overthrown in late 2001
* He believed Syrian-based jihadis should stop attacking Shias and restrain their killing of Muslim civilians. A recommendation that was given lip service — some Syrian fighters offered apologies — but changed little on the ground
* His strategy against much larger enemies such as Soviet Union and the US was to lure them into a war of attrition in Muslim countries, attracting jihadists who would never surrender
* Al Qaeda’s leadership is a shattered remnant, reduced to begging funds and munitions from local allies and with its most capable members heading to Syria
* The divisions pit the remnants of al Qaeda’s central organisation and its supporters in the Middle East and North Africa against a splinter group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
* The internal conflict has resulted in fierce online debates, killings, and bombings on the ground in Syria, where ISIL has attacked both fighters and facilities belonging to the al Nusra Front, the official al Qaeda rebel group in the Syrian conflict
* North Africa (Sahel region): Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
* East Africa (Somalia): Al Shabaab
* Yemen: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
* Iraq: Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
* Syria: Al Nusrah Front