The Tunisian government’s investigation of the devastating March 18 Bardo museum attack in Tunis yielded a surprising result. While the Islamic State (IS) quickly claimed credit for that attack, Tunisia instead attributed it to the al-Qaeda-aligned Katibat Uqba ibn Nafi, and identified the group’s emir Luqman Abu Saqr as the mastermind. If Tunisia’s conclusion is correct, the episode may shed light on IS’s media war with al-Qaeda (AQ).
Katibat Uqba ibn Nafi is demonstrably not a part of the Islamic State’s network. Despite a statement attributed to the group in September 2014 that sowed some confusion about its loyalties, the Katibat has publicly identified itself as a battalion of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in statements released in January and February of this year.
The Islamic State’s claim of the Bardo attack furthered the perception that the group had significant momentum internationally. That attack occurred amidst a series of IS advances in various countries. A Libyan IS affiliate launched a major offensive into Sirte in February; Boko Haram declared its allegiance to IS on March 7; IS claimed the March 18 attack on the Bardo museum; and on March 20 IS militants executed suicide bombings against Zaidi Shia mosques in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa that killed over 130.
If IS exaggerated its role in the Bardo attack, its strategy in doing so is clear. In the battle for market share of global jihadism, IS has AQ’s media operations outgunned. Yet the Bardo attack, because it was carried out by a rival, threatened the Islamic State’s narrative of success. However, IS knew from past experience that AQ generally doesn’t claim credit for attacks while the operatives who carried them out are still at large. IS thus may have realized that it could issue a claim of responsibility before AQ was prepared to do so.
Given the way media cycles work—and IS is very attuned to the media cycle—a false or exaggerated claim of responsibility would dominate the news before anybody could disprove it, at a time when Bardo remained a top headline. AQ’s greater role wouldn’t become known until the attack was no longer a hot news item. Some of the most important members of the target audience—jihadis and their supporters—will only remember the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility.
Tunisia will likely remain a key battlefield in the IS-AQ competition. The country’s major jihadist groups have leaders who are loyal to AQ but footsoldiers who skew pro-IS because Tunisian foreign fighters overwhelmingly fought under the Islamic State’s banner in Syria. As the competition between the two jihadist groups intensifies, civilians are likely to pay the price again.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. Find him on Twitter: @DaveedGR