In response to the Islamic State’s horrific burning of a pilot, the Jordanian government has released from prison one of the most influential al Qaeda-allied ideologues in the world. Sound strange? It is.
And when you get into the specifics, it gets even more bizarre. Indeed, a disturbing pattern of behavior emerges: Al Qaeda, and like-minded jihadists, are triangulating off of the Islamic State’s brutality to present themselves in a respectable, even moderate light.
Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi has been a staunch critic of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State (or ISIS/ISIL, as it is commonly known). Maqdisi, like many al Qaeda-allied thinkers, objects to the Islamic State, especially its uncompromising approach to power politics within the jihadist world. But this does not make him the voice of reason. He is openly pro-al Qaeda and a vocal defender of Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s leader.
Jordan thinks that Maqdisi’s release helps matters, however. The day after his release from prison, Maqdisi made a heavily-promoted television appearance in Jordan. Maqdisi, who says he attempted to negotiate on behalf of the pilot from inside prison, told the television audience that the Islamic State’s decision to torch the pilot is "not acceptable in any religion."
There was so much buzz surrounding Maqdisi’s appearance that even the State Department tweeted a link to the Associated Press’s coverage. On its anti-extremist “Think Again Turn Away” Twitter feed, a State Department employee wrote:
Radical preacher associated w/#alQaeda condemns #ISIS burning of pilot, says action “not acceptable in any religion”
Jordan evidently thinks Maqdisi’s release is a Machiavellian move. But it is al Qaeda that is gaming the situation. Maqdisi’s criticisms of the Islamic State are unlikely to do further damage to the group’s currently tarnished brand among the Jordanian populace. Jordan’s decision to embrace Maqdisi, even temporarily, only makes al Qaeda’s ideology look somewhat more reasonable.
Maqdisi and other al Qaeda ideologues do not preach moderation in any meaningful sense. They simply object to the Islamic State’s way of going about its business.
Baghdadi and his followers believe that all other jihadists, indeed all Muslims, owe their loyalty to the “caliphate.” Al Qaeda and its various branches around the globe disagree. They don’t believe that Baghdadi is really “Caliph Ibrahim” and they are not about to answer to him. Al Qaeda’s senior leaders and their comrades also believe that the Islamic State’s approach to using violence, including the savage spectacle it makes of killing, turns off more prospective followers than it gains. And, al Qaeda argues, by overtly declaring his men rule over an Islamic emirate (nation), Baghdadi has charted a course that attracts more attention from the West than the jihadists can withstand. Moreover, Baghdadi declared himself to be the Caliph without first building the proper consensus among his fellow jihadists. This is a big no-no for those caliphate builders who believe in a longer-term approach.
Baghdadi and the Islamic State don’t care about al Qaeda’s criticisms and just go about doing what they do best: maiming and killing.
Their disagreements have, of course, sparked an intense animosity between the Islamic State and al Qaeda, with Baghdadi’s crew trying to poach al Qaeda members and supporters from the globe. The Islamic State has had some success in this regard, but most of the A-list jihadists remain in al Qaeda’s camp.
Still, as the Islamic State has attempted to cut into al Qaeda’s market share, al Qaeda has leaned heavily on several prominent jihadist thinkers to undermine the theological legitimacy of the self-declared “caliphate.” And one of them is Maqdisi.
A number of al Qaeda leaders cheered Maqdisi’s release from prison this week. Some of these leaders hold key positions in the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria and the Islamic State’s chief rival.