Al Qaeda is at it again. The group is trolling ISIS, which is increasingly becoming its favorite target (next to America, of course). The trash-talk between these two is starting to rival the hype before a WWE championship wrestling match.
But the lethal battle between them makes one thing clear: Their actions are truly not about religious ideals. Rather, their focus is on the far more secular goal of advancing their respective political agendas.
That doesn’t mean the both ISIS and al Qaeda don’t invoke Islam when helpful. In fact, al Qaeda’s latest trolling of ISIS cites Islamic principles. This took place a few days ago in the latest issue of al Qaeda’s magazine where, in a Seinfeldesque “Soup Nazi” type way, al Qaeda told ISIS: “No paradise for you.”
Why does al Qaeda claim that ISIS’s fighters will not be heading to paradise, known in Islam as “jannah”? Because ISIS fighters have slaughtered Muslims in large numbers as well as other religious minorities.
As Adam Gadahn, the al Qaeda spokesman who was recently killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan, explained in the current issue of the al Qaeda magazine (presumably he was speaking not from paradise but from here on Earth, before the drone found him), ISIS’s horrible crimes committed “against Muslims cannot simply be overlooked or forgotten with time.” He also condemned ISIS for “attacking and displacing largely powerless and defenseless minorities and slaughtering their men and enslaving their women and children.”
Gadahn warned in dire terms that there will be “severe punishment” and “darkness” on “the Day of Judgment” for ISIS fighters because of committing these immoral actions, as well as for those “who encouraged, condoned or justified them, even if from behind a computer or mobile phone thousands of miles away.” He added, “Jihad is not a video game; it is real life, with real consequences, in this world and the next.”
First off, you have to fight laughing when you hear al Qaeda, a group that has slaughtered thousands of innocent people, attempt to take the moral high ground. But there is a method to al Qaeda’s madness. They are in a life-and-death competition with ISIS for recruits and funds and they believe these types of attacks can hurt ISIS on both fronts.
Al Qaeda is emphasizing that ISIS has been slaughtering Muslims, including Sunnis, in large numbers to undermine ISIS’s appeal to other Muslims. I wrote about this very issue in October where I set forth in detail the brutal murders of Sunni Muslims, including women and children, at the hands of ISIS. My point was to implore the U.S. media to cover ISIS’s butchering of Muslims—not just the horrific killing of Christians or Westerners—because it could hurt ISIS’s recruitment efforts in the long run among Muslims.
Keep in mind that al Qaeda has seen firsthand what happens when you start killing your fellow Sunni Muslims in large numbers. This was one of the primary reasons that Sunni leaders in the Anbar province of Iraq united in 2006, in what is called the “Anbar awaking,” to fight al Qaeda, as explained to me by Laith Alkhouri, a NBC News counterterrorism expert and director of research and analysis for the Middle East at Flashpoint. Sunni leaders then fought side by side with Iraq security forces and U.S. troops, ultimately ending al Qaeda’s rule of the area.
Al Qaeda’s new criticism of ISIS is also interestingly an attempt to “out Muslim” ISIS. New York City-based Imam Shamsi Ali, who recently traveled to his home country of Indonesia to counter ISIS’s recruitment efforts there, explained that al Qaeda is cleverly trying to recruit young Muslims to their cause by positioning themselves as more “Islamic and more ethical than ISIS.” But as Ali notes, al Qaeda is no such thing. That’s why he’s working tirelessly to ensure that young Muslims don’t fall for the lies of either al Qaeda or ISIS.
Ali, like Alkhouri, made it explicitly clear that neither ISIS nor al Qaeda’s actions are predicated upon the tenets of Islam. Rather, as Alkhouri succinctly put it, both ISIS and al Qaeda have “agendas that are purely political with a flavor of Islamic principles.” And they are both using the “flavor of Islam” to entice new recruits, raise funds, and counter each other.
But before you dismiss this as another attempt by me or other Muslims to claim ISIS and al Qaeda’s actions are not based on Islam, here’s something else to keep in mind. If ISIS and al Qaeda were truly following the principles of Islam, why are they locked in a deadly fight with each other? And their battles are far more than trolling each other on Twitter. As Alkhouri explained, ISIS and al Qaeda fighters are “literally beheading each other in military battles.”
The reality is that al Qaeda and ISIS are both about power, ego, vanity, and everything else that leads political groups to splinter from each other. As Daniel Byman, the director of research and a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, recently said in his testimony before Congress, the battle between al Qaeda and ISIS is based on differing political agendas. That is why the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, broke from al Qaeda in 2014 after clashing repeatedly with al Qaeda leadership over the direction the terrorist group should follow, but not over religious differences.
The war of words and weapons between ISIS and al Qaeda will continue until one prevails. But our elected officials and media should echo al Qaeda’s latest message of publicizing ISIS’s daily slaughter of fellow Muslims. This hopefully will make it more challenging for ISIS to secure the vital resources it needs to survive. That could very well mean the end of ISIS and, ironically enough, free up our resources to focus more on defeating al Qaeda.