After Iraq-Syria Takeover, the Inside Story of How ISIL Destroyed Al-Qaida from Within

Jun 11, 2015 by

A year ago this month, fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State declared they had established a caliphate in the territories they controlled in Iraq and Syria. Since then the Islamic State has continued to grow, building affiliates from Afghanistan to West Africa, while recruiting new members from across the globe. In response, President Obama has sent thousands of U.S. troops back to Iraq. The deployment of another 450 troops was announced on Wednesday. Meanwhile the rise of the Islamic State has reshaped the jihadist movement in the region, essentially bringing al-Qaida to the brink of collapse. According to a new investigation by the Guardian, the Islamic State has successfully launched “a coup” against al-Qaida to destroy it from within. The Islamic State began as al-Qaida’s branch in the heart of the Middle East but was excommunicated in 2014 after disobeying commands from al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. While the Islamic State has since flourished, the Guardian reports al-Zawahiri is now largely cut off from his commanders and keeping the group afloat through little more than appeals to loyalty. We are joined by Guardian reporter Shiv Malik.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: A year ago this month fighters from the Islamic State declared they had established a caliphate in the territories they controlled in Iraq and Syria. Since then, the Islamic State has continued to grow, building affiliates from Afghanistan to West Africa, while recruiting new members from across the globe. In response, President Obama has sent thousands of U.S. troops back to Iraq. The deployment of another 450 troops was announced on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the rise of the Islamic State has reshaped the jihadist movement in the region, essentially bringing al-Qaeda to the brink of collapse.

AMY GOODMAN: According to a new investigation by The Guardian, the Islamic State has successfully launched a coup against al-Qaeda to destroy it from within. The Islamic State began as al-Qaeda’s branch in the heart of the Middle East, but was excommunicated in 2014 after disobeying commands from al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. While the Islamic State has since flourished, The Guardian reports al-Zawahiri is now largely cut off from his commanders and keeping the group afloat through little more than appeals to loyalty. The Guardian also reports the United States has been slow to grasp the implications of al-Qaeda’s decline and possible collapse. Joining us now from London is Shiv Malik, lead author on The Guardian investigation headlined, “How Isis Crippled al-Qaeda.” Shiv, if you could talk about, well, just how ISIS crippled al-Qaeda and your meeting in Jordan with the leading al-Qaeda theorists.

SHIV MALIK: This is been going on for a while now, for a couple of years at least. From the outside, we get little pictures. You hear these skirmishes that have been going on. You hear that, sort of, ISIS has killed a few other members of al-Qaeda, the, sort of, Syrian branch of al-Qaeda called Jabhat al-Nusra. There was a big confrontation last year in January 2014 in which thousands died. But the real inside story of this comes from just actually a few players, really. Thankfully, we were able to interview Muhammad al-Maqdisi and another guy called Abu Qatada. To British people, he’s quite famous because he lived here for many years and home secretary here — actually, various home secretaries tried to deport him over a process of almost 10 years to Jordan to face terrorism charges.

He was acquitted of those eventually. But, he’s been described as, kind of, al-Qaeda’s spiritual — or Bin Laden’s spiritual ambassador in Europe. And Maqdisi, who’s actually little known in the west is actually more senior than Qatada in regards to al-Qaeda. What they have been doing is, actually, behind-the-scenes, kind of negotiating between al-Qaeda and ISIS, trying to bring these people back to the table. And they finally gave up about, sort of, six months ago or thereabouts, because they all used to be one family. It used to be, if you want, the al-Qaeda family. So that is the story that we got from them. Which is this process of, about over two years, of how ISIS has sort of risen to take the mantle of the leadership of the global jihad, if you want, from al-Qaeda.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And Shiv Malik, could you explain how you came to research this story and you went to Jordan to speak to these two figures? Could you talk a little about that?

SHIV MALIK: Yeah. So Maqdisi and Qatada are, kind of, for obvious reasons — both have — well Maqdisi also has, sort of, terrorist convictions, but they’re in and out of prison all the time. As you can imagine. Maqdisi without charge. He’s just, sort of, taken by Jordanian security services and, sort of, locked up. But he was released in February again, and so we went to visit him then, sort of soon afterwards. And then we carried on interviewing him. We’ve got — there’s a big team of investigators that were on this piece, and so we continued to interview him and ask him questions. And actually, when you meet him, you don’t really know what you’re going to get. This guy is the spiritual godfather of al-Qaeda and Zawahiri counts him as a personal friend. He’s been mentor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He mentored him, and Zarqawi is the founder of ISIS if you want. He mentored him for five years in prison, and Zarqawi then went on, of course, to create absolute havoc in Iraq in 20013, beheading people, massacring Shia’s by the thousands.

So you don’t know what to expect. But when you meet him, he is a very interesting guy. He is completely energetic, enthusiastic, he’s almost childlike in his enthusiasm for talking about almost anything. His hands flail all over the place. He’s rake thin. And he’s got a real sense of humor, which sort of throws you; you don’t really know what to do. Qatada, on the other hand, is this very large, lumbering man and he’s very tall, and, physically, in that sense, quite intimidating. It’s hard to grasp just how big this guy is from some of the pictures that we have. He speaks very quietly and almost has, like, Marlon Brando in The Godfather but slightly higher pitched. And he pauses a lot. They make an odd pair, if you want. But, we went to speak to them, and they were both very upset. They’ve spent — their life’s work has basically breen bringing to jihadis under one banner. And for that, that was al-Qaeda. So al-Qaeda is not just an organization, which we know has been incredibly ruthless and bloody and plotting away at terrorism events around the globe, they’re also an idea. And the idea is twofold.

First, and we often look at this from the Western perspective, but these guys have their own agency. So the first part of this is that al-Qaeda was created as a kind of failure, a response to the failures of kind of local jihadist issues going back to the 1980’s and 1990’s and Algeria, for example, being a failure and Afghanistan. So the idea is that they would all come together under one banner and they would attack and they would put their focus on America. Because they said, this theory was — look, attack the snakes head, if you want. And so that’s what they did. And they planned against that, obviously, culminating most viscously in September 11.

The scholars then — this was their idea. But the second part of this is there is also a vanguard for a revolutionary idea of setting up the caliphate. Those who are [indiscernible] with, kind of, what happened with the Communist movement will know about vanguardist organizations — but the idea is that they educate the people to accepting the notion of an Islamic state and then they eventually, one day, set it up. So this is what al-Qaeda has meant for these two scholars. Isis had been quietly bubbling away. They have alway been — they have been a branch of — they’ve been al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq. That’s the best way to think of them. And they have been for a very long time. The most troublesome branch as well. They, kind of, don’t listen to orders, don’t take criticism very well, won’t listen to anyone. Bin Laden had problems with them and we know that from the Abadabad documents that have come out, the tranche of documents that were seized when Americans went in and killed bin Laden in 2011 in May. But we also know this from, then, subsequently what’s happened and what Zawahiri has said publicly. So they have been very troublesome.

At one point, the piece was broken, if you want, when when ISIS sent — when the Syrian civil war started, they sent some people into Syria, and they said, we’ll grab some turf, we’ll start a branch there. And the people who then went on to lead that bunch of rebels, fighting against Assad, when on to become incredibly powerful. And ISIS in Iraq say, we’re a bit threatened by this, I’ll tell you what, we’ll just create a merger. It’s that point that — it was basically a bit of a power play over territory and patches of land and who would control what — Zawahiri steps in and says, actually, let’s just put things back to where they were. Baghdadi steps up and says, no way. You know what, we’re not going to do this. We don’t need you, old man in Waziristan, anymore. And if you tell us otherwise, we’re just not going to listen to you.

So that’s what starts a giant civil war, basically, and eventually it gets to the point where, as I said in January 2014, just all hell breaks loose. And jihadis just keep killing jihadis and veterans from al-Qaeda are killed, and people in ISIS are killed, and it’s incredibly messy. It’s almost impossible to keep track of. We spent a very long time trying to piece together bit by bit which villages ISIS were taking over, who was getting killed when, who was saying what. At one point, they even killed —- ISIS ended up killing Zawahiri’s emissary which he’d sent over to make peace; they killed him too. So it was incredibly vicious and incredibly bloody. In step with scholars -—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, very soon —- Shiv Malik -—


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Very soon after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, there was already a split, a falling out between Maqdisi whom you spoke to and Zarqawi, who was initial leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the so-called — the precursor to ISIS. So could you talk about what the ideological divisions are between these two groups and in particular, focus what their position came to be on the recruitment of former Baath leaders within this movement, the position of ISIS versus the position of al-Qaeda, what it had been and what it became?

SHIV MALIK: In terms of ideological divisions, the big division came when ISIS set up this caliphate. They declared this caliphate, and they said al-Qaeda is supposed to be the vanguardis organization and there they are, ISIS, setting up a caliphate and saying, you know, the revolution is complete. We’ve done it. We have set up the caliphate. We have got there finally. And that has also made, in that sense, al-Qaeda, a bit redundant. They managed, ISIS, to hold onto this caliphate for a whole year now, almost; we’re coming up to the anniversary in a couple of weeks. Which is remarkable. So that is certainly one ideological difference. And with that, they have been able to — ISIS has been able to capture the imagination of young radicals and who had already been susceptible to this, and also the funders. The money and the men, the prestige it all going to ISIS at this point in time. And al-Qaeda then was being drained of all of that; of that pool. So they have been really left on the back foot.

Now, these scholars are saying, Maqdisi and Qatada that we spoke to, have said, look, actually, these guys aren’t the real deal. And that’s why they, sort of, stepped in. They said, we’re the elite scholarship. If you’re more than gangsters, and you’re ideologues, then you’ve got to listen to us because we are the people who wrote the books. So they stepped in and ISIS basically, completely — there was a long period of time when they thought maybe there could be some reconciliation. Baghdadi actually wrote a letter to Maqdisi and said, please, come join us in the caliphate. Come see what it’s like, judge for yourself.

There was some suggestion from these two when we interviewed them that if they went they would never come back; they might get killed. So they’re also, obviously, sort of frightened as well. And there was a situation as well — a security situation in Jordan — where, again, these two might get bumped off because they had been so critical of ISIS. Someone might just appear masked and gunned them down. So there’s been that, as I said, that fact aside — but ultimately, they want the same thing in the end, and these are to Westerners certainly, very petty ideological differences.

AMY GOODMAN: Shiv Malik, this may sound like a far out question, but could you see any scenario in which the U.S. would side with al-Qaeda against ISIS?

SHIV MALIK: Not really. And they shouldn’t. It is not like al-Qaeda are friends of America by any means. In fact, they’re still very much focused on attacking America. And that’s how they — this is where they find their niche now. If their marketplace has been closed down for them by ISIS, some of it anyway, then they, again, they reformulate themselves on doubling what they did before, which is to attack the West and gain, if you want, prestige from that, to appeal to their own base. And that should be very worrying for the West.

Now, that doesn’t mean that America should simply carry on focusing on al-Qaeda and not re-gear its intelligence machine, its military machine towards Isis. If you were wondering what’s a greater threat, ISIS certainly is. And the reason is, is because, as I mentioned before, they have a patch of land. It’s actually a very sizable territory with a massive city of a couple million people in Mosul in Iraq which they are in charge of. And this is very worrying because this idea is now real. They’ve managed to say to the world, actually, we’ve held it for a year. We’ve even expanded it by taking Ramadi, which is another major city in Iraq, and, look, clearly, God’s on our side. These people are, in that sense, people of faith and religion. And if the caliphate carries on existing it must be that we’re on the winning side. So America should re-gear. And what they’ve announced already, what seems to have been reported was, you know, they’re going to send over a few other thousand people over to Iraq, or a couple of hundred over as extra advisors to advise the Iraqi army. I’m not sure if that will be enough but we’ll see.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And before we conclude, Shiv Malik, could you talk about the significance of the civil war in Syria in precipitating the self proclaimed Islamic State’s rise and the collapse or near collapse of al-Qaeda?

SHIV MALIK: The Civil War has allowed for chaos and in that sense — these people are sort of like gangsters or drug dealers. They need turf, and they need turf so they can get money and, as I said, recruits. And it’s like a business in that sense, it has to keep itself going. And Syria provided that field once the revolution broke out, Assad then brutally put people down and killed them and slaughtered them. And then people decided to arm themselves and that created chaos. Then, in stepped, as I said, in stepped ISIS, who were over the border, or ISI, as they were known then, and sent people over to, sort of, take advantage of all of this. So in that sense, they have taken advantage completely of what has been going on, but that is not to say that people shouldn’t want to resist Assad. They should, you know. He’s been using chemical weapons and certainly chlorine bombs on his population. He is a despicable dictator. So the question — it is a complete mess. And someone at some point is going to have to step in, whether it’s European and American forces or something else. And sort that out. But until then, as I said, ISIS will certainly take advantage of it. And they’re doing well out of it financially.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Shiv Malik, for joining us, investigative reporter at The Guardian, lead author of their new in-depth report, “How Isis crippled al-Qaeda: The inside story of the coup that has brought the world’s most feared terrorist network to the brink of collapse.” Shiv was speaking to us in London. We’ll link to that piece at This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Texas. Major anti-choice actions are taking place there. Stay with us.

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