The World

What the Treatment of Two American Prisoners Tells Us About the ISIS–al-Qaida Grudge Match

Ayman al-Zawahiri giving a speech in 2006.

Photo by -/AFP/Getty Images

In July 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then al-Qaida’s second-in-command, penned a letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the leader of the network’s Iraqi affiliate. The letter, intercepted and later released by U.S. intelligence officials, contained some instructions and admonitions for the terrorist protégé. Specifically, Zawahiri addressed al-Qaida in Iraq’s well-publicized practice of beheading prisoners. Zarqawi’s personal participation in these videotaped executions had earned him the moniker “sheikh of the slaughterers,” but the older terrorist leader felt the globally distributed gore would undermine al-Qaida’s popular support:

Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable—also—are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God.

Zawahiri goes on to say that al-Qaida is in a “media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma”—the international Islamic community—and recommends killing captives by bullet if necessary.

Zarqawi would be dead a year later, but this week we got some evidence that the fundamental disagreement over tactics expressed in the letter still persists. Just days after ISIS—the successor organization to Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq—released a video showing the beheading of one captured American journalist and threatened to kill another, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s “official” affiliate in Syria, released American writer Peter Theo Curtis, who had been held in Syria for nearly two years.

The details of the deal have not been made public. According to the New York Times, Curtis’ family was told by Qatari mediators that no ransom was paid, though it seems likely the group received some concession for his release. Al-Qaida and its affiliates have turned the ransoming of Western hostages into quite a tidy business, taking in more than $125 million in revenue since 2008, mostly from European governments that are more willing than the U.S. or Britain to pay ransoms. Intercepted documents from al-Qaida leaders show how central this revenue has become to the network’s operations.

Nusra’s more pragmatic approach, a few days after an ISIS video that seemed deliberately evocative of Zarqawi-era beheadings, shows that the old disagreement over tactics still persists, and has only gotten more public since al-Qaida and ISIS formally severed ties earlier this year.

This goes beyond just beheadings. Zawahiri’s letter also advised against AQI’s emphasis on attacks on Iraq’s Shiite community, arguing that it was counterproductive to the larger goal of global jihad. As we’re reminded daily, Zarqawi’s successors see their priorities differently.

Obviously, none of this implies that Zawahiri is in any way “moderate,” even compared with ISIS, but there is a basic disagreement on priorities and tactics that’s important to keep in mind at a time when ISIS is challenging al-Qaida central’s global leadership.

Zawahiri has been conspicuously quiet since ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi provocatively declared himself “caliph” of a new Islamic State in July. His last statement on the conflict was in May, when he advised ISIS to stop fighting other jihadist groups in Syria and return to the jihad in Iraq. In July, al-Qaida released an old video of Osama Bin Laden discussing the establishment of a caliphate in what seemed like an implied critique of Baghdadi’s claim to the throne from Zawahiri—Bin Laden’s chosen successor.

With a few exceptions, major al-Qaida affiliates don’t seem to be in a rush to recognize Baghdadi’s caliphate. Experts are divided as to whether this means al-Qaida central is still the most important player in the global jihadist movement or if Zawahiri is simply fading into irrelevance as various regional offshoots vie for supremacy.

The last time around, Zawahiri’s warnings to Zarqawi were ultimately vindicated. A year later, the Iraqi leader was dead and the Iraqi public—Sunnis included—turned against his group and its brutal tactics, helping U.S. and Iraqi forces to push it underground. But quite a bit has changed since 2005, and this dispute is far from settled.