The horrific terrorist attack in Paris yesterday comes in the context of an escalating ideological war within the global jihadist movement pitting the Islamic State against Al Qaeda. The last month has seen a sharp uptick in the ideological conflict.
The two groups have been at odds for months but their war of words intensified in December. In a coordinated offensive three Al Qaeda franchises (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Al Nusra front) published on their media sites attacks on the legitimacy of the Islamic States Caliphate. AQIM published the longest (96 pages), most detailed and specific assault. AQAP published a criticism of the Caliphate that suggested all pledges of loyalty to it must be null and void because it is illegitimate. Interestingly Al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan did not comment perhaps refusing to deign to even discuss Caliph Ibrahim.
Islamic State responded late in December in the latest issue of its on line English language magazine Dabiq. It had an article entitled “Al Qaeda of Waziristan: A Testimony From Within” which was sharply critical of Al Qaeda and Mullah Omar’s Taliban. Al Qaeda was accused of moving too slowly to create a caliphate and Mullah Omar for considering negotiations with the Crusader enemy. Dabiq even indirectly criticized Osama bin Laden for not being eager for a caliphate, crossing a red line in jihadists’ literature.
The articles on line produced a flurry of social media messaging. Islamic State lost ground by taking a swipe at bin Laden but gained ground by suggesting AQAP’s caution had empowered the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen to take Sanaa. Some Islamic State supporters suggested the criticism of bin Laden was a result of poor translation and editing.
The war inside the global jihad over the legitimacy of the caliphate and who is the proper heir to bin Laden (Ayman Zawahiri or Abu Bakr al Baghdadi) is bound to lead to competition to outdo each other on the battlefield as well. In that context a major terror attack in Europe would be a significant achievement.
At an even broader level, Islamic exceptionalism means questioning the conventional technocratic approach that sees problems both at home and abroad as products of material factors that can be addressed through targeted policy interventions. Things like poverty, underdevelopment, rural-urban migration, and so on all matter, but so do the things that can’t be measured.