Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of al Qaeda’s official branches, posted a statement on jihadist forums on July 1 praising the Islamic State’s recent military gains in Iraq. AQIM also calls for reconciliation between the ISIS and rival jihadist groups in Syria. The message was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
The statement was authored on June 22, one week before the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) rebranded itself as the Islamic State and declared that it now ruled over a caliphate. The Islamic State’s controversial caliphate announcement is not, therefore, addressed in AQIM’s statement.
AQIM’s message is addressed to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), which is how the group will be referred to here.
AQIM begins by praising “the victories of our people the Sunnis in Iraq under the command of their mujahideen sons, and on top of them the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham” (ISIS). Interestingly, AQIM argues that ISIS’ advances in Iraq have “alleviated our calamity in” Syria and “mended the rift and directed arrows of the mujahideen to the necks of the enemies of the Ummah and the religion: the Crusaders, the [Shiites], and the apostates.”
Therefore, AQIM sees ISIS’ advances in Iraq as aiming the jihadists’ “arrows” at their appropriate common enemies, instead of one another. However, the gains made by the ISIS in Iraq have not put an end to the infighting in Syria, where the ISIS and its rivals have battled for months.
After calling for broad support for the jihad in Iraq, AQIM’s statement then says the jihadist factions should reconcile their differences. AQIM first addresses the ISIS. “We call upon our mujahideen brothers in Iraq and on top of them, our brothers in the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham [ISIS], to take advantage of these conquests and winds of victory to gather and meet, and forget the past of dispute and conflict, and open a new page with their brothers,” the group’s statement reads, according to SITE’s translation.
Without naming any specific groups in Syria, AQIM addresses jihadists there, arguing that they should support the ISIS’ efforts in Iraq. “We call upon our mujahideen brothers in Sham to strongly support the conquests of their brothers in Iraq and protect their backs and provide them with what they need to continue their march and complete their victory, as recommended by our Sheikh and Emir Sheikh Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, may Allah preserve and protect him, because Iraq is a debt upon the entire Ummah.”
By referring to Zawahiri as “our Sheikh and Emir,” AQIM clearly states that Zawahiri is the group’s overall leader. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, famously disobeyed Zawahiri’s orders, leading al Qaeda’s general command to disown Baghdadi’s group in early February. Baghdadi and the ISIS have been attempting to win the support of al Qaeda’s regional branches, including AQIM, since then. However, AQIM’s statement does not indicate that AQIM is siding with Baghdadi over Zawahiri.
The statement’s mention of Zawahiri’s recommendation is likely a reference to the al Qaeda emir’s repeated calls for the ISIS to abandon the jihad in Syria and return to the fight in Iraq. In early May, Zawahiri released a message entitled, “Testimonial to Preserve the Blood of Mujahideen in al Sham.” Zawahiri argued that the expansion of Baghdadi’s group into Syria has been a “political catastrophe for the people of the Levant.” Zawahiri urged Baghdadi to return to Iraq so that the jihad in Syria would no longer be weakened by the intra-jihadist rivalries.
There is no evidence that the ISIS was in fact complying with Zawahiri’s directive when it launched its offensive in Iraq in June. But AQIM is attempting to use the ISIS’ gains in Iraq as a basis for reconciling Baghdadi’s group with al Qaeda and affiliated groups. Thus, the group links the jihadist gains in Iraq to Zawahiri’s stated goals.
Calls for reconciliation not new
AQIM’s statement echoes previous calls for reconciliation in Syria. Al Qaeda’s senior leadership has repeatedly called for reconciliation, even as the ISIS has denounced its former parent organization and taken the fight to its fellow jihadists. As recently as May, in fact, Zawahiri made yet another attempt at putting an end to the dispute.
In early March, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released an audio message online in which the al Qaeda branch addressed the infighting in Syria. The message was recorded in the aftermath of Abu Khalid al Suri’s assassination in Syria. Al Suri was al Qaeda’s chief representative in Syria at the time of his death and was presumably killed by fighters dispatched by the ISIS.
“We have one stance toward all groups that wage jihad for the sake of God and we feel sorry for the murder of any of the mujahideen in any group and clear ourselves before God from spilling proscribed blood,” an AQAP representative said in the audio message, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. The message continued: “We, in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have been careful from the beginning to have a brotherly stance toward all the mujahideen. As such, we call upon every Muslim everywhere to keep his hand and tongue away from this sedition and to pray to God sincerely to unite the mujahideen and guide them to the right.”
More recently, the head of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, Abu Iyad al Tunisi, issued a statement that is very similar to AQIM’s. Abu Iyad hailed the mujahideen’s “conquests in the Land of the Two Rivers,” saying they should serve to bring together all of the “jihadist factions that fight to raise the banner of monotheism” and seek to enforce Islamic sharia law. Abu Iyad added that the mujahideen should set aside their differences and “open their hearts to a new comprehensive reconciliation.”
As in AQIM’s statement, Abu Iyad made an explicit reference to Zawahiri, calling him the “doctor of the Ummah” and “sheikh of the Mujahideen.” Abu Iyad also said that he “defers” his “demands” for reconciliation to Zawahiri and the emir of the Al Nusrah Front, Abu Muhammad al Julani. If the pair announce their support for the gains made by the ISIS, other jihadist factions, and the Sunni tribes in Iraq, then it “might result in orders by the lead of the disputing organization that would put an end to infighting.”
Abu Iyad has known ties to AQIM. In January, for example, the State Department designated Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, announcing that it “is ideologically aligned with al Qaeda and tied to its affiliates, including AQIM.”
AQIM desires jihadist cohesion with help of ‘scholars’
There have been numerous attempts by al Qaeda and like-minded jihadists to reconcile the Islamic State with its rivals. These efforts have often centered on influential jihadist ideologues acting as mediators. The initiatives have all failed because the ISIS does not recognize any religious authority other than its own.
Nonetheless, AQIM once again suggests that jihadist “scholars” broker a peace deal.
“We call upon our mujahideen brothers in Iraq and Sham to be cohesive and to be merciful among each other, and to communicate with the active scholars, the symbols of the jihadi current, because the condition of the Ummah cannot be mended but by the goodness of the scholars and emirs, and the condition of the emirs cannot be mended but by the guidance of the scholars,” AQIM says in its statement, according to SITE’s translation.
Indeed, AQIM has long called for leading jihadi ideologues to help settle the dispute.
On Nov. 1, 2013, for instance, Sheikh Abu Yahya al Shinqiti, who serves on AQIM’s sharia committee, released a statement concerning the jihad in Syria.
Al Shinqiti warned the mujahideen to avoid infighting, saying they should be “wary of disputes and division.” Al Shinqiti also took note of the role played by social media, saying that “rumors” circulated online can serve to exaggerate the differences between various factions. (The latest statement from AQIM returns to this theme, saying the jihadists should “cease their campaign of slander and and backbiting on the forums and means of social communication.”)
Al Shinqiti went on to single out Dr. Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini for praise. Al Shinqiti expressed his “gratitude” for al Muhaysini’s fundraising activities, as well as the Saudi’s attempt to established a unified Islamic court for settling the jihadists’ differences in Syria. Al Shinqiti asked Allah to make al Muhaysini successful.
Muhaysini’s efforts failed when the ISIS rejected his initiative in January 2014. Muhaysini, who is, at a minimum, pro-al Qaeda, is closely allied with the ISIS’ rivals in Syria.
Thus, AQIM is keenly aware that the ISIS has rejected the efforts of jihadi ideologues to resolve the ongoing dispute. Still the group calls “upon the scholars of the Ummah and on top of them, our dear sheikhs, the people of honesty and affliction, to continue their quest to defuse the raging war between the mujahideen in Sham, and to work to unite them around the word of truth.”
Since AQIM produced its message on June 22, the ISIS declared itself the new caliphate with virtually no outside support from the jihadi “scholars.” It is unlikely that the group, which is demanding allegiance from jihadis and Muslims around the globe, will listen to these scholars now with respect to events in Syria.