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ISIS and al-Qaeda clash not only on the battlefield, but also in their propaganda

While such instances have been relatively common over the past few years, recent weeks witnessed an uptick in hostilities between affiliates of Islamic State and al-Qaeda in several areas, mainly in Somalia and Yemen.

Most recently, on December 2, ISIS’s Amaq news agency reported the killing of a member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in an improvised explosive device detonation in Yemen’s northwestern Bayda governorate. Meanwhile, in Somalia, according to reports from November 29, al-Shabaab militants assassinated an ISIS operative in the town of Afgoye, located approximately 25 km (15 miles) northwest of the capital Mogadishu.

The hostilities and rivalry between the two organizations have not been confined to the battlefield; the groups’ mutual animosity has also manifested in their rhetoric and messaging.

For instance, in the recent 158th edition of al-Naba magazine, ISIS published an op-ed focusing on the alleged failure of other Islamist movements to advance the Sharia and protect Muslims from the Taghut (or “tyrani” – usually, though not exclusively, referring to secular Arab regimes or secular nationalist political parties), and “Western Crusaders” in the post-Arab Spring era.

The article stated that these groups not only rejected armed struggle (jihad) but also actively prevented the youth from targeting the interests of the West and the “Arab Taghut,” in an attempt to gain their sympathy.

The author of the article goes on to criticize al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, calling him al-Safih al-Kharf (السفيه الخرف, a “fool who suffers from dementia”), and indirectly linking al-Qaeda to the other Islamist movements, thus highlighting its role in contributing to the empowerment of the Taghut, as well as the West.

This latest example falls in line with ISIS’s traditional criticism of Zawahiri’s group, largely surrounding its alleged links to Islamist movements with nationalist components in their ideology, such as Muslim Brotherhood-flavored groups in North Africa like the Benghazi Defense Brigades in Libya (a coalition of groups opposed to General Khalifa Haftar); Islamist Syrian rebels; and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In a similar fashion, ISIS published a polemic op-ed in the 77th edition of al-Naba, which was issued in April 2017, accusing al-Qaeda of promoting democracy via its cooperation with Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings.

ISIS claimed that al-Qaeda assisted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi by halting its operations immediately after he came to power and making a comeback after his ousting in 2013. By doing so, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s organization strives to slander and delegitimize al-Qaeda as a Sunni jihadist militant group, likely in an attempt to draw the support of more radicalized elements from within the latter’s ranks.

As for al-Qaeda, AQAP released on December 1 a message titled “Be Glad … The Discord of al-Baghdadi to Demise.” In the message, AQAP slams ISIS for its false caliphate and for sowing destruction and committing crimes in Muslim lands and against the “Mujahidin,” providing examples from Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

Similarly, in mid-November, AQAP media released two videos depicting two former ISIS fighters, who were also imprisoned by the group, describing the cruelty of al-Baghdadi’s organization.

AQAP released a video in November 2018 with former ISIS fighters detailing the cruelty of the group
Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula released videos in November 2018 with captured ISIS fighters detailing the cruelty of the group

The writer further argues that this aggression by ISIS indirectly assisted and promoted the interests of the United States, “and realizes America’s goals, as al-Baghdadi’s branch in Afghanistan fights against the Taliban which implemented the Merciful’s [Allah’s] Sharia.”

In addition to the illegitimacy of ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate’s illegitimacy, this latest release by al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch continues to underscore its perception of ISIS as extreme, divisive, and harmful to the general interest of the Muslim Ummah, or community.

This is further demonstrated by the text’s terminology. AQAP describes ISIS as الغلاة (al-Ghulaa, “the ones who exaggerate”), and الخوارج (al-Khawarij, a term commonly used by contemporary Islamists to describe extremist jihadists, while historically referring to a hardline group from the early days of Islam).

The recent AQAP verbal attack on ISIS takes place amidst persistent efforts by the latter to re-establish footholds in their loss territories, namely in the Middle East and North Africa. As part of these efforts, al-Baghdadi’s organization has issued multiple publications attempting to appeal to the region’s Sunni-Arab population. By emphasizing Islamic State’s cruelty, al-Qaeda seeks to impede the former’s recruitment attempts, as it portrays the group as unjust and an oppressive ruler, thus potentially deterring individuals from joining it.

As the on-the-ground fighting between the two jihadist groups is liable to persist, rhetorical exchanges in the form of op-eds, videos, and announcements will likely continue. Aside from direct responses to violent clashes between the two parties, such as AQAP’s December 1 message, the frontlines of the competition over the hearts and minds of the more radicalized Sunni communities may also take place in the theological, social and historical battleground.


Asaf Day is a Middle East and North Africa geopolitical analyst at a private security-consultancy firm. His areas of expertise include Syria, Israel, and the Palestinians, as well as global jihad organizations. Asaf has an MA Degree in Arabic Studies from the University of Bar Ilan and a BA from Ben Gurion University, both in Israel.

In addition to English, Asaf speaks fluent Hebrew and Arabic, as well as Turkish and French to a lesser degree.

Connect with him on LinkedIn.


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