Al Qaeda official warns against Islamic State in new speech

A senior al Qaeda official, Muhammad bin Mahmoud Rabie al Bahtiyti, also known as Abu Dujana al Basha, has released a new audio message seeking to undermine the Islamic State, which was disowned by al Qaeda’s general command in February.

Al Basha’s speech was released by al Qaeda’s official propaganda arm, As Sahab, on Sept. 26. It was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Al Qaeda’s senior leaders have not directly addressed the Islamic State’s claim to rule over a caliphate stretching across large portions of Iraq and Syria. Instead, they have sought to undermine the Islamic State’s ideological legitimacy in a variety of more subtle ways. (Other parts of al Qaeda’s international network have specifically rejected the Islamic State’s caliphate claim.)

Al Basha does not name the Islamic State, but his speech is clearly aimed at the group and its supporters.

Al Basha sets forth al Qaeda’s goals, saying the group is dedicated “to the oneness of Allah … as we call to disbelieve the tyrant and disavow polytheism and its people.” Al Basha says al Qaeda seeks “to establish the absent Shariah and empower this religion.”

It is often claimed, wrongly, that al Qaeda is interested only in attacking the West, or carrying out mass casualty attacks. But the organization has repeatedly stated that its jihadists seek to create societies based on their radical version of sharia law. Al Qaeda wants to build Islamic emirates, or states, based on this sharia. It is for this reason that most of al Qaeda’s resources since its founding have been devoted to waging insurgencies against governments in the Muslim-majority world that it deems to be corrupt.

Imposing sharia and creating Islamic emirates are steps to al Qaeda’s ultimate stated goal, which al Basha explains.

“We call to restore the rightly-guided Caliphate on the prophetic method, and not on the method of deviation, lying, breaking promises, and abrogating allegiances – a caliphate that stands with justice, consultation, and coming together, and not with oppression, infidel-branding the Muslims, killing the monotheists, and dispersing the rank of the mujahideen,” al Basha says, according to SITE’s translation.

Although al Basha does not mention the Islamic State by name, his description of al Qaeda’s proposed caliphate is intended to undermine al Baghdadi’s claim to power. Al Basha’s reference to “abrogating allegiances” is probably a reference to the oath of allegiance (bayat) that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi swore to Ayman al Zawahiri and then broke.

Al Qaeda-allied jihadists have argued against the Islamic State’s caliphate claim, saying it was imposed on Muslims and even jihadists without consultation. And this is a theme in a Basha’s speech.

In al Qaeda’s ideological schema, the caliphate can be resurrected only after respected jihadists give it their seal of approval. Al Baghdadi’s organization has tried to impose its caliphate throughout much of Iraq and Syria, frequently fighting with other jihadist organizations, including the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. Leading jihadist ideologues have criticized Baghdadi’s caliphate on this basis, as well as for other reasons.

Al Basha warns against “extremism,” which, ironically enough, is one of al Qaeda’s key charges against the Islamic State. In Syria and elsewhere, al Qaeda has been attempting to portray itself as a more reasonable jihadist organization. Because the Islamic State refuses to consult with other Muslims and jihadist groups, not just in creating a caliphate, but also in other matters, al Qaeda accuses the group of pursuing an extremist path. Of course, al Qaeda is extremist by any reasonable standard, and has spilled more Muslim than non-Muslim blood throughout its existence. Still, because of the Islamic State’s excessive violence, particularly in Syria, al Qaeda has been marketing itself as a more mainstream jihadist organization.

Al Basha addresses the jihadists’ rank and file, urging them to avoid joining the Islamic State and subtly encouraging Baghdadi’s fighters to defect from his army. Al Basha openly worries that the jihad in Syria has been squandered because of the infighting between the groups opposed to Bashar al Assad’s regime. Al Qaeda blames the infighting on the Islamic State.

“I address my speech and my advice to my brothers on the frontlines in Sham [Syria] among those who have been deceived by slogans and titles, to use your heads and have insight, and to weigh the matters fairly,” al Basha says. “Rescue the ship of jihad, and reach it before it deviates from its course and settles on the path of the people of desires. Strive to turn off the sedition and restore cohesion among the mujahideen.”

At the end of his audio speech, al Basha addresses those jihadists who disapprove of al Qaeda’s understated response to the Islamic State’s caliphate claim. Al Basha says that he and others wanted to defend al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri’s reputation against the Islamic State’s slanders, but Zawahiri ordered them not to.

“The Sheikh [Zawahiri] ordered his brothers to be silent and not protect his honor,” al Basha says. “He considered that out of concern for the benefit of this Ummah [Muslim community], and a hope that Allah will fix the condition, and that the sedition will be suppressed.”

Al Qaeda’s leaders and branches have repeatedly urged the jihadists in Syria to reconcile. However, their efforts have been fruitless.

Veteran al Qaeda leader

Al Basha has taken on a more prominent and public role for al Qaeda in recent years. In December 2013, he argued that jihad is necessary to implement sharia law in Egypt. In late August he issued a statement urging followers to strike American and Israeli interests in support of Muslims in Gaza.

Although al Basha was not initially a public persona for al Qaeda, he was well-known to US counterterrorism officials for years. In January 2009, the US Treasury Department designated al Basha as an al Qaeda terrorist, noting that he was Zawahiri’s son-in-law. Al Basha was located in Iran at the time.

Treasury found that he “served on an al Qaeda military committee and provided military training that included urban warfare tactics for al Qaeda members.” Among other duties, al Basha “drafted training manuals for al Qaeda as well as a book on security that was used as a template for al Qaeda’s surveillance operations.”

Al Basha is a longtime member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad as well as al Qaeda, and was reportedly involved in al Qaeda’s 1995 bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Zawahiri tasked al Basha with moving members of Zawahiri’s family to Iran after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Thomas Joscelyn:
    Thank you for this post. Am I right in thinking that SITE’s translation, “infidel-branding the Muslims” refers to takfirism, ie that AQ is here specifically denying that they are a takfiri outfit?

  • g says:

    Here’s what I take away from this. If you imagine a time when either ISIS or al Qaeda are successful and establish a ideal caliphate according to their wildest dreams, there will be other Muslims that will find a trivial contention to their thinking or action sufficient to justify a declaration of apostasy and justify opposing and fighting those infidels.
    In other words, some Muslims will never be happy. Death, war and violence are their raison d’etre.

  • Tom says:

    FSA holdouts in Raqqah have now defected to IS or left the province. IS now has almost complete control of the Euphrates river in Syria and Raqqah is the first province to be completely under their control.
    The Airstrikes are strengthening IS, not weakening it. As far as Sunnis are now concerned, Obama has sided with Assad who is murdering them and IS is at least Sunni and not corrupt no matter how much they dislike their interpretation of Sharia.
    Obama had one audience to convince, the Sunnis, not the American public. Now he has lost the Sunnis and the result will be another Vietnam where we made a similar mistake.

  • Soldiers are soldiers whether they be jihadi or not. They want charisma in their leadership, victories under their belts, and some bounty if its available. al Qaeda has had their chance in the view of the jihadist world and now they are being supplanted by the latest and greatest.
    Basha is just whining like all losers do in internal struggles like this. Also, as g pointed out above…..the “rightly guided Caliph’ is ….. just like all perfect politicians ….. a red herring and totally non-existent. The slogans of jihadism is just so much BS.

  • blert says:

    WHAT FSA holdouts. They don’t exist.
    The holdouts are factions aligned with al Nusrah.
    And, yes, those boys ARE hooking up with ISIS.
    ISIS has a three-way deal running:
    1) It’s absolutely no secret that Assad and ISIS are ‘pals’ dealing in the oil market. No, we’re not talking about a couple of gallons refined and sold to local Turks. We’re talking the BIG money: crude oil exported to Europe — at Turkish ocean terminals.
    2) It’s ILLEGAL for any European outfit to pay ISIS. (directly)
    3) It’s always been legal for Europeans to buy Syrian — that is Assad’s — crude oil.
    4) The old arrangement was that the money went — electronically — to an escrow account that split off Turkey’s pipeline fees and Assad’s proceeds. Yes, they never trusted each other. The split is by mutually agreed contract — after a LOT of haggling.
    5) ISIS now totally controls the taps. Assad can sell it, he can’t pump it. ISIS can pump it, but can’t sell it. Turkey can transfer it, and is the actual delivery spigot. (Turkey has massive crude oil pipelines that run east-west across its belly. Syria’s dinky little pipeline was abandoned simply ages ago — over politics. Assad previously consumed a terrific fraction of his own oil internally. It never hit international markets, never transited Turkey at all.)
    6) Having lost access to his own refined petroleum products, Assad is, no doubt, getting his from Putin. By Russian standards, Assad’s needs are a total joke.
    7) The bulk of the Syrian population is still inside Assad’s ‘front lines.’ ISIS owns the desert, lots of sand, not many people. So the Euphrates river valley is just about everything to al Baghdadi.
    8) With his sharply smaller population, al Baghdadi is in a position to swap his crude oil for food in a three-way transaction that Assad finds impossible to refuse.
    a) Pump oil via Turkey to the Med.
    b) Share the proceeds with Assad and Erdogan — with Erdogan representing the interests of ISIS.
    c) The ISIS ‘cut’ is used to import Turkish foodstuffs — critical for the daily bread of ISIS. It can survive on the pitiful outputs of the Euphrates river valley — in wartime, no less.
    d) ISIS responds to Erdogan’s needs:
    i) Frees all Turkish hostages
    ii) Promptly attacks Kurds in Syria. Being fellow Sunnis, the Kurds had been way down the list of al Baghdadi’s priorities. Al Nusrah is at the top.
    e) ISIS and Assad sustain a de facto armistice, which is well noted by al Nusrah and many of the anti-Assad Sunnis. ISIS is missing — every time — from the tip of the spear.
    f) ISIS religiously undercuts al Nusrah. Not withstanding al Baghdadi’s legacy, these are RIVALS.
    ISIS is no longer affiliated with AQ. Quite the reverse is true. They had a total and complete, nasty divorce. Few hatreds are stronger than those between former partners. That’s true up and down the scale. The split is a BLOOD FEUD. This phenomena is scarcely new with Arabs and Muslims.
    I’m constantly amazed at the number of pundits that point back to al Baghdadi’s roots as meaningful. Going forward, all that matters to him is his caliphate. A caliph can have absolutely no equal. Al Baghdadi is “all-in.”
    0bama, even with maximum pressure, (financial-military) is having a brutally difficult time splitting al Baghdadi from Erdogan. Al Baghdadi is doing for Erdogan strategic functions that America will never perform.
    Crushing the Kurds is the number one strategic concern for Erdogan. One should expect him to drag his feet — just about forever — coughing up half-measures — just enough to keep him in NATO.
    He also hates Assad, the very man he has to split the money with. And Erdogan is in a financial box. If he could get ISIS recognized as a proper nation, then Syrian oil could be sold without having Assad in the loop. But, as it stands, the Europeans are standing pat. Due to American pressure their prior intent to deal directly with ISIS/ the “FSA” has totally collapsed.
    (If you scan the open literature, the Europeans held a big confab many months ago to permit just exactly that! The talk was that 100,000 bbl per day was at issue. This came up shortly after the revolution took over Assad’s oil pumps. The oil market is so tight that even 100,000 bbl/ day is a big deal. AFAIK, the crude oil is STILL flowing, unabated — per the three-way deal described above.)
    The three-way deal works because every one of the players is desperate for the money. ($10,000,000 per day to split up. This largely explains the White House figure released to the press. The NSA can read all of the SWIFT financial transactions — even if the players didn’t spill the beans. But, the Europeans have shown the Americans all of the cards, anyway.) And everyone expects to re-work the deal once they prevail on the battlefield.
    The crazy idea that al Baghdadi is retailing $2,000,000 per day to south Turkish auto drivers is a TOTAL joke. The money is NOT in the pitiful volume of refined products.
    The mobile refineries are powering al Baghdadi’s army. THAT’S why they’re being hit.


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