February 13, 2015 | The Weekly Standard

Al Qaeda Uses ISIS to Try to Present Itself as Respectable, Even Moderate

In response to the Islamic State’s horrific burning of a pilot, the Jordanian government has released from prison one of the most influential al Qaeda-allied ideologues in the world. Sound strange? It is.

And when you get into the specifics, it gets even more bizarre. Indeed, a disturbing pattern of behavior emerges: Al Qaeda, and like-minded jihadists, are triangulating off of the Islamic State’s brutality to present themselves in a respectable, even moderate light.

Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi has been a staunch critic of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State (or ISIS/ISIL, as it is commonly known). Maqdisi, like many al Qaeda-allied thinkers, objects to the Islamic State, especially its uncompromising approach to power politics within the jihadist world. But this does not make him the voice of reason. He is openly pro-al Qaeda and a vocal defender of Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s leader.

Jordan thinks that Maqdisi’s release helps matters, however. The day after his release from prison, Maqdisi made a heavily-promoted television appearance in Jordan. Maqdisi, who says he attempted to negotiate on behalf of the pilot from inside prison, told the television audience that the Islamic State’s decision to torch the pilot is “not acceptable in any religion.”

There was so much buzz surrounding Maqdisi’s appearance that even the State Department tweeted a link to the Associated Press’s coverage. On its anti-extremist “Think Again Turn Away” Twitter feed, a State Department employee wrote:

Radical preacher associated w/‪#alQaeda condemns ‪#ISIS burning of pilot, says action “not acceptable in any religion”

Jordan evidently thinks Maqdisi’s release is a Machiavellian move. But it is al Qaeda that is gaming the situation. Maqdisi’s criticisms of the Islamic State are unlikely to do further damage to the group’s currently tarnished brand among the Jordanian populace. Jordan’s decision to embrace Maqdisi, even temporarily, only makes al Qaeda’s ideology look somewhat more reasonable.

Maqdisi and other al Qaeda ideologues do not preach moderation in any meaningful sense. They simply object to the Islamic State’s way of going about its business.

Baghdadi and his followers believe that all other jihadists, indeed all Muslims, owe their loyalty to the “caliphate.” Al Qaeda and its various branches around the globe disagree. They don’t believe that Baghdadi is really “Caliph Ibrahim” and they are not about to answer to him. Al Qaeda’s senior leaders and their comrades also believe that the Islamic State’s approach to using violence, including the savage spectacle it makes of killing, turns off more prospective followers than it gains. And, al Qaeda argues, by overtly declaring his men rule over an Islamic emirate (nation), Baghdadi has charted a course that attracts more attention from the West than the jihadists can withstand. Moreover, Baghdadi declared himself to be the Caliph without first building the proper consensus among his fellow jihadists. This is a big no-no for those caliphate builders who believe in a longer-term approach.

Baghdadi and the Islamic State don’t care about al Qaeda’s criticisms and just go about doing what they do best: maiming and killing.

Their disagreements have, of course, sparked an intense animosity between the Islamic State and al Qaeda, with Baghdadi’s crew trying to poach al Qaeda members and supporters from the globe. The Islamic State has had some success in this regard, but most of the A-list jihadists remain in al Qaeda’s camp.

Still, as the Islamic State has attempted to cut into al Qaeda’s market share, al Qaeda has leaned heavily on several prominent jihadist thinkers to undermine the theological legitimacy of the self-declared “caliphate.” And one of them is Maqdisi.

A number of al Qaeda leaders cheered Maqdisi’s release from prison this week. Some of these leaders hold key positions in the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria and the Islamic State’s chief rival.  

Al Nusrah and the Islamic State have competed for support both inside Syria and from foreign fighters coming from abroad. As part of that competition, Al Nusrah has repeatedly marketed Maqdisi’s anti-Islamic State writings in an attempt to convince more would-be recruits that al Qaeda (Al Nusrah) has the right approach to waging jihad and the Islamic State does not.

Therefore, both the Jordanian government and al Qaeda are now relying on Maqdisi to rebut the Islamic State. This doesn’t make any sense.

The Islamic State and its followers could not care less what Maqdisi has to say, as they have repeatedly ignored his advice in the past. They were also quick to point out that his first, post-release television appearance was made possible by the Jordanian monarchy. Maqdisi is in their view serving as King Abdullah’s lapdog.

Al Qaeda’s followers in Jordan may find Maqdisi’s testimony to be convincing, but they were likely to object to the Islamic State’s tactics anyway. Maqdisi is largely preaching to the choir with this audience.

And as for the mainstream Jordanian population: Maqdisi is one of the last people who should be trusted on these issues. Perhaps the average Jordanian finds Maqdisi’s anti-Islamic State presentation to be compelling. But that just makes Maqdisi – a man who has openly defended Ayman al Zawahiri – appear to be a credible voice. One of Maqdisi’s criticisms of the Islamic State is that they disobeyed their “sheikh,” and the “Commander” –- meaning Zawahiri.  Maqdisi has even written that, while he was still imprisoned in Jordan, he communicated with Zawahiri to inform the al Qaeda emir of his attempts to broker a peace deal between warring jihadists in Syria.

But when it comes to the West, and its allies in the region, Maqdisi is no friend. Despite his dislike for the Islamic State, which he has labeled a “deviant organization,” Maqdisi would still prefer for Baghdadi and his rivals to come together against their common enemies.  

On Sept. 30, 2014, Maqdisi and other al Qaeda ideologues, proposed a ceasefire between the Islamic State and its jihadists rivals. They argued that the jihadists needed to unite in the face of the “Crusader” alliance that had begun bombing Syria just a week earlier. They claimed that the U.S.-led bombing campaign is part of a war “against Islam and not against a specific organization.”

The problem is deeper than Jordan’s tacit alliance with Maqdisi.  

The Al Nusrah Front (that is, al Qaeda in Syria), which is closely allied with Maqdisi, has deliberately sought to embed itself within the popular rebellion against the Assad regime. Al Nusrah and al Qaeda’s senior leadership even hid, at first, their relationship. Many have fallen for this sleight of hand.

When Al Nusrah was designated a terrorist organization by the State Department in late 2012, many rebel groups objected. The rebels believed that al Qaeda’s arm in Syria was an invaluable part of the insurgency against the Assad regime. (Al Nusrah’s relations with Western-backed groups have since soured.)

In August of last year, Al Nusrah released an American hostage, Peter Theo Curtis, from its custody. Curtis was released just days after the Islamic State brutally beheaded another American, James Foley. The negotiations to free Curtis had been ongoing, but Al Nusrah was certainly aware of the public relations value it accrued by releasing him when they did. 

The former American ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, told journalists last September that the Obama administration tried to convince Turkey to stop working with Al Nusrah. The Turkish government was unmoved, believing that Al Nusrah could be a moderate ally.

The Islamic State’s decision to burn a Jordanian pilot alive is morally reprehensible to most people. Jordan shouldn’t need an al Qaeda-allied cleric to explain why. And the Jordanian government can explain its attempts to free the Islamic State's captive without relying on Maqdisi as well. 

Just because a jihadist doesn’t belong to Baghdadi’s crew, it doesn’t mean he is a voice of moderation. The Jordanians know this. Maqdisi was first imprisoned in Jordan well before anyone ever heard of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. 

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Read in The Weekly Standard


Al Qaeda