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Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Taliban. Why jihadis are fighting each other

ISIS
©EPA/STR  |   Worshipers pray at the Al-Noori Al-Kabeer mosque, next to flag used by the Islamic State (IS), in Mosul city, northern Iraq, 09 July 2014.

A few days before the last US army carrier took off from Kabul airport, on August 26, 2021, a terrorist made his way through the crowd waiting at one of the boarding gates and blew himself up. It was the bloodiest terrorist attack in the history of Afghanistan, a gruesome carnage that killed over 180 civilians, US military and Taliban fighters, who had been sent to the airport particularly to prevent bloodshed – the insurgents had captured Kabul (and the rest of Afghanistan), and their interest was to see the Americans gone as quickly as possible, not give them reasons to stay. Right from the outset, it was clear for everyone that the Taliban hadn’t been behind the attack, which was shortly afterwards claimed by the Islamic State – the Khorasan Province (ISKP). Terrorist organizations couldn’t care less there would be Taliban too in the airport area. In the weeks that followed, people understood that for ISKP, the war was not over with the Americans’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. More jihadist attacks followed targeting the Taliban, mostly in the Nangarhar province, a hotbed of ISKP activity, as well as in the capital city Jalalabad. An ISKP terrorist cell was destroyed in Kabul on October 4, however not before it had managed to stage a bomb attack targeting the funeral of a Taliban leader’s mother.

This war among Muslim extremists might seem peculiar. Their ideologies are strikingly similar. Most of their fighters originate from the same region and share the same cultural and ethnic background. Their number one enemy is the West, embodied by the United States, whose withdrawal from Afghanistan is perceived by many as a defeat.

Rather, their rivalry is more nuanced and has to do with their divergent worldviews and their distinctive approach to religion and jihad. Their dispute is also highly political, as they both fight for supremacy and prestige. Finally, their clash reflects the old rivalry between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Jihadis in the country of black standards

The conflict between ISKP and the Taliban has been already raging for over six years, ever since some of the disgruntled members in the Taliban camp – particularly its Pakistani faction – branched out from the Taliban and swore allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdad, who had proclaimed himself the leader of the Caliphate under the name Ibrahim. The newly-founded organization received a typical name for branches of the Islamic State – the Khorasan Province. The choice of the term “province” has to do with the Islamic State’s understanding of the entire Muslim world as a trans-national structure spanning across the globe, a caliphate divided in provinces. As for Khorasan, this was the medieval name of the region extending from Persia to Transoxiana, overlapping with territories in present-day Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan. The territory claimed by ISKP is somewhat larger than Old Khorasan.

ISKP bases of operations are too far from the centers in Iraq and Syria to allow the militant group to coordinate with it, and whatever troops it managed to recruit were far too insignificant to pose a real threat to the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the American forces in the region or the Taliban movement. There is, however, one aspect of major symbolic importance, which has somewhat boosted ISKP’s reputation within the Islamic State “family”: the role Khorasan plays for jihadis in general and for the apocalyptic vision of the Islamic State in particular. There is one prophecy attributed to Muhammad, saying that Khorasan is the place of origin for the army of Mahdi, a messianic figure of Islam thought to lead the final battle between good and evil. According to this prophecy, Mahdi’s army will be recognized after the black standards brandished by its soldiers, and won’t stop until it reaches Jerusalem. The flags wielded by al-Qaeda and the Islamic state are also black, which is also the color of the turbans worn by some of the Pahstuns (many of whom are Taliban). Osama bin Laden himself referenced the black standard prophecy when he declared a global jihad against the West in 1996, “in the high Hindukush mountains in Khurasan”.

The discontentment that prompted some of the Taliban to join forces with the Islamic State created the breeding ground for the conflict between the two organizations, although there are some more serious reasons.

The bone of contention revolved around their objectives. The Taliban are a local organization. They have displayed no interest in fighting a global jihad, not even when they offered safe haven to members of al-Qaeda, who were driven by such a purpose, nor did they want any part in conflicts closer to home, when they sheltered militants coming from different countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Their goal has always been to control Afghanistan. This became clear as day the moment they accepted to negotiate with the Americans, when they signed a peace agreement, and when they refrained from staging any attacks on American forces for a year and a half, until the USA fully withdrew from Afghanistan.

The Islamic State, on the other hand, sees jihad as a global war fought in the entire Muslim world (and beyond) which cannot end until all the enemies of Islam, domestic and foreign, are defeated and driven away, meaning any ceasefire, including with the United States, is out of the question.

Another aspect where the Taliban and the Islamic State differ is the level of violence each is willing to resort to. Just like with other states where it set up affiliates, in Afghanistan the Islamic State seems determined to best all other local militant groups in terms of brutality. It’s not that the Taliban’s hands aren’t stained with blood – they are responsible for a long string of suicide attacks, assassinations, swift executions, and assaults on non-military targets, etc. Nevertheless, over the years, the organization has grown more cautious when it came to slaughtering civilians. The official story of the organization is that it emerged in order to put an end to the abuse of civilians in the years of chaos ensuing the Soviets’ withdrawal. They pretended to offer the alternative virtues of Islam to offset the depravation and overarching abuses of local warlords who had assumed control of the country. Whereas the Islamic State claims it is only fighting to defend its faith and all is permitted in the name of Islam, the Taliban pose as defenders of the people, of whom they are part and parcel and whom they are saving by applying the Islamic law, the sharia, or their understanding of it. For this very reason, the Taliban are not interested in antagonizing the population, but rather in winning “their hearts and minds”, as the Americans would say.

The great jihadist schism. Emirate versus caliphate

The fight for people’s “hearts and minds” underlies the struggle between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, whose early days are also tied to the war in Iraq. The most brutal group at the time was led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had pledged an oath of allegiance (albeit remote) to Osama bin Laden, linking his organization to the al-Qaeda network. In the mid-2000s, the al-Qaeda in Iraq became known in the entire world by means of kidnappings, beheadings captured on film and suicide bomb attacks targeting primarily civilians and even children who happened to be around receiving sweet handouts or playing football. Many of the victims were Sunni Muslims, just like terrorist themselves, and the killing of another Muslim is specifically forbidden in the Quran, been condemned by Muhammad himself. al-Qaeda’s abuses extended to such lengths, that they started bothering the very leadership of the terrorist organization, who had had no qualms massacring thousands of Western civilians in the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, warning they risked losing the media war for the “hearts and minds”. Zarqawi wouldn’t let himself intimidated or rebuked by his superior and thoroughly explained that suicide attacks are required in an asymmetric war, and that killing Muslims is permitted as long as it is all in the name of Islam. “Collateral” victims of a suicide attack die in the name of jihad, albeit against their will, al-Zarqawi argues, which makes them shahids, martyrs who are rewarded in the afterlife.

The conflict between Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the al-Qaeda leadership didn’t go past this point, so the break between al-Qaeda and its affiliate in Iraq was temporarily avoided. Still, al-Zarqawi went on fighting his jihad as he saw fit, and the brutality and actions independent of al-Qaeda that the organization (renamed the Islamic State of Iraq after joining forces with a number of smaller terrorist cells) pursued in Iraq survived him. After civil war broke out in Syria, the al-Qaeda leaders ordered the Islamic State of Iraq to set up an affiliate in Syria. The Islamic State of Iraq accepted, but wanted to incorporate the new branch, called the al-Nusra Front. It merged with whatever Front factions that agreed and created the Islamic State of Iraq the Levant, and declared war on those that refused.

The violent break between al-Qaeda and its former affiliate in Iraq can be considered the start of the “great jihadist schism”. The last bridges between the two militant groups would be forever burned two years later, in 2014, when the Islamic State proclaimed the Caliphate and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed himself caliph. All jihadis dream of restoring the Caliphate, which in theory should encapsulate all territories home to Muslims and should be led by a caliph resembling Muhammad’s first successors, the so-called “rightly-guided caliphs”. The caliph should fulfill a number of criteria and be elected by the entire community or its representatives, which is at present impossible given the fragmentation of the Muslim world. Hence, in practice, jihadist leaders preferred to proclaim themselves emirs (from amir al-Mu'minin, “commander of the faithful”, a military title conferred to the caliphs themselves) and create emirates, territories that may be expanded through conquest. The emirate also allows cooperation among different groups, whereas the caliphate entails subordination, since all have to swear allegiance to the caliph. By proclaiming the caliphate, the Islamic State implicitly claimed the leadership of more than just the entire jihadist movement: they claimed the leadership of all Muslims. And that was something Al-Qaeda, whose leadership in the global jihad had remained unchallenged, could simply not accept. 

Brand power and leading by example

After relations between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State broke down, the two organizations locked horns over the leadership of the global jihadist movement. Each of them tried to draw closer or set up as many cells as possible from all over the world. The Al-Shabab group in Somalia joined al-Qaeda, while Boko Haram joined the Islamic State. Both organizations have affiliates in Sahel, a region that has seen rising jihadist activity. The al-Qaeda “branch” in Syria continues to control territories in Idlib, while the Islamic State – Khorasan Province is active in Afghanistan. Still, these are all drawn-out networks, organizations with obscure connections that act independently. They each have specific objectives, although they share the same ideology and believe in a common end goal, a great Muslim nation living within the borders of the same state, according to sharia.

Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have lost much of their previous strength. Any surviving al-Qaeda leaders are now in hiding and avoid communicating with their lieutenants for fear of getting caught. The messages they send to recruit new adepts and boost fighters’ morale have grown quite scarce. In turn, the Islamic State is but a shadow of the caliphate founded in Iraq and Syria, which was destroyed, most of its fighters being killed or captured. All that is left is the brand that each organization created. Al-Qaeda plotted and carried out the biggest terrorist attack in history, striking at the heart of a global superpower. The Islamic State managed to create the biggest (quasi)jihadist state so far. Jihadis with regional or global aspirations have something to look up to.

And yet the truly inspirational success story of Islamist fighters engaged in jihad is that of the Afghan Mujahideen – an Islamic militant group who defeated the USSR. Thirty years on, the Taliban, some of them former Mujahideen, have celebrated what they considered the defeat of another global superpower, the United States. Without laying any claim on the global jihadist movement, the Taliban have what it takes to shape it from the top down. All they have to do is win the PR war with the ISKP.


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  • This war among Muslim extremists might seem peculiar. Their ideologies are strikingly similar. Most of their fighters originate from the same region and share the same cultural and ethnic background. Their number one enemy is the West, embodied by the United States, whose withdrawal from Afghanistan is perceived by many as a defeat. Rather, their rivalry is more nuanced and has to do with their divergent worldviews and their distinctive approach to religion and jihad. Their dispute is also highly political, as they both fight for supremacy and prestige. Finally, their clash reflects the old rivalry between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
  • The bone of contention revolved around their objectives. The Taliban are a local organization. They have displayed no interest in fighting a global jihad, not even when they offered safe haven to members of al-Qaeda, who were driven by such a purpose, nor did they want any part in conflicts closer to home, when they sheltered militants coming from different countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Their goal has always been to control Afghanistan.
  • By proclaiming the caliphate, the Islamic State implicitly claimed the leadership of more than just the entire jihadist movement. And that was something Al-Qaeda, whose leadership in the global jihad had remained unchallenged, could simply not accept.
  • Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have lost much of their previous strength. Any surviving al-Qaeda leaders are now in hiding and avoid communicating with their lieutenants for fear of getting caught. The messages they send to recruit new adepts and boost fighters’ morale have grown quite scarce. In turn, the Islamic State is but a shadow of the caliphate founded in Iraq and Syria, which was destroyed, most of its fighters being killed or captured. All that is left is the brand that each organization created.
  • The truly inspirational success story of Islamist fighters engaged in jihad is that of the Afghan Mujahideen – an Islamic militant group who defeated the USSR. Thirty years on, the Taliban, some of them former Mujahideen, have celebrated what they considered the defeat of another global superpower, the United States. Without laying any claim on the global jihadist movement, the Taliban have what it takes to shape it from the top down. All they have to do is win the PR war with the ISKP.
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