ISIS Threatens Al Qaeda as Flagship Movement of Extremists

New York Times
JUNE 30, 2014

AMMAN, Jordan — As Syria’s civil war raged, a Kuwaiti Islamist, Ghanim al-Mteiri, funneled cash from wealthy donors in the Persian Gulf to Syria’s affiliate of Al Qaeda in hopes that it would overthrow the government and lay the foundations of an Islamic state.

So Mr. Mteiri watched in dismay as another, even more violent jihadist organization, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, seized a chunk of Syria, stormed into Iraq and not only declared itself an Islamic state, but also demanded that all Muslims swear allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

For the first time since its emergence more than two decades ago, the Qaeda of Osama bin Laden finds itself facing a rival jihadist organization with the resources and influence to threaten its status as the flagship movement of violent extremism. For the moment, Al Qaeda has lost ground, but the question remains: Will this new group, which now calls itself simply the Islamic State, endure?

Those still allied with Al Qaeda think the new group will fall victim to the same tactics that somehow have simultaneously made it an enemy of the West and of Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of Al Qaeda.

“We all dream of an Islamic state, but we want a political Islam that is able to stand up and not be erased from the map,” Mr. Mteiri said. “The great powers will never accept this, and they are bigger and stronger than ISIS.”

Although many dismissed as propaganda ISIS’ announcement on Sunday that it had established a caliphate — or global Islamic state — the group’s out-of-nowhere rise in just over one year has created a clash over ideology and tactics between partisans of the world’s two leading jihadist organizations. It also has created a generational split as ISIS has electrified a new group of radical jihadists with its emphasis on sectarian warfare and founding an Islamic state.

On Monday, ISIS members paraded through Raqqa in Syria, demonstrating the kind of success that has won it a growing following and outsize mystique: It showed off what appeared to be a Scud missile and other heavy weapons apparently looted from Iraqi military bases.

“It is clear that the first and second generation that started Al Qaeda, most of them are supporting Zawahri, but the new generation is more radical and closer to ISIS,” said Hassan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian expert on Islamist movements.

While Al Qaeda remains committed to using terrorist tactics against the West and Arab governments, it has criticized ISIS for killing civilians and for waging war on other Muslims. This rivalry has disrupted the jihadist landscape across the Middle East and spurred new debates about how to fight jihad and what, exactly, an Islamic state is supposed to look like.

“People don’t have to like it, but they have to respond to it,” said Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, of the group’s declaration of an Islamic state. “Now that there is an actual caliphate with a caliph, a lot of Muslims are going to have to talk about what that means, and there is going to be some sympathy.”

The successes of ISIS owe much to the failures of other Islamist movements and the group’s ability to take advantage of local circumstances, including Sunni anger in Iraq at the Shiite-controlled government, experts say.

The Egyptian military’s ouster one year ago of the country’s elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, dealt a harsh blow to the Muslim Brotherhood’s philosophy of gradual change through electoral politics and societal reform.

Al Qaeda’s central leadership has been waning in power and influence for years. American drone strikes have limited the ability of its leaders to manage their far-flung affiliates, and Mr. Zawahri, who took over after the death of Bin Laden, is widely seen as out of touch and lacking the charisma to inspire young militants.

This younger generation has been wooed through ISIS’ social media campaigns and finds its activist approach to statehood more inspiring than Al Qaeda’s long-term vision.

“Al Qaeda is an organization and we are a state,” said an ISIS fighter who gave his name as Abu Omar in an online chat. “Osama bin Laden, God have mercy on him, was fighting to establish the Islamic state to rule the world, and — praise God — we have achieved his dream.”

The global ambitions of ISIS were clear in the audio recording, read by the group’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, announcing the caliphate that it released Sunday when it changed its name and emphasized that it did not recognize any geographic limit to its authority.

Reactions from other militants around the region were split. Small groups in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere lauded the declaration, while hundreds of men waved black flags and fired their guns in the air in celebration in Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital.

Others mocked the move as little more than bravado.

“Now while I am preparing my meal to break the Ramadan fast, news is breaking that al-Adnani has announced the caliphate!” Hani al-Sibai, a jihadist preacher in London, wrote on Twitter. “Either you pledge allegiance or return to Saturn!”

ISIS grew out of the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which took advantage of the vacuum caused by Syria’s civil war to reorganize, gather resources and recruit new fighters. It developed a reputation for ruthlessness after launching car bomb attacks on rebel bases, executing minorities and forcing its puritan views on civilians.

Its lightning surge into Iraq last month rode a wave of widespread anger among the country’s Sunnis at the discriminatory policies of Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. That advance posed a dilemma for some Islamists who had criticized ISIS’ violence toward rebel groups in Syria but now saw it as standing up for Iraq’s Sunnis.

Abu Mohammed al-Maqdissi, a radical cleric who recently condemned ISIS as a “deviant organization,” has remained silent on the group’s advances since being released from prison in Jordan this month. But Munif Samara, an Islamist doctor who knows him well, said the cleric was studying the new developments and that ISIS had behaved well in Iraq.

“The Iraqi situation is very different from the Syrian situation,” Mr. Samara said. “ISIS has not had any problems with the Sunnis in Iraq, so there is no reason for any Islamic group to be against it.”

While most expect ISIS to remain on the scene, many suspect that it has overreached and will not be able to sustain its recent advances.

Others note that many of its current allies in Iraq appreciate its help in fighting a common enemy but reject its ideology, meaning the group could face stiff resistance if it tries to assert its authority.

Reflecting those latent tensions, Sheikh Zaydan al-Jabiri, the head of the political wing of Iraq’s Tribal Revolutionaries Council, praised ISIS in an interview here for helping Iraqi’s Sunnis stand up to Mr. Maliki’s government, which he saw as a proxy for Shiite Iran.

“As long as the Islamic State is standing for the same principles as the tribes, we are together,” he said.

But when a visitor played the recording of the ISIS spokesman announcing the caliphate, Sheikh Jabiri called the speaker a “son of a dog” and said that tribes were already Muslim and would not let anyone rule them in the name of Islam.

“That project won’t work for us,” he said. “No way.”

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