Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb encourages its Sahelian wing to continue fighting the Islamic State
In a newly released video, Abu Yasir al-Jaza’iri, a senior ideologue within al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), sends a message of encouragement to AQIM’s Sahelian wing, the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM).
The public video also serves to provide religious and ideological justification to both al-Qaeda’s footsoldiers, and the general population, for JNIM’s recent battles against the Islamic State. The two jihadi rivals have clashed repeatedly in recent weeks and months in Mali’s northern Menaka region.
Despite fierce battles between JNIM and the Islamic State’s Sahel Province (ISSP, or colloquially known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, or ISGS), including instances wherein JNIM utilized suicide car bombs against the rival jihadi faction, ISSP currently has the momentum in Mali’s remote north.
The Islamic State wing is currently directly controlling or influencing the vast majority of the Menaka region, the largest territorial gain by the local Islamic State branch since its founding in 2015.
AQIM thus feels it is imperative to boost the morale of its soldiers and rally its men to counter the Islamic State’s advances.
As such, Al-Jaza’iri does not mince words at the beginning of his speech. “The Khawarij [historical Islamic term used to denote the Islamic State] are the worst of creation under the surface of the sky,” the Algerian ideologue begins.
He then quickly summarizes to the listener about the recent battles with the Islamic State and notes that JNIM also fights “crusaders [referring to Western forces], apostates [referring to local governments and militias], and Russian mercenaries [Wagner].”
However, al-Jaza’iri makes it clear that the “Khawarij,” or the Islamic State, is the worst and most evil of the enemies faced by JNIM as they are “deviants” who have “mastered heresy” and have corrupted people’s hearts and minds.
The religious leader then turns to several ahadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, to bolster his case. The ahadith used all describe several narrations Muhammad made during his lifetime about a coming deviant sect that would lead followers away from Islam.
Much like other religious leaders over the past decade, both non-jihadi and jihadi, al-Jaza’iri puts the Islamic State within this lineage by using the hadith.
Other ahadith quoted throughout the video also describe the Khawarij’s crime of bid’ah, or religious innovation that is in opposition to the Qur’an and Sunnah [traditions of the Prophet Muhammad].
For instance, al-Jaza’iri derides the Islamic State’s religious rhetoric by quoting medieval Islamic theologian Ibn Taymiyya by saying that “the legitimate jihad, in that one strives in the path of God, must be distinguished from the jihad of the people of misguidance, who strive in the path of Satan.”
The Algerian continues by stating that Ibn Taymiyya also preached that “whoever fights so that the word of God is supreme is in the cause of God, but whoever fights intending to make money and spend it in disobedience, then these are the sinners.”
Al-Jaza’iri explicitly states that the Islamic State fights for monetary gain and not for God and are thus allowed to be attacked by al-Qaeda’s men.
In addition to providing religious and ideological justifications for JNIM to continue its war against the Islamic State, the AQIM leader also offers a more personal rationale.
Al-Jaza’iri also provides the viewer with a list of all the crimes the Islamic State is guilty of inside the Sahel, including attacking and killing JNIM members, and the theft of weapons, money, and possession from locals, and the murder of those civilians supporting JNIM.
As such, al-Jaza’iri states it is thus obligatory for the mujahideen [referring to JNIM] to fight the Islamic State and defend those oppressed by it.
Historical comparisons with Algeria
Though the speech is largely a religious and ideological diatribe against the Islamic State, al-Jaza’iri also interlaces a historical lesson regarding the jihad in Algeria for JNIM’s soldiers. Al-Jaza’iri provides a brief, but gleaming overview of the history of AQIM and its direct predecessor group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
According to al-Jaza’iri, AQIM (and earlier the GSPC) was able to establish tamkeen, or the ability to hold and establish administrative governance over a territory, across various areas of Algeria, and thus have the hearts and minds of the populace under their rule.
The ideologue states that this was only possible because the mujahideen had patience and remained steadfast in their devotion to God under severe adversity.
Despite engaging in revisionist history of al-Qaeda’s successes in Algeria, the ideologue does make a wider point regarding how the Algerian mujahideen were able to achieve these so-called gains despite facing a similar threat in the former Armed Islamic Group, or GIA.
According to the ideologue, the mistakes of the GIA cost the mujahideen movement dearly during the early days of the Algerian jihad.
The GIA was the principal jihadi faction during the Algerian Civil War in the early-1990s, with its own litany of al-Qaeda connections. Though as the war progressed, it soon began engaging in actions similar to the Islamic State, such as vast crimes against civilians and engaging in takfir [excommunication from Islam] against fellow armed groups, causing severe splintering of the group.
It is during this splintering that the GSPC emerged in 1998, which later officially became al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in early 2007. When the GSPC was first formed, it explicitly marketed itself as a group that opposed the GIA’s wanton violence against civilians and instead as one that sought a return to a more moderate form of jihadism.
This marketing is not lost on al-Jaza’iri, as he paints JNIM within the same “moderate” light as the GSPC.
Indeed, al-Jaza’iri directly warns JNIM to fall into the same trap as the one caused by the GIA and those who were “blindly devoted to it.” Al-Jaza’iri argues it is necessary for JNIM to fight the islamic State so that it does not cost JNIM dearly in Mali and reverse the gains made by al-Qaeda’s men in the region over the last decade, much like the GIA did in Algeria.
Continuation of the war of words
Despite al-Jaza’iri’s message being spurred by fighting on the ground and al-Qaeda’s losses therein, the speech also marks the latest addition to the war of words between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Sahel. This ideological debate largely kicked off around the same time that the two sides began clashing with each other in the region.
Ideologues on both sides have made religious arguments against each other throughout the last four years. For instance, in February 2020, JNIM attempted to head off any further clashes (and defections to the Islamic State from its own ranks) between the sides by issuing two booklets meant to promote jihadi unity.
Though the books contained softer language than al-Jaza’iri’s recent speech, one such booklet, titled “Responding to suspicions that you do not apply Sharia,” which responded to internal criticisms of the group’s governance, offers a subtle rebuke of the Islamic State’s harsh policies. However, the booklets did not stop the two sides from devolving into open warfare on the ground and on the web.
Indeed, in April 2020, the Islamic State’s Yemen branch took the first stab, accusing al-Qaeda of deviating in the region following the Arab Spring. A month later in May 2020, which followed the intensification of sporadic clashes into open warfare, the Islamic State’s weekly Al-Naba newsletter publicly lambasted the al-Qaeda branch.
The authors of the newsletter make it known that they blamed JNIM’s leadership, primarily Iyad Ag Ghaly, JNIM’s overall emir, and Amadou Kouffa, one of its deputy emirs, for starting the war between the two.
Later that year, Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the then-emir of the Islamic State’s Sahelian wing, penned his own critique of JNIM. According to the now deceased jihadi leader, al-Qaeda’s deviation in the Sahel started before the creation of JNIM in early 2017.
Sahrawi, who offers a competing view of the GSPC to al-Jaza’iri, states that the GSPC never learned from the lessons of the GIA and continued to have leadership and cohesion problems, which continued when AQIM was formed.
This disunity continued in the Sahel, wherein al-Qaeda consisted of several allied groups in the region, though many remained independent of one another. For its part, the creation of JNIM was indeed al-Qaeda’s answer to the region’s disunity.
According to Sahrawi at the time, this lack of cohesion led to the inablity of the groups to effectively fight the French and which led some groups, particularly AQIM and its Malian affiliate, Ansar Dine, to work with local Tuareg factions. These tribal alliances were unacceptable to Sahrawi. These themes were continued in a follow up piece from Al-Naba following the confirmation of Sahrawi’s death in late 2021.
These ideological battles have continued into more recent years, though largely perpetrated by the Islamic State. Al-Qaeda, for its part, has largely kept the fighting on the ground.
For instance, AQIM’s overall emir, Abu Ubaidah Yusuf al-Annabi, explicitly stated earlier this year that al-Qaeda’s policy was to try to “not be distracted” from the real enemies of France, the Malian government, or the Wagner mercenaries.
It’s clear, however, that the Islamic State’s gains in northern Mali have forced al-Qaeda’s men in northern Africa to issue their sharpest ideological rebuke of the Islamic State to date.