Al-Qaeda Revives Its Beef with the Islamic State

With the formal disavowal of the Islamic State by al-Qa`ida last February, the two groups have vied with each other for leadership of the global jihad. Combining military victories with an effective use of social media, the Islamic State has been able to gain  traction among both grassroots sympathizers and militant outfits. This has led to the emergence of a number of splinter factions that left their original groups to align with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s forces. These defections have been witnessed not only among al-Qa`ida’s affiliates but by the al-Qa`ida mothership itself in Waziristan. In light of this relative but noteworthy reshaping, some people have raised the question of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s ability to maintain loyalty among his subsidiaries or even a future union between his group and al-Baghdadi’s.

While it is too early to determine who will eventually call the shots, a telling audio message recently released by Abu Dujana al-Basha, a high-ranking al-Qa`ida leader, hints at where the organization currently stands on a rapprochement with the Islamic State.

Who is Abu Dujana al-Basha?

Owing to the demise of the historical leadership of al-Qa`ida over the past ten years, the organization has witnessed the rise of more recently arrived, yet seasoned figures in its top hierarchy. Among these has been Abu Dujana al-Basha, also known as Abu Dujana al-Misri, one of the most senior al-Qa`ida leaders today. Named as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in mid-January 2009, al-Basha has nevertheless a long history in jihadi militancy.

Born Muhammad bin Mahmud al-Bahtiti in al-Sharqiyya, Egypt, al-Basha initially belonged to the cluster of cadres around Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Egyptian Islamic al-Jihad group (EIJ). During the first half of the 1980s, he traveled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan area. Al-Basha operated with Jalaluddin Haqqani’s mujahidin in southeastern Afghanistan, though his dogmatism led to strained relations with his local counterparts. Part of his activity entailed giving religiously-oriented lessons to trainees. For example, Fadil Harun relates that when he attended al-Qa`ida’s al-Faruq camp in Khost, Afghanistan, he was lectured by al-Basha on “the history of the Prophet Muhammad” and the early Islamic battles.

However, it appears that al-Basha was mainly involved in military action and training. During combat in Gardez, Afghanistan, Harun remembers, he and “Shaykh Abu Dujana al-Misri” closely worked together in the monitoring of the enemy lines near the city. This lends credence to the U.S. authorities’ claim that al-Basha penned “a book on security that was used as a template for al Qaida’s surveillance operations”. Also, al-Basha played a substantial role in the “Tajikistan Project” headed by Abu al-Walid al-Misri at al-Faruq, which consisted of training members of the Tajik Islamist party al-Nahda. Despite the EIJ refusing to participate in these efforts, al-Basha became one its “stars”, in Abu al-Walid’s words, as both an instructor and military commander. It was at that time that Abu Dujana came to be known as “al-Basha” (the Pasha), a rank given to him by his comrades as a private joke.

In the first half of the 1990s, al-Basha relocated to Sudan along with the EIJ. Based on Harun’s memoirs, al-Basha settled in Khartum together with other fellow Arab-Afghans, including al-Qa`ida members such as Sayf al-`Adl, the organization’s then head of security. Al-Basha seems to have operated in the Sudanese capital until at least late 1997. Indeed, when al-Gama`a al-Islamiyya attacked tourists in Luxor in November 1997, Khartum-based jihadis debated the lawfulness of this operation and, Harun contends, al-Basha was “strongly opposed” to it. Yet, it should be noted that al-Basha is said to have been involved in the Egyptian Embassy bombing in Islamabad in 1995.

After his Sudanese interlude, al-Basha moved to Afghanistan, joining the few remaining personnel in al-Zawahiri’s group. Evoking the EIJ’s staff in Afghanistan, the Jordanian militant Shadi `Abdallah described al-Basha as one of its main figures, adding that he wore a prosthesis after he had a foot amputated. Around 1999-2000, al-Basha cemented his ties with al-Zawahiri by becoming his son-in-law, having married Umayma, the daughter al-Zawahiri had with `Azza bin Nuwayr (Umm Muhammad), his first wife. Though depicted as a “trusted aide to [al-Zawahiri]”, it is noticeable that al-Basha differed from his amir’s plan to align EIJ’s national-revolutionary agenda with al-Qa`ida’s global ambitions. According to `Abdallah, al-Basha was part of the EIJ’s faction which broke away from al-Zawahiri when the latter formally joined al-Qa`ida in mid-2001. This means that al-Basha only rallied to Usama bin Ladin’s group during the post-2001 period.

In the aftermath of the Taliban downfall in late 2001, al-Basha is reported to have acted as the caretaker of al-Zawahiri’s family and settled with it in Iran, before being arrested by Iranian authorities in 2003. Over the past few years, al-Basha began surfacing publicly by authoring a number of audio messages and writings via major jihadi media outlets, mostly al-Qa`ida’s. His work comprises theologically-oriented releases such as his paper “The Institution of Shari`a is a Shari`a Obligation and a Realistic Necessity” for al-Qa`ida’s magazine Tala`i’ Khurasan or his “Summary of Sahih al-Bukhari” published by the organization’s media department al-Sahab in September 2013. As to topical issues, al-Basha wrote down some interesting “Reflections on the Term al-Salafiyya al-Jihadiyya” in 2012 and also discussed the crackdown against the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in December 2013.

Amending the Path of Jihad in Syria

Abu Dujana al-Basha is said to have anticipated the onset of the Syrian conflict. Indeed, when recalling discussions on the “Arab Spring” in al-Qa`ida, `Azzam al-Amriki (Adam Gadahn), a major al-Sahab’s figure, claims that al-Basha portended that Syria would follow the Libyan uprising. “I recall that I was with one of the noble brothers, Shaykh Abu Dujana al-Basha”, al-Amriki recounts, “and [he] predicted […] without hesitation that the next stop for the revolutionary express would be Syria”.

If al-Basha had been hopeful for the future of the jihadist project in Syria, his hope gave way to uneasiness in the light of the infighting among militant groups in Syria. This was first reflected by his “’Message from the Opening of Khurasan to the Opening of al-Sham” which he penned in January 2014. Unsurprisingly, his missive conveys an aspect of “love and support” for the Syria-based fighters. For instance, al-Basha opens his missive by emphatically stating that “it would be not exaggerated to say that we feel that our bodies and hearts here in Khurasan hang with you in the Levant”.

Of greater importance it his advice (nasiha) for the Levantine militant spectrum aimed at preventing further dissensions. The Egyptian jihadi veteran emphasizes the concept of “jama`a” (group) and the danger of internal division, using Qur`anic verses and hadiths to support his argument. Acting as one unified body, al-Basha explains, is not only mandatory from an Islamic perspective but would also allow the mujahidin to achieve victory, no matter the hardships. Al-Basha thus bemoans the Syrian strife and urges his mujahidin brethren to uphold the sanctity of the Muslim blood, further outlining the dire consequences of those transgressing this ruling.

On September 26, 2014, al-Basha released “This Is our Message”, focusing yet again on the militant Syrian arena. In it, the Egyptian outlines the plight that has befallen the umma, with “the nations of disbelief and parties of apostasy […] inflicting its population with humiliation”. Faced with such circumstances, al-Basha continues, the only course of action to “cure the disease” lies in taking arms against the “oppressors”, be they from the “crusaders” or the “Nusayris”. He goes on to call to “the rejection of false gods, and disassociation from polytheism” and “the judgment of the Sharia”. Al-Basha warns that, unless this individual duty is performed, “[the umma] will be overcome by weakness [and] humiliation”.

Of greater importance in the message is al-Basha’s concerns regarding the threat of what he terms as “people of excess” (ahl al-ghuluw). The al-Qa`ida leader charges them with having “declared the worshipers as disbelievers …and undermined the jihad and distorted the message of the mujahidin”. Although the Islamic State is never mentioned, it is clear that the “extremists” al-Basha refers to pertain to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s loyalists. Among the most explicit references is al-Basha’s rant against “the caliphate on the path of deviation and lies and violations of treaties and breaking of pledges”. Similarly, al-Basha admonishes this “deviant” caliphate “built on oppression, takfir, killing the people of tawhid and splitting the rows of the mujahidin”. Finally, al-Basha  highlights the continuity in al-Qaida’s philosophy, declaring that “your mujahidin brothers in Khurasan … have not changed nor turned” despite “the injustice of slander, fabrications, distortions and lies”. This line reads as a response to the allegations spread by the the pro-Islamic State’s camp that the current leadership of al-Qa`ida no longer acts upon Bin Ladin’s program.

With the spread of the Islamic State’s virulent ideology and the broader discord in Syria, al-Basha considers that the Levantine cause has deviated from its “righteous path”, tarnishing the image of the global jihad movement. As a consequence, he offers guidance to “rescue the boat of jihad in Syria”. He notably exhorts militants groups “to strive to rectify what has been corrupted” and “to repel every form of perversion”. He also calls on the “people of knowledge and expertise”, namely veterans with a long jihadi experience, to “clarify to the umma and to the mujahidin the correct way […] in the various issues of disputes”. Conversely, he warns his audience against the “greatly ignorant” behind the “increase in issuance of verdicts [declaring] the Muslims as unbelievers, rather the best of the mujahidin”. This likely alludes to the pro-Islamic State ideologues often decried by al-Qa`ida’s supporters as lacking experience and religious knowledge.

Bad Timing?

Though the schism between al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State is nothing new, Abu Dujana al-Basha’s latest release is still worthwhile noting if properly contextualized.

Among all al-Qa`ida’s statements addressing ISIS in 2014, only two really stand out in terms of open hostility towards ISIS’s conduct. These two were both related to the assassination of Abu Khalid al-Suri in February 2014. The first was in late March when `Azzam al-Amriki blamed al-Suri’s murder on ISIS, which he accused of “excess” (ghuluw) and “extremism” (tashaddud). The second quickly followed with Ayman al-Zawahiri drawing a parallel between the Khawarij who had stabbed `Ali and their “grand-children … in the Levant” responsible for al-Suri’s demise, a veiled reference to ISIS. While this period has witnessed the publication of other critical statements, overall, it was al-Suri’s murder which elicited the organization’s most corrosive comments against ISIS.

The caliphate’s foundation in late June 2014 saw a reorientation in al-Qa`ida’s media strategy, with a less straightforward approach to this new challenge. Instead of bluntly rejecting the Islamic State’s unilateralism, al-Zawahiri’s outfit chose to confront its powerful rival more obliquely. As a result, al-Qa`ida stressed its continuing loyalty to the Taliban leader Mullah `Umar, hence notifying Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that, despite his caliphal pretension, he would not hold sway over his elders in jihad. This message was passed through both new materials, like al-Qa`ida’s newsletter al-Nafir and old archives, like a 2001 speech by Bin Ladin explaining the nature of his oath to Mullah `Umar.

With that in mind, al-Basha’s latest speech deserves attention. It is the first al-Qa`ida message to rebuff the Islamic State’s caliphate since its founding. Al-Qa`ida had not even responded to Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s message in May taunting Ayman al-Zawahiri. On that note, it is most likely that al-Basha was alluding to this when he stated that the “Shaykh [Ayman al-Zawahiri] had ordered his brothers to remain silent and to not respond over his honour”. Al-Basha’s audio message is arguably one of the most aggressive that al-Qa`ida has released in its conflict with the Islamic State, in line with the two above-mentioned statements eulogizing Abu Khalid al-Suri.

The rationale for releasing al-Basha’s tape is worthwhile discussing. Judging by al-Basha’s words, there might have been a sense of growing frustration among al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership, unsatisfied with al-Zawahiri’s directive to stay quiet. Besides, this sentiment has been echoed in the broader militant milieu, including by al-Qa`ida’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. In late August, the latter’s former general shar`i (legal) official, Abu Mariyya al-Qahtani, authored an open letter to al-Zawahiri complaining about al-Qa`ida’s lack of a clear position against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s bold move. This long silence, in al-Qahtani’s view, has bolstered the Islamic State while it perpetuated its “injustice and crimes” in Syria. Perhaps al-Basha was referring to these objections when, while explaining the reason for this silence, he mentioned “those who love us have blamed us by them thinking that we have betrayed our Shaykh [al-Zawahiri]”.

Still, one would wonder why al-Zawahiri eventually allowed one of his top aides to speak out against al-Baghdadi’s caliphate now. Indeed, the release occurred while the U.S.-led military coalition began its airstrikes against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and Iraq. While the Western-backed offensive did not resolve the core factors driving the strife in the region, it at least prompted a vast array of condemnations from militant groups operating in the region and beyond, including al-Qa`ida affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. In this perspective, al-Qa`ida may have been preoccupied by its competition with the Islamic State for leadership of the global jihad.

In any case, the audio message fueled hostility between the proponents and opponents of al-Qa`ida. The well-known English-speaking Islamic State’s sympathizer Shami Witness, for instance, scolded al-Basha’s speech as “the worst [al-Qa`ida] message till date”, ending his comment by the following: “May Allaah give these partisan tandhim [organization] scum what they deserve”. It is clear that the issue was not only related to al-Basha’s strongly-worded tone, but also because his speech was released in a time of increasing adversity. As Shami Witness rhetorically asked, “So al Qaeda chooses NOW to continue with its BS partisan politics […]?” Pro-al-Qa`ida’s supporters tried to downplay this criticism notably by remarking that Abu Muhammad al-Adnani had attacked al-Qa`ida “while [the group has] been bombed by the US and much larger coalition then now since 2001!!”

Whether Abu Dujana al-Basha’s audio message marks the beginning of a prolonged media campaign by al-Qa`ida aimed at countering the Islamic State’s influence remains to be seen. More certain is that by coming out yet again against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate, al-Qa`ida has signified that unity in the jihadist ranks would not come at any price, even in the face of an international military campaign. Unless the Islamic State reforms its stringent policies and returns to the fold, al-Qa`ida implies, any talk of reconciliation would equate to a chimera. This latest rant serves also as a reminder of how deeply entrenched the rupture with its former Iraqi affiliate is among al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership.

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Kévin Jackson

Kévin Jackson is Research Director at the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism (CAT) in Paris.

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