PARIS (AFP) — To the uninitiated, Al-Qaida and the Islamic State group may be pursuing the same long-term goal of spreading Islamic law through territorial expansion and deadly violence.
But actually, their ideology and methods differ so fundamentally that they are increasingly turning on each other.
Last month, IS in West Africa (ISWAP) released a video showing its men butchering fighters presented as members of the JNIM, an al-Qaida franchise, in Mali.
Fifty-two were killed.
According to Mohammed Hafez, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, internecine fighting has claimed the lives of some 300 jihadists in West Africa’s Sahel region since July alone.
The reasons for the fighting range from control of territory or profitable trafficking corridors to filling power vacuums left behind when local leaders are killed.
“The civil war raging between global jihadis is intensifying,” said Hafez.
“These dueling factions have failed to overcome the challenge of fragmentation under the stress of conflict and territorial retreat,” he wrote in the journal CTC Sentinel of the US Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center.
“They turned their attention away from near and far enemies and instead prioritized fighting the nearest enemy of all — each other.”
IS arose from the ashes of an Al-Qaida offshoot, Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), largely decimated by U.S.-led forces backed by local militias in the mid 2000s.
Hearts and minds
But IS immediately took a different course to Al-Qaida — until then the West’s public enemy number one because of the 9/11 attacks in the US.
Whereas Al-Qaida views the destruction of the West as a prerequisite for the establishment of an Islamic state, IS set out to establish a caliphate in “liberated territories” from where to launch its war of conquest, geopolitical researcher Nathanael Ponticelli wrote in the journal of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS).
IS was uprooted last year from the “caliphate” it proclaimed in Syria and Iraq in 2014.
According to Hafez, Al-Qaida has sought to position itself as an “inclusive, pragmatic, and populist pan-Islamist movement” whereas IS represents “an exclusive, uncompromising, and puritanical vision of jihadism.”
IS claims the exclusive legitimacy to punish “takfirs,” Muslims considered to have strayed from the teachings.
“Whereas Al-Qaida and other Islamists seek to work hand-in-hand with their beleaguered populations in order to win their hearts and minds, the Islamic State cares little about populism and instead advances an exclusive, vanguardist vision that seeks to mold hearts and minds through the divine imperative to command the good and forbid vice,” said Hafez.
In April, IS issued a 52-minute video pointing out what it says are instances of Al-Qaida’s deviance from scripture.
“The self-declared caliphate has developed a significant institutional hatred for al-Qaida,” said Thomas Joscelyn of The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“It is always possible that some factions within each group are currently working together, or they will do so in the future. But the video indicates that a grand reconciliation between the two jihadist rivals is unlikely in the near future.”
No shortage of fighters
But, say observers, the Western world should not take comfort in the two jihadist groups being at each other’s throats.
A lot can get trampled in their battle for supremacy, territory, followers and media attention, they warn.
“Since 9/11, the problem of violent jihadis has grown in scale, scope, and violent magnitude — all this despite being divided and pursued by a superpower, multinational coalitions, and local governments,” wrote Hafez.
“Whereas in the past the international community was dealing with one global jihadi movement headquartered in Afghanistan, today there are two with branches that span several regions and countries.”
Furthermore, the jihadists have proven they can “plan operations and fight their adversaries even as they are killing each other,” said Hafez.
For Elie Tenenbaum, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), the two groups are seeking to outdo each other — and neither is likely to run out of fighters.
“By fighting, the groups consolidate their domination and even conquer new territories,” he told AFP.
by Didier LAURAS
© Agence France-Presse