Hani al Sibai, an ideologue who is highly respected within al Qaeda, has called on al Qaeda’s senior leadership and the group’s regional branches to address the Islamic State’s announced caliphate. Sibai has long been a critic of the Islamic State. And he doesn’t think al Qaeda’s quiet response to the group’s attempted power grab within the jihadist world is sufficient.
“The silence of #Khorasan_leadership and its branches regarding the announcement of the new caliphate is not wise,” Sibai wrote in Arabic in a tweet on July 8. The jihadists’ Khorasan is a geographic area that includes Afghanistan and Pakistan, where al Qaeda’s senior leadership is based.
Sibai’s tweet continues: “Suggestions and innuendoes will not do! An explicit…statement is necessary, for this intense issue is mighty.”
Sibai’s tweet was quickly retweeted by al Qaeda supporters and at least one official in the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. The Al Nusrah Front has been fighting with the Islamic State for months.
Thus far, neither al Qaeda’s leadership, nor any of its formal branches (often called affiliates), has responded to the Islamic State’s announcement that it now ruled over a caliphate, with Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the group’s leader, serving as “Caliph Ibrahim.”
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released two messages just days later, including one that heaped praise on Zawahiri. Sibai retweeted both of AQAP’s messages, but the organization made no mention of the Islamic State or Baghdadi in either of them. And al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) also released a message praising the jihadists’ advances in Iraq and calling for reconciliation in Syria, but that statement was written before the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) rebranded itself as the Islamic State and announced its caliphate.
Ayman al Zawahiri has known and trusted Sibai for decades. So when Sibai talks, Zawahiri listens.
In April, Sibai was one of the several leading jihadists who called on Zawahiri to address specific aspects of al Qaeda’s ongoing dispute with the ISIS/Islamic State.
A few weeks later, in early May, Zawahiri responded by releasing a new message, “Testimonial to Preserve the Blood of Mujahideen in al Sham.” Although Zawahiri had addressed the infighting between the Islamic State and its jihadist rivals a number of times before and he was “content” with his previous testimony, Zawahiri said he decided to broach the topic once more because of his respect for the “venerable” Sibai. In a three-page document released in late May, Zawahiri again cited the request from Sibai, as well as other jihadists, as the reason why he decided to discuss events in Syria.
It remains to be seen if and when al Qaeda addresses the Islamic State’s claims. Al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, As Sahab, announced the same day as Sibai’s tweet (July 8) that it was releasing three new productions. Judging by their titles, the three messages do not explicitly address recent events in Iraq. One is a message from deceased al Qaeda master Osama bin Laden. The second is part of Zawahiri’s ongoing “Days with the Imam” series, which reviews bin Laden’s life. The third stars two “martyred” jihadists discussing the Arab revolutions that began in 2011. The content of the three productions may have some historical bearing on the situation, however.
Sibai, like some other pro-al Qaeda jihadists, initially praised the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq in June. In one tweet, Sibai used the hashtag “#Liberation_of_Mosul.” Sibai’s tweet reads, “The joy of controlling the city should not make us forget that the enemy is plotting and will not hesistate to bomb it with planes.”
“I wonder who has been wounded with sadness due to the ongoing news about the liberation of #Mosul,” Sibai wrote in another tweet. “[T]his day is a critical and gloomy day for the Shi’ites and the rulers who have given up the Gulf states to [Iranian leader] Khamenei.”
In a third tweet written in June, Sibai said that if the ISIS “breaks its blockade on #Deir_Ezzor and moves to reinforce its forces in Mosul or to the war against the butcher Bashar [al Assad] and his paramilitary that would be the best for the elderly Muslims.” The ISIS, now known as the Islamic State, has been fighting the Al Nusrah Front and other groups in Deir Ezzor. Sibai, therefore, was hoping that the Islamic State would leave the fight against its fellow jihadists in eastern Syria to focus on Assad’s regime in Syria and Maliki’s government in Iraq. The Islamic State continued to fight its jihadist rivals in Syria, however, and even gained ground.
Sibai’s praise for the Islamic State’s military advances in Iraq was short-lived, as he soon returned to criticizing the group. And he has now invited al Qaeda to do the same and criticize the Islamic State’s caliphate.
Oren Adaki, a research associate and Arabic language specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, contributed to this article.