Robert Manne’s new book, The Mind of the Islamic State, traces the evolution of the jihadist group’s world view. By poring over Islamic State’s texts, online magazines, and prison accounts by key figures, Manne offers insight into an ideology that most have heard of but few understand. In this extract, Manne unpacks the split between Islamic State and Al Qaeda.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian Islamist who led the Sunni insurgency in Iraq following the US-led invasion, was a man of action not of words. There exists, however, one fascinating lengthy letter from him to the leaders of Al Qaeda, dated January 2004, whose purpose was in part to begin what turned out to be a protracted negotiation for his movement’s entry into Al Qaeda.
Zarqawi begins within an apocalyptic frame. In Sham (the ancient name for Iraq and Syria) “the decisive battle between the infidels and Islam is taking place”. As Al Qaeda no doubt already grasps, he continues, the Zionist-led American administration of George W. Bush entered Iraq under “a contract to create the State of Greater Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates”. Their purpose was “to hasten the arrival of the Messiah”.
What is the political situation following the invasion? Zarqawi regards not the Americans but the Shi'as as the overwhelming problem for the Sunnis. They are “the most vile people in the human race”, “the insurmountable obstacle, the prowling serpent, the crafty evil scorpion, the enemy lying in wait”. Throughout history, the Shi’a have stabbed the Muslims in the back. Their religion “has nothing in common with Islam”. Perhaps worst of all, throughout history they have served the interests of the Jews.
What then is to be done? The key, according to Zarqawi, is to provoke a Sunni-Shi’a civil war:
We will trigger their rage against the Sunnis… [forcing them] to bare their fangs… If we manage to draw them onto the terrain of partisan war… soon the [Sunni] sleepers will awaken from their leaden slumber.
Prospects in this struggle are bright. Zarqawi concludes his letter by asking the leaders of Al Qaeda whether they accept his plan. If they do, he promises, they will have his allegiance.
The leaders of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri must have faced a difficult decision in pondering future relations with Zarqawi. On the one hand, the ferocious battle Zarqawi was leading in Iraq was the most promising ever mounted by the Salafi jihadist movement. On the other, the war against the Shi’a Zarqawi was intent to fight represented a radical break in the history of the mujahidin. Clearly however admiration for Zarqawi and a judgment of the political advantages of alignment with him, overcame concern. In December 2004, Al Qaeda accepted the formal allegiance Zarqawi offered.
In July 2005, a long letter was sent by Al Qaeda Central to Al Qaeda in Iraq. All scholars say that this letter was sent directly to Zarqawi from Zawahiri. This cannot be right.
Towards its conclusion it reads:
By God, if by chance you’re going to Fallujah, send greetings to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi.
Most likely, although its contents were intended for Zarqawi, it was sent via another Al Qaeda member.
The letter documents Al Qaeda’s ambivalence about their new supporter. Zawahiri mounts a series of harsh and fundamental criticisms of Zarqawi’s leadership. The battle for the Islamic State cannot succeed without the support of the Muslim masses. They will never understand the disrespect that has been shown for the Sunni religious leaders. Zarqawi and his followers must not think of ruling on the basis of the mujahidin alone.
Even more sternly, Zawahiri chides Zarqawi for his anti-Shi’a sectarianism. No doubt many Shi’a have behaved treacherously during the American occupation. No doubt their understanding of Islam is deeply mistaken. But the Muslim masses will never understand a program based on the destruction of holy sites or systematic killing, especially of ordinary Shi’a. They will ask: “Can the mujahidin kill all the Shi’a in Iraq?” Zawahiri urges Zarqawi not to be seduced by those who praise him as the “sheikh of the slaughterers.”
Zawahiri’s letter was obviously ignored. Some three months later, a senior Al Qaeda leader, Atiyatullah al-Libi, sent another, far blunter warning. If Zawahiri’s letter concerned Zarqawi’s political mistakes, al-Libi’s concerned the defects of his character. Although this letter is almost unknown in the scholarly literature, it is even more revealing than Zawahiri’s.
Al-Libi’s letter contains a devastating catalogue of the dangers of Zarqawi’s style of leadership. Zarqawi must strive to win the love of the Muslim people. “Do not be harsh with them or degrade them or frighten them.” He must learn to accept disagreement. It does “not require hatred, clashing, hostility or enmity”. He must not become “arrogant” because of praise. His inner circle must avoid “injustice, conceit, haughtiness, superciliousness, excessive harshness and violence.”
Al-Libi reminds Zarqawi that Islam is a religion of “mercy, justice and good deeds”. A balance must be found “between severity and softness, between violence and gentleness”. “Let us not merely be people of killing, slaughter, blood, cunning, insult and harshness”. Zarqawi is warned:
You need to look deeply within yourself and your character.
If he fails to heed these warnings he will be replaced.
It was clear by now that not only through his unrestrained brutality and the expanding circle of what he regarded as permissible under Islamic law but also in his attitude to the Shi’a that Zarqawi had transformed and radicalised the Salafi jihadist tradition.
Zarqawi was killed by the Americans on June 7, 2006. Shortly after his death, his successors fulfilled his wishes by announcing the existence of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). For a time, the warnings al-Libi had issued about the dire political consequences of Zarqawi’s brutal behaviour seemed accurate. The Americans found eager partners among the Sunni tribes in the anti-insurgency movement called the Sahwah, the Awakening.
As a consequence, the Islamic State of Iraq was forced during 2008 to retreat to the arid lands of al-Anbar in the west. One of the wives of a leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, inquired:
Where is the Islamic State you’re talking about? We’re living in the desert.
The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), by now under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, emerged from the desert in 2011 at a propitious moment – the military and political withdrawal of the Americans from Iraq, the increasing persecution of the Sunni by the Shia-dominated government of Nuri al-Maliki, and the descent of Syria into civil war.
ISI began taking territory in the Sunni Triangle and despatched a small force to Syria led by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, in what became known as the Nusra Front. In April 2013, ISI and the Nusra Front fell out speedily, spectacularly and bloodily after Baghdadi’s unilateral announcement of his leadership of a new political entity called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), covering the lands of both Iraq and Syria.
By this time, Osama bin Laden had been killed by the Americans. Al Qaeda’s new leader, Zawahiri, attempted unsuccessfully to arbitrate the differences, requiring Jolani to limit his authority to Syria and Baghdadi to Iraq. His negotiating team was murdered near Aleppo by members of the Islamic State.
In September 2013, Zawahiri published what he called General Guidelines for Jihad, an apparent and belated attempt to re-assert Al Qaeda’s ideological authority over the global Salafi jihadist movement. Zawahiri reminded the mujahidin that their main struggle must be conducted against the Americans, whose weakening grip on power has been revealed by the Arab Spring. Fighting against “deviant sects”, like the Shi’a, ought also to be avoided except in the case of self-defence and even then only in proportion to the danger posed.
Zawahiri warned the mujahidin to:
refrain from killing non-combatant women and children… from harming Muslims by explosions, killing [or] kidnapping… [and] from targeting enemies in mosques, markets and gatherings where they mix with Muslims or those who do not fight us.
Zawahiri’s guidelines were an attempt to rescue the Salafi jihadist movement from what he regarded as the grievous strategic, jurisprudential and sectarian errors introduced into it in Iraq by Zarqawi and his successors. Its publication formalised an ideological division in Salafi jihadism, between ISIS and Al Qaeda, as fundamental as the split that tore the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks apart in the years before the Russian Revolution.
Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor of Politics and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University.