Last Ramadan saw the proclamation of the caliphate as a triumphant Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared in Mosul's Great Mosque to declare himself the leader of all Muslims worldwide. This Ramadan, things have changed dramatically for the organization. Al-Baghdadi is keeping an extremely low profile because of the coalition bombing campaign over Iraq and Syria, while the Islamic State is on the strategic defensive, struggling financially and to hold the territories it conquered.
Although many often refer to the Islamic State as the wealthiest terrorist group ever, they fail to understand that the organization is really an insurgency rather than a terrorist group — and that fighting a war on several fronts and governing territory, especially large cities such as Mosul, Raqqa and Ramadi, requires an incredible amount of money, resources and manpower. The Islamic State's resource burn rate is magnitudes larger than that of a true terrorist group or even a small insurgency. Coalition airstrikes against oil collection points, oil tankers and mobile refineries have put a serious dent in the Islamic State's economy. Though the group does earn considerable revenue from taxation, extortion and smuggling, these revenue sources — which are obtained mostly from the people the group rules — are limited and will breed increased resentment against the group as they are ramped up.
This Ramadan also brought a new challenge to the Islamic State when the al Qaeda pole of the transnational jihadist movement launched a widespread ideological campaign to undercut the Islamic State's support base. These ideological efforts have been impressive, at least to this middle-aged American analyst. It remains to be seen, however, if they will have the desired impact on wealthy jihadist donors and young recruits.
The first ideological salvo fired this Ramadan was the second issue of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent's Resurgence Magazine. The 92-page publication was a "special issue" containing a lengthy interview that the publisher, Hassaan Yusuf, had conducted with Adam Gadahn, aka "Azzam the American," an English-language spokesman for the al Qaeda core group who was killed by a U.S. airstrike in Pakistan in January.
While the interview was ostensibly a biography of Gadahn, Yusuf was able to cleverly shape it into a hit piece on the Islamic State. For example, Yusuf quoted Gadahn talking about al Qaeda's interactions with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. While Gadahn discussed al Qaeda's conflicts with al-Zarqawi, it emphasized that he was a strong proponent of jihadist unity and that he should not be held responsible for the "deviation" of those who claim to follow him today. The interview contained many scathing indictments of the Islamic State, such as:
- Declaring Muslims to be outside the fold of Islam is not a trivial matter or something to be taken lightly.
- Spilling the blood, taking the wealth and violating the rights of Muslims is not a trivial matter or something to be taken lightly.
- When you declare yourselves to be "the" Islamic State, you are responsible if your actions and behavior distort the image of the Islamic system of government in the eyes of the Ummah and the world.
- Ignorance of Sharia and misinterpretation of Islamic texts.
Interestingly, many of the arguments directed against the Islamic State used language that was not typical for Gadahn: specifically, terms that were beyond his educational level and normal lexicon. This likely indicates that these sections were later inserted by Yusuf, who is quite erudite, eloquent and apparently very well educated. Yusuf's writing uses advanced American idiomatic English, and it would be unsurprising to learn that he had earned an advanced degree from an American university, perhaps even an Ivy League school. Gadahn, by contrast, never attended university, and while he often sought to sound sophisticated in public statements, his efforts were transparent and his usage came across as unnatural.
Resurgence shows that in Yusuf, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent has an articulate propagandist who likely retains contacts in the United States. He is certainly a much deeper thinker than figures like Gadahn or Inspire magazine editor Samir Khan ever were. Yusuf accordingly will be an important figure to note and track.
Al Risalah Magazine
The second major ideological assault against the Islamic State was launched with the introduction of Al Risalah, a new English-language magazine by Jabhat al-Nusra. Risalah, which means "letter" in Arabic, has the stated purpose of dispelling "from the minds of the Muslims some of the mistaken notions and doubts promoted by the kuffar, hypocrites and deviant groups present amongst our midst, who aim to distort and destroy the clear and pure message of Islam and Jihad in the way of Allah."
The "hypocrites and deviants" the magazine focuses most intently upon hail from the Islamic State, which the magazine refers to as the Dawlat al-Baghdadi, or state of al-Baghdadi. The publication repeatedly criticizes the Islamic State for spreading dissension and attacking Jabhat al-Nusra/al Qaeda in Syria, when the latter are genuine jihadists. It also castigates the Islamic State for dividing and attacking fellow jihadists in Yemen, the Caucasus, Afghanistan and Libya. "They have made their khilafa a sword, which splits the Ummah, and not a khilafa, which gathers the Ummah together."
Being produced by Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Al Risalah naturally contains several articles authored by senior al-Nusra leaders, such as a eulogy for former al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Nasir al-Wahayshi written by al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani. The magazine also features articles from a number of other interesting figures, including a female jihadist who immigrated to Syria from the United Kingdom and an American jihadist named Abu Hudaifa al-Amreeki. Another article was written by Qaari Ikram, a senior Taliban religious authority.
The magazine devotes a great deal of space to refuting the ideology and actions of the Islamic State and argues that the Islamic State cannot be the legitimate caliphate since al-Baghdadi did not consult with the leaders of the global jihadist movement before proclaiming himself caliph. An article entitled "Khilafa One Year On" specifically noted that the caliphate had not been restored and quoted a Hadith from Sahih Bukhari that says "if any person gives the pledge of allegiance to somebody (to become a caliph) without consulting the other Muslims, then the one he has selected should not be granted allegiance, lest both of them should be killed." The article also criticizes young Islamic State supporters for believing things posted on social media over the opinions of respected jihadist clerics, such as Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and even of treating such scholars with contempt and disrespect.
This theme of disrespecting elder jihadists and even cursing at them was made in other articles, including an interview with Chechen jihadist Muslim Shishani and an article by Qaari Ikram titled "This is al Qaeda or Have They Forgotten."
Ikram was particularly pointed in countering the argument repeatedly made by Islamic State figures that Ayman al-Zawahiri and the present al Qaeda leadership have strayed from the path charted by Osama bin Laden. Ikram notes that unlike the Islamic State leaders, he knew bin Laden — as well as other al Qaeda leaders — and observed his methods and beliefs in favorable conditions and under pressure. Based upon this firsthand knowledge, Ikram asserts that bin Laden and the other al Qaeda leaders would have condemned the Islamic State for attacking other jihadists, for the indiscriminate killing of non-Muslim women and children, and for the killing of Muslim women and children. He also berated them for being bloodthirsty, deceitful and divisive and for being excessive in declaring takfir (declaring a Muslim to be an unbeliever).
An article called "Halab Under Fire" by Abu Hudaifa al Amreeki specifically charged the Islamic State with helping the administration of Syrian President Bashar al Assad by attacking Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist groups north of Aleppo (Halab is an ancient name for Aleppo). This forced other jihadists to divert forces away from their attack on loyalists in Aleppo to counter the Islamic State attack.
Turning the Tables on the Islamic State
Members and sympathizers of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have begun to use social media more aggressively. They launched a campaign on Twitter this week to criticize Abu Belal al-Harbi, the leader of the Islamic State in Yemen, accusing him of treason. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb also issued a statement this week criticizing the Islamic State's actions in Libya. Whether such efforts will make much headway against the Islamic State's powerful social media juggernaut, however, is not clear.
I found some compelling arguments against the Islamic State's ideology and practices while reading these materials. But whether potential jihadist recruits and wealthy jihadist donors will take the time to read them and be swayed — or whether they will continue to feed off the Islamic State's dramatic videos and short social media posts — remains to be seen.
Perhaps some of the more mature jihadists and foreign financiers will in fact take time to read these magazines and the reasoned arguments put forth in them. But for many of the younger recruits, the lure of bloody mayhem and Yazidi sex slaves may prove too strong for al Qaeda's arguments to overcome.