By Tore Hamming, Combating Terrorism Centre
January 2019, Volume-12, Issue-1
Abstract: The Islamic State has lost almost all its territorial control in Syria and Iraq and thus a central part of its claim to constitute a caliphate. As the international community takes stock, it is necessary to discard the myth of the group simply being a product of al-Qa
ida. Despite its history as a local al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq, the Islamic State developed from an ideological and cultural trend born in late-1980s Afghanistan that was always in tension with the core idea and identity of al-Qa`ida.
“The conflict between the Islamic State and the leadership of al-Qaeda is one of method … This is the issue. It is not an issue of allegiance of whom to whom.”
– Islamic State Spokesman Abu-Muhammad al-Adnani, May 2014
The Islamic State grew out of al-Qa
ida. The Islamic State’s founding father, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the leaders of al-Qaida initiated contact back in 1999 in Afghanistan, and five years later, al-Zarqawi’s group ‘Jamaat al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad’ became an official al-Qa
ida affiliate. In February 2014, their common history ended, however, as the Islamic State was finally expelled from al-Qaida as a result of its disobedience and aggressive attitude toward other mujahideen.
This trajectory and the Islamic State’s ‘origin’ in al-Qa
ida is commonly accepted, but when looking closer, both seem to be too simplistic. Despite its history of being an al-Qaida affiliate, the Islamic State and its predecessors, as al-Adnani indicated, are in essence not al-Qa
ida. The differences may appear minimal to most observers, but that does not imply that they are unimportant. In fact, the ideological vision of the Islamic State developed in some ways in opposition to al-Qaida. And the Islamic State’s predecessor group was later only incorporated into al-Qa`ida due to the strategic gains both groups hoped to benefit from as a result of a merger. However, as the Islamic State’s caliphate has now crumbled, it is pertinent to re-examine the early history of the ideology and culture that it espouses and put it into context.
From late-1980s Afghanistan to 1990s Algeria and Afghanistan and in Iraq in the 2000s, this article will trace the distinctive ideology that most influenced the Islamic State and led to a critical ideological cleavage between the group and al-Qa`ida years later.
‘The Jalalabad School’
To understand the Islamic State, it is necessary to go back to 1989 in Afghanistan. Not more than four months after the devastating defeat of the mujahideen in the battle of Jalalabad in July that year, Usama bin Ladin, already a prominent Arab-Afghan leader at the time, left Afghanistan for his native Saudi Arabia to take care of family business in Jeddah. In November 1989, Abdullah Azzam, bin Ladin’s mentor and the most influential figure among the Arab mujahideen, was assassinated. The departure of bin Ladin and the death of Azzam by late 1989 left a critical leadership vacuum among the Arab Afghans. This, in turn, facilitated the blossoming of a new jihadi trend mainly composed of Arab youth from the Gulf and North Africa, especially Algeria, that promoted a more doctrinally rigid view than al-Qa`ida’s hitherto in addition to a vehement opposition to the authority of established jihadi leaders. As explained by the Australian scholar Leah Farrall, “Consequently, the youth looked elsewhere and found new ‘leaders’ who were still fighting or sought to fight. The youth followed them and saw them as not only effective, but also less restrictive. These new leaders established themselves in the surroundings of Jalalabad, setting up their own camps, and essentially followed an ‘anything goes’ approach to combat.”
The youth espousing these more radical ideas quickly became infamous within jihadi circles for the internal conflict (fitna) they caused. One of the earliest seeds of such fitna was, in fact, sown a few years earlier in 1986. An Algerian named Ahmed Abu Amra, a salafi in creed and doctor by profession, worked in a hospital in the Afghan province of Wardak. One day, an injured mujahid came into the hospital, but when Abu Amra saw that the man wore an amulet (tamina), he asked him to remove it as it was idolatry (shirk). Abu Amra told the mujahid he would not treat him until he removed it. The family of the wounded man reacted angrily, threatening to kill the doctor if he did not treat their family member. Whether Abu Amra eventually treated the wounded mujahid remains unknown, but after this incident, the jihadi doctor continued to preach his message of extreme doctrinal rigidity that was critical of many involved in the Afghan jihad and particularly against Azzam, whose Islamic interpretation Abu Amra did not find satisfactory, in the streets and guesthouses of Peshawar.
The seed of Abu Amra grew during 1989-90 in the vacuum left by Azzam and bin Ladin. The atmosphere in the guesthouses and training camps of Peshawar was negative. People wanted to either fight or to return home. They were “angry souls,” Azzam’s son-in-law Abdullah Anas told this author. In the decade that followed, one particular issue would be their refusal to fight alongside the Taliban6 because of the movement’s alleged deviance in matters of Islamic law, creed, and its reliance on tribal customs. The critique, however, did not stop with the Taliban, but extended to other Arab Afghans who were considered to be insufficiently pure of creed and doctrine. Mustafa Hamid, a former senior Egyptian figure in the Afghan jihad, recounts how during a lecture in 1990 he and Abu Musab al-Suri held at the al-Qa`ida-run Jihadwal camp, attendees started arguing fiercely and eventually proclaimed takfir on one another.
In Afghanistan, the Jalalabad school—as the trend has been dubbed by Farrall and Hamid8 due to its emergence as a reaction to the Jalalabad defeat—did not organize as a formal organization, but many of the adherents to the Jalalabad school spent time training at the Khalden camp in Khost province. In size, Khalden9 was relatively small, providing mainly basic training in small arms, but its doctrinal influence has proven much greater than its limited size would suggest. This influence on the Arab community was only enhanced after 1992 as Khalden was just about the only training camp remaining that offered Arabs basic training.10 Unlike other camps, it kept its independence from the large, established jihadi groups and welcomed recruits from all over,11 although its main constituency was the Algerians.
Hence, it was perhaps no surprise that Algeria, a few years later, would be the first place to witness an organized expression of the Jalalabad ideology. Under the leadership of camp emir Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi and Abu Zubaydah,b who was based in Peshawar and acted as a gatekeeper to the camp, c Khalden became the strongest competitor to al-Qa`ida and for a period a strong pole of criticism for its alliance with the Taliban.
Perhaps the main reason behind this was the presence of the Egyptian Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir (Abdul Rahman al-Ali),d an important and understudied Egyptian figure who was critical of al-Qa
ida and bin Ladin during his time at Khalden after his arrival in Afghanistan. At Khalden, al-Muhajir became the camp’s sharia official (mas’ul shara’i) in charge of the religious Beliefs Battalion Institute. As in other camps, the religious component was complementary to the military training and thus al-Muhajir’s extreme ideology—hostility toward others who either disagreed or simply differed—and his anti-Taliban and anti-al-Qaida discourse influenced the Arab recruits joining the camp. According to Mustafa Hamid, “The camp was distinguished by a Salafi methodology (manhaj) that was the most stringent of all Arabs.” Al-Muhajir harshly criticized bin Ladin for his alliance with the Taliban and his previous ties to the ‘un-Islamic’ Sudanese regime.
Al-Muhajir’s ultra-hardline views would persist, and he would continue to be significantly more extreme than the al-Qa
ida ‘mainstream.’ But his criticisms of al-Qaida and the Taliban did not endure. He later joined bin Ladin’s jihadi organization, and by 1998, he had become dean of al-Qa`ida’s Shariah College. Nevertheless, his arguments at Khalden had a lasting impact on his students. According to Mustafa Hamid, “the most tolerant of [the graduates of al-Muhajir’s Institute] saw the Taliban as infidels … their stance was the most easily comprehensible, simple and contrarian; it began with excommunicating (takfir) the Taliban and ended with excommunicating everyone in their vicinity, from Arabs to the residents of Afghanistan.” The strong focus on an extremely rigid doctrine, and especially the issue of takfir, had put off some other jihadi groups present in Afghanistan at the time. For instance, the Uighurs from western China had initially trained in the camp but quit as the emphasis on takfir became too dominant. Similar concerns emerged among the Indonesian Jama’ah Islamiyya, themselves a doctrinally strict group, who refrained entirely from frequenting Khalden.
The Jalalabad School Outside of Afghanistan
The Jalalabad School would eventually manifest itself in Iraq. However, its first organizational manifestation was in the 1990s Algerian civil war. In Algeria, the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) showed traits similar to that of the rebellious youth in Afghanistan, especially concerning its attitude toward other jihadi movements in the years 1994-1996, during the terror campaign of its leader Jamal Zitouni. GIA had operated since 1992, but was formally established in May 1994 when it merged with a faction from the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) and the Mouvement de l’État Islamique (MEI). One of the early influential figures of the group was none other than Abu Amra, the doctor who refused to treat the mujahideen patient years earlier in Pakistan. The journalist Camille Tawil has described how a steady stream of Arab Afghans returning home for jihad in Algeria became central to GIA’s establishment. It is likely that many of these Algerians had trained at Khalden as Algerians were the most dominant nationality at the camp.
Besides Abu Amra, prominent Afghan veterans like Qari Saïd and Abu Leith al-M’sili were among the founders of the movement while the Bayt al-Mujahideen guesthouse in Peshawar facilitated the transfer and training of GIA fighters. Initially, GIA’s main enemy was the Algerian state and its French patron, and in these efforts, the movement was supported by al-Qa`ida and other jihadi groups at the time. Jihadi authorities like Abu Qatada al-Filastini, Abu Hamza al-Masri and Abu Musab al-Suri either ran the group’s weekly magazine Usrat al-Ansar or legitimized GIA’s jihad through fatwas.GIA’s enemy hierarchy and its external support changed, however, when Jamal Zitouni took leadership and started a campaign of attacks against everyone less rigid in salafi doctrine than himself. And when Zitouni was killed in 1996, Antar Zouabri, a 26-year-old close associate of Zitouni, took over the leadership of the group and continued the escalating spiral of violence.
The jihadi spiral into ever greater extremism during the Algerian civil war had its roots in Afghanistan. The ideology that developed among the Arab youth during the leadership vacuum of the late 1980s and early 1990s in Afghanistan was characterized by an extreme doctrinal rigidity, lack of respect for established authority, contempt for pragmatism in creed (‘aqida) and methodology (manhaj), and enmity toward less puritanical groups.
GIA’s escalating extremism did not go unnoticed among supporting groups and ideologues, but when it started to launch attacks against fellow mujahideen who did not follow a similarly rigid jihadi-salafi doctrine, refused to join GIA, or simply disrespected the GIA leadership’s extreme view of its own authority, jihadi groups and ideologues started to oppose it. Tellingly, on June 6, 1996, the Egyptian groups al-Jihad and al-Jama’at al-Islamiyya, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and the two ideologues Abu Qatada and Abu Musab al-Suri all withdrew their support, claiming Zitouni was deviating from a correct jihadi path. Eventually, senior jihadi figures like bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri also began to consider GIA more as a harm to jihad. According to the account by Tawil, the final straw was when the GIA’s senior sharia official, Redouane Makador (aka Abu Bassir), paid a visit to bin Ladin in Sudan and directly threatened the life of the al-Qa`ida leader if he were to get involved in the Algerian jihad.
Al-Zarqawi and al-Qa
ida: Never Good Allies
The excesses of Zitouni in Algeria would be mirrored in the following decade by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. It was in the fall of 1999 that al-Zarqawi first caught the interest of al-Qaida after he had traveled to Afghanistan after being freed from prison in Jordan. It was specially Saif al-
Adl, a senior Egyptian al-Qaida leader, who saw the potential in allying with the young Jordanian. He eventually convinced al-Zawahiri and bin Ladin to provide seed money for al-Zarqawi to establish his camp in Herat despite all parties being well-aware of the ideological and theological differences between al-Qa`ida and the more hardline al-Zarqawi and the people around him. This early cooperation was an illustration of how such differences could be overcome, at least temporarily.
Not long after al-Zarqawi arrived in Afghanistan, he was introduced to al-Muhajir by Abu Khabab al-Masri, an Egyptian jihadi explosives expert. Al-Zarqawi was clearly impressed with the lectures and writings of al-Muhajir, and to capitalize on the Egyptian ideologue’s knowledge, he invited al-Muhajir to his camp in Herat to teach a 10-day course. Al-Muhajir began drafting his most important work, “The Jurisprudence of Jihad” (popularly known as ‘The Jurisprudence of Blood’), while in Herat, and a mentor-mentee relationship blossomed. According to one of al-Zarqawi’s close associates, “Our Shaykh al-Zarqawi, may Allah bless his soul, adored his Shaykh Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir … [al-Zarqawi] told me that he had studied [The Jurisprudence of Blood] under [his] supervision.”According to the recently published memoir of the al-Qa`ida recruit-turned-British spy Aimen Dean who spent time with the cleric in Afghanistan in the 1990s, al-Muhajir’s “teaching provided a sweeping justification for suicide bombings and argued it was justifiable to kill all infidels, including women, children and the elderly, and preferably by beheading them, unless Muslim authorities had granted them protection. He had an equally murderous disposition against the Shia.”
Despite al-Muhajir’s service as the head of al-Qa
ida’s sharia college (during which time, according to Dean, he provided theological justification for bin Ladin’s organization’s first suicide attack, the August 1998 bombings against U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam), al-Muhajir’s views were significantly more hardline on the questions of suicide bombings and with regards to the Shia than most al-Qa`ida leaders. As Charlie Winter and Abdullah al-Saud have argued, “Whereas other jihadists, most notoriously Zarqawi’s erstwhile mentor Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, did not dismiss the permissibility of suicide operations out of hand, they did express serious trepidation about ‘fling[ing] the door wide open’ to the tactic. Al-Muhajir, on the other hand, casts theological caution to the wind.”According to one analysis of “The Jurisprudence of Blood,” al-Muhajir encouraged the killing and punishment of Shia,claiming that they are a bigger threat to the nation of Islam than all enemies, and says, “those knowledgeable in Islam know that Shiites always side with the enemies of religion.”
According to one jihadi account, al-Zarqawi was so fascinated with al-Muhajir that had it been possible, he would have brought him with him to Iraq to head his sharia council after he decamped there after 9/11 and built up the operations of his group Jama’at al-Tawhid wal Jihad. Instead of bringing the man, however, al-Zarqawi brought his ideas, especially concerning the legality of suicide, or martyrdom, operations. Once in Iraq, al-Zarqawi’s group photocopied both of al-Muhajir’s books and began teaching it to the group’s members. And as history shows, they came to have a major impact on al-Zarqawi’s movement in Iraq and the Islamic State after al-Zarqawi’s death. Indeed, after the group declared a caliphate in 2014, “The Jurisprudence of Blood” was a key part of the curriculum for Islamic State recruits.
Al-Zarqawi’s increasing reliance on the ideas of al-Muhajir also widened the tensions and ideological cleavage between the Jordanian and al-Maqdisi. The tensions between the two are believed to have emerged as they were released from prison and al-Zarqawi decided in 1999 to leave for Afghanistan, a decision al-Maqdisi disagreed with. But the effective split between the two occurred after al-Zarqawi had established himself in Iraq and launched his extremely violent campaign against the country’s Shi
a and implemented the use of suicide bombings as his weapon of choice.As already mentioned, it was not that al-Maqdisi was categorically against the use of suicide bombings—in al-Maqdisi’s terminology such actions, however, are not considered suicide but martyrdom—or had warm feelings for the Shia, but he nonetheless differed with al-Zarqawi on the legitimate use of such a method and rejected the excommunication of an entire group. No doubt, al-Maqdisi had been an influential ideological figure for al-Zarqawi in the 1990s, but in the 2000s, al-Muhajir’s extreme ideas would move the Jordanian leader away from his former mentor.
In Iraq, al-Zarqawi was joined by the Jordanian cleric (of Palestinian origin but born and raised in Kuwait) Abu Anas al-Shami.g Abu Anas was an old friend of al-Maqdisi from back in their early days in Kuwait where they used to go to the same mosques. Al-Maqdisi was clearly fond of Abu Anas, calling him “The Shaykh, the Mujahid, the Caller, the Man of Actions,” and it was a relief for him that Abu Anas decided to join al-Zarqawi in Iraq. Probably al-Maqdisi’s hope was that Abu Anas as the head of the sharia committee in al-Zarqawi’s group could rein in his former apprentice, but things would turn out very differently. Even though he only survived a year (from September 2003 to September 2004)46 in Iraq before being killed by a U.S. airstrike, Abu Anas legitimized rather than moderated al-Zarqawi’s brutal sectarian focus (one example is a 70-page anti-Shi
a tract), and according to Turki al-Binali, a future prominent cleric in the Islamic State, Abu Anas mentored Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the later spokesperson of the Islamic State and the main protagonist of the group’s criticism of al-Qaida in the mid-2010s. According to al-Binali’s eulogy of al-Adnani, the latter once stated, “From our Syria is the lion of Iraq Abu Anas with his honour he makes the sad forget and become happy. In knowledge, he is deep. In wars, he is an engineer. In hadith, an expert. In politics, genius.
Al-Zarqawi’s group finally joined al-Qa
ida on October 17, 2004, but it was, more than anything, a marriage of convenience. Already before the merger, senior al-Qaida figures had their reservations regarding the personality of al-Zarqawi and the ideology his group espoused. For al-Zarqawi, given how much he had historically guarded his independence, presumably the main concern was that the merger implied submitting to the authority of al-Qa
ida’s leaders. Although part of the merger deal was some level of autonomy for al-Zarqawi, this did not last long. Not even a year after joining al-Qaida, al-Zarqawi received a letter from al-Qa
ida’s then deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri criticizing his actions (albeit in a friendly tone). The Egyptian tried to explain to al-Zarqawi that his violent strategies in Iraq were unwise (though not necessarily theologically wrong) and that he should adjust to al-Qaida’s guidelines. Al-Zawahiri told al-Zarqawi he should abstain from unnecessary takfir, collaborate more with other Sunni groups and prioritize the enemy strategically (or in other words, act more like al-Qa
ida). Perhaps not surprisingly, as far as is known, al-Zawahiri never heard back from al-Zarqawi. As a result, al-Zarqawi received two new letters from senior al-Qaida figures—this time, Abu Yahya al-Libii and Atiyyah Abdel Rahmanj (aka Atiyyatullah)k in November and December 2005, respectively. Similarly to al-Zawahiri, they critiqued al-Zarqawi’s brutality and advised him on how to behave. Once again, it appears that al-Zarqawi never got back to the al-Qa`ida leadership, but a recent biography of the Islamic State senior leader, Abu Ali al-Anbari has revealed that al-Zarqawi “was very sad about the dealings of some of the leaders of al-Qaeda in Khorasan [Afghanistan-Pakistan] with him and their evil thoughts about him.”
By the end of 2005, senior al-Qa
ida figures including bin Ladin were getting increasingly tired of al-Zarqawi’s disobedience, but this was probably nothing compared to al-Zarqawi’s own frustration with the al-Qaida leaders telling him what to do. So while al-Qa
ida continued to occasionally praise al-Zarqawi and his group’s military successes in Iraq publicly and privately as part of its diplomatic effort to unite the jihadi movement, al-Zarqawi was arguably planning for a future without al-Qaida. The first step was the establishment of the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), an Iraqi umbrella organization unofficially led by al-Zarqawi, in January 2006. This has been interpreted by some as al-Zarqawi giving in to al-Qa
ida pressure, but this contention seems rather unlikely. At no point between 2005 and 2014 (the year al-Qaida announced that the Iraqi group was no longer part of its network) did the group in Iraq change its behavior in response to commands from bin Ladin or other al-Qa
ida leaders. Generally, the Iraqi group appeared not to have cared about directions ‘from above,’ which makes it unlikely that the decision to establish the MSC was an act to appease the al-Qaida leadership. Furthermore, the leader of the MSC was none other than al-Anbari, who ideologically aligned with al-Zarqawi rather than the views espoused by al-Qa`ida.
Al-Zarqawi did not live long enough to witness the second step in the process that effectively sealed the break from al-Qa
ida, if the Islamic State’s version of the story is to be believed. After al-Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. airstrike on June 7, 2006, he was replaced by his deputy Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (aka Abu Ayyub al-Masri) who renamed the group Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in October 2006 and left the leadership of it in the hands of the mysterious Abu Umar al-Baghdadi. To the disappointment of al-Qaida, this change in leadership would not significantly alter the dispute between the al-Qa
ida senior leadership and what it considered its Iraqi affiliate. In 2007-2008, a new problem arose as Abu Sulayman al-Utaybi, chief judge in the Islamic State of Iraq, was fired and, in reaction, left Iraq for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to complain to the al-Qaida central leadership. Al-Qa
ida saw al-Utaybi’s criticism as being directed toward the ISI leaders Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and Abu Umar al-Baghdadi. In a letter60 to Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, in response to al-Utaybi’s testimony, the al-Qaida leadership explained that:
“In our opinion, the most important thing and the biggest danger—if true—is the existence of the corrupt influential men who have become leaders in the [Islamic] State, and they are of corrupt method and religion, and they spread calls that deface al-Qaeda and its method.”61
Were it not because of the dates in the letters, the message could just as well have been part of al-Qa
ida’s criticism of the Islamic State in 2013-2014. In the years between 2006 and 2014, it was generally assumed that despite its name change, the Islamic State of Iraq was still al-Qaida’s affiliate in Iraq. Even al-Qa
ida saw it that way, despite being ambiguous in its official communication on the group in Iraq.l However, it seems plausible that the Islamic State, when it branded itself by that name in 2006, from that point on considered itself to be independent from al-Qaida as it has been consistently arguing since the split in 2014.
In a May 2014 speech, a few months after al-Qa
ida had expelled the Islamic State from its fold, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani outlined how the Islamic State had historically viewed its relationship with al-Qaida. Although it is possible the animosity caused by the split led the Islamic State spokesman to indulge in some revisionist history, the speech provides a window into the evolution of the relationship between the two groups. Al-Adnani made a key distinction between the historical deference his group had shown al-Qa
ida when it came to jihad outside Iraq and the right of the group after it had declared itself an Islamic State in 2006 to set its own agenda inside Iraq. He asserted that in matters beyond the borders of Iraq in the years that followed, “the emirs of the Islamic State” carried on “addressing al-Qaida as soldiers addressing their emir” “out of humbleness, humility and an act of honor and generosity from us to you” rather than out of obligation. He summed it up by stating, “The [Islamic] State is not a branch that belongs to al-Qai`da, and it never was for a day.”
Evidence for this, he said, was “our not responding to your repeated request to stop targeting the Rawafidh [a slur term for Shi`a] masses in Iraq due to the judgment they are Muslims whose ignorance pardons them. So if we had pledged allegiance to you we would have listened to your command, even if we did not agree with you.” Addressing al-Zawahiri, al-Adnani stated, “What did you give the State if you were its Emir? With what did you supply it? For what did you hold it accountable? What did you order it to do? What did you forbid it to do? … Neither you or anyone before you spoke to us as an emir to his soldiers or with the imperative.”
Al-Adnani’s diatribe suggests when the Islamic State of Iraq on several occasions post-2006 praised al-Qa
ida (and the Taliban) and addressed al-Qaida’s leader as ‘emir,’ this was more likely a matter of strategy from the Islamic State of Iraq leaders as the time was not ripe to disclose the true nature of the relationship publicly.
Instead, they were likely waiting for the right political opportunity to challenge al-Qa
ida. As is now known, that opportunity finally occurred in 2013 with bin Ladin out of the picture and the potential offered by the escalating Syrian civil war. Despite the temporary alliance between the two in the 2000s, it is important to understand that the Islamic State core developed from an ideological and cultural outlook that was substantially different from al-Qaida’s core, infusing a critical prospect for internal tensions into the inter-group relationship from the very beginning.
This was also the verdict of al-Adnani in his May 2014 speech. “The conclusion of the matter is that the conflict between the Islamic State and the leadership of al-Qaeda is one of method … This is the issue. It is not an issue of allegiance of whom to whom.” In his telling, it was only after the death of bin Ladin that the Islamic State’s leaders began to see the two approaches as profoundly at odds, with the breaking point coming when al-Zawahiri and his top deputies sought to impose “their method, that had remained buried inside al-Qaeda, and only showed after al-Zawahiri took over.”
Distinct Streams with Different Tributaries
All this suggests that the Islamic State, rather than being an outflow of al-Qa
ida, had tributaries of its own whose sources were the pools of ideological extremism in 1990s Afghanistan, which first manifested itself in an organized fashion in Algeria before taking root the following decade in Iraq. This is not to say there were not significant ideological overlaps between al-Qaida and the Islamic State. After all, Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir, the hardline Egyptian cleric who mentored al-Zarqawi and whose writings became the set-text for new recruits to the Islamic State’s ‘caliphate,’ spent the late 1990s working for bin Ladin’s organization, providing theological cover for al-Qa
ida’s first suicide attacks. Afghanistan was a melting pot of many different streams of jihadi thought that interacted in complex ways to influence the future course of global jihad. But as Hassan Hassan recently outlined in this publication, the rupture between the Islamic State and al-Qaida caused by their rivalry in Syria has been “hardening differences in approach and doctrine, creating the conditions for sustained competition and acrimony between the groups and a long-term schism between two different schools of jihad.” It is hard to imagine somebody like the mercurial al-Muhajir now being able to flit between al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State in places such as Syria or Afghanistan.
The thoughts and ideological legacy of al-Muhajir espoused in mid- and late-1990s Afghanistan remain crucial for the Islamic State to this very day and has become obvious from its behavior since 2013. Its unfettered brutality and sectarian bloodletting has stood in stark contrast to the relatively more restrained approach taken by al-Qa`ida. While such ideological cleavage does not imply that relations cannot be cordial, nor does it rule out a future rapprochement, it has always been a central source of tensions between the two groups and will likely remain one of the key obstacles to once again uniting the global jihadi movement.
About the Author:Tore Hamming is a Ph.D. candidate at the European University Institute, studying inter-group dynamics within Sunni jihadism with a special focus on the al-Qa`ida-Islamic State relationship.