ISIS outshines al-Qaeda’s cruelty

The Middle East has become confused; a surreal mix of rebels, extremists and terrorists

Jamal Khashoggi
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Between the al-Nusra front, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Anbar province, Aleppo, al-Qaeda and the clans, everything has become confused; a surreal mix of rebels, extremists and terrorists. Al-Qaeda’s supporters believe that ISIS went off track. When you ask them if al-Qaeda is on the right track, some skeptical supporters answer by saying that the regime has created ISIS, meaning the Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian regimes! How could this be possible when all they do is accuse Shiites of disbelief, barely giving non-Sunnis that chance to understand their ideology. If one fails to understand al-Qaeda’s ideas, is that person an apostate?

Iraqi Minister of Justice Hassan al-Shammari accused “eminent figures in the country” of smuggling ISIS detainees out of Abu Ghraib and al-Taji prisons in July, in order to strengthen the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant which is fiercely fighting in Syria. As a result, they are helping Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which needs the involvement of al-Qaeda to sully the image of the people’s revolution making it seem as though Assad’s enemies are terrorists. Consequently, Assad would be transformed from a dictator fighting against his own people into a hero fighting terrorism. However, al-Shammari withdrew his daring statement last Tuesday, saying that it was a simple and baseless analysis of the situation.


Free Syrian Army (FSA) leaders confirmed al-Shammari’s opinion; one of them has even released images of Syrian intelligence officers proudly standing with ISIS members, boasting long beards and wearing the black uniforms that ISIS fighters typically wear.

However, ISIS has positively influenced the war against the regime as it has stormed the Meng military airport and many regime premises. At the same time, it has arrested some of its presumed brothers in jihad and executed many of them, including the emir of the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s other wing in Syria. This has been confirmed by Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, the leader of al-Nusra Front, in a recorded message that was broadcast a few days ago. In the message, he explained the reasons behind his participation in the war against ISIS.

ISIS’s ideology is frightening and it is worth being analyzed and understood because there are still people who have sympathy for it

Jamal Kashoggi

Al Arabiya reporter in Bahrain, Mohammad al-Arab, who is well informed about al-Qaeda’s activity in Iraq, sent a message titled “the myth of ISIS – personal opinion” in which he says: “30 years from now, mothers will frighten their children saying ‘remain silent or ISIS will come and get you’ or ‘if you won’t eat I will tell ISIS.’ If a child asks his mother, “mom, what is ISIS? And what does it look like?” his mother would answer: “son, nobody has ever seen it, but they say that it is a demon all in black, covering its face with a black veil, raising black flags, riding a black horse and eating children who do not obey their mothers.”

Al-Arab does not deny ISIS’s existence but he underlines the ambiguity of this organization: it is fighting against al-Maliki’s army in Fallujah and Anbar, but cooperated with Anbar’s clans that are against al-Maliki and his government. Its suicide bombers storm the Syrian regime’s premises as well as Mujahedeen premises. Over the last few days, it has killed Syrian journalists and activists who revolted against the regime before the emergence of ISIS, just as Bashar kills them. So, what kind of organization is this which refuses to obey al-Qaeda’s emir Ayman al-Zawahiri and accuses al-Qaeda’s other wing in Syria of disbelief, describing it as a traitor?

ISIS as a concept

ISIS is more of an idea or approach rather than an organization, and it has been labeled several names throughout history. Islamist activists, who have been in contact with it, have known it as “moukaffaratiah” and this is what I heard Sheikh Abdullah Azzam call it. Other Arab activists, who preceded ISIS in Afghanistan and Peshawar, also called the group as such. Egyptians in al-Jamaa al-Islamiya and Arabs from various nationalities, who were spurred on by prison torture and anger, are the nucleus of this repugnant ideology; their faith was based on the seeking the atonement of regimes and rulers. I remember that the first clash that happened between them and the Arab volunteers was when some of them took over trucks carrying food from the Saudi Islamic Relief Organization inside Afghanistan, killing several guards. This incident was denounced in Peshawar at the time, but today, many similar incidents have happened in Syria, along with other abuses, that have led militant groups in Syria to declare war on ISIS.

The trend

This trend existed long before al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden; we can even say that bin Laden subscribed to this approach after being a jihadist like his disciple Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, who was trying to be liberated from the same approach based on seeking atonement.

Bin Laden then inaugurated al-Qaeda in 1996, when he announced in a press conference with al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan, the formation of the “World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders,” and opened the door for volunteers to join.

In the 1990s, they were known as al-Jamaa al-Islamiya in Egypt, a group which killed tourists and robbed Copts’ stores. It was also known as the militant Jamaa al-Islamiya in Algeria, a group which partook in seizing villages, killing and robbing people. They said back then that the Algerian intelligence services broke into the organization to create a state of terror and panic among the citizens so that they would rally around the authorities, in their quest to boot out political Islam from Algeria. There are scholarly attempts to portray that time in history but there is no solid evidence about it, just as today there is no real evidence that the Syrian or Iraqi intelligence services have intruded ISIS, just circumstantial evidence and quickly retracted statements such as that of the aforementioned Iraqi minister.

ISIS’s ideology is frightening and it is worth being analyzed and understood because there are still people who have sympathy for it. It is obvious because, despite its cruelty and the people’s rejection that was demonstrated in Syria over the past few days, there are still some people who are willing to secretly fund this organization. There are still young men volunteering to commit suicide in car bomb attacks. It is the extremism of extremism.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Jan. 11, 2014.


Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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