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

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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-Qaeda to the brink of collapse. 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. We are joined by Guardian reporter Shiv Malik.

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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-Qaida.” Shiv, if you can talk about, well, just how ISIS crippled al-Qaeda and your meeting in Jordan with the leading al-Qaeda theorists?

SHIV MALIK: Yeah. So, this has been going on for a while now, for a couple of years at least. And, you know, 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 conflagration in January last year, in 2014, in which thousands died.

But the real inside story of this comes from just actually a few players, really. And 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 the 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 is actually little known in the West, is actually even more senior than Qatada in regards to al-Qaeda.

And what they’ve 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, you know, 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’s the story that we’ve got from them, which is this process, as I said, of about over two years of how ISIS has sort of risen to take the mantle of the leadership of the sort of 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 kind of, for obvious reasons, both have—well, Maqdisi also has sort of terrorism convictions, but they’re in and out of prison all the time, as you can imagine—Maqdisi often 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—you know, 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 know, you sort of—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 to, of course, create absolute havoc in Iraq in 2003, beheading people, massacring Shias by the thousands. And so, you don’t know what to expect. But when you meet him, he’s sort of—he’s this very interesting guy. I mean, he’s 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, you know, sort of throws you, and 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 quite hard to grasp just how big this guy is from sort of the pictures that we have. And he speaks very quietly, and he almost sounds like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, you know, but sort of slightly higher-pitched. So it’s this sort of—and he pauses a lot. So they kind of 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 been bringing 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 sort of twofold. First, it’s—and we often look at this from a Western perspective, but, you know, of course, these guys have their own agency. So, the first part of this is that al-Qaeda was created as a kind of a failure, a response to the failures of kind of localist jihadist issues going back to the '80s and ’90s, and Algeria, for example, being a failure, and Afghanistan. So the idea was 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 is—the theory was that, look, attack the snake's head, if you want. And so that’s what they did. And they planned against that, obviously, culminating most visciously in September the 11th. And these scholars then—this was their idea there.

But the second part of this is they’re also a vanguard for a revolutionary idea of setting up the caliphate. And those who are au fait with kind of what happened with the communist movements will know about vanguardist organization, 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.

And ISIS have been quietly bubbling away. They’ve alway been—they’ve been a branch of—they’ve been al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq. That’s the best way to think of them. And they had been, for a very long time, the most troublesome branch, as well—kind of don’t listen to orders, don’t take criticism very well, won’t listen to anyone. And bin Laden had problems with them, and we know that from the Abbottabad documents that have sort of come out, the sort of 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’ve been very troublesome.

And at one point, the sort of the peace was broken, if you want, when ISIS sent—when the Syrian civil war started, they sent some people into Syria, and they said, “You know, we’ll grab some turf. We’ll start a branch there.” And the people who then went on to lead that, sort of bunch of rebels fighting against Assad, went on to become incredibly powerful. And ISIS in Iraq say, “Ah, we’re a bit threatened by this. I’ll tell you what. We’ll just create a merger.” And 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. And it’s almost impossible to keep track of. And 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. And at one point, they even killed—ISIS ended up killing Zawahiri’s emissary, which he had sent over to make peace. They killed him, too. So it was incredibly vicious and incredibly bloody. In step with scholars, which is—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, very soon, Shiv Malik—

SHIV MALIK: Yes.

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 al-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 on 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: So, I mean, in terms of ideological divisions, the big division came when ISIS set up this caliphate. They declared this caliphate. And I said, you know, al-Qaeda is supposed to be the vanguardist organization. And there they are, ISIS, setting up a caliphate and saying, “You know, the revolution is complete. We’ve done it. We set up the caliphate. We’ve 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, or almost—we’re coming up to the anniversary in a couple of weeks—which is remarkable. So that’s certainly one ideological difference. And with that, they’ve been able to—ISIS have been able to capture the imagination of young radicals, who would already be susceptible to this, and also the funders. So the money and the men, the prestige is all going to ISIS at this point in time. And al-Qaeda therefore is being drained of all of that, of that pool. So they’ve 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, “Look, we’re the elite scholarship. You know, if you’re more than gangsters, and you’re ideologues, then you’ve got to listen to us, because we’re 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 can 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.” And there was some suggestion from these two, when we interviewed them, that if they went, they’d never come back: They might get killed. So they’re obviously 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’d been so critical of ISIS. You know, someone might just appear masked and gun them down. So, there’s been that, as I said, that fraticide, but ultimately, they want the same thing in the end, and these are, to Western observers certainly, very petty ideological differences.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, 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. I mean, you know, it’s 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—you know, 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, if you want, 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 regear its intelligence machine, its military machine towards ISIS. You know, 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’re 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, you know, clearly God’s on our side.” You know, these people are, in that sense, sort of 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 regear. And what they’ve announced already, or what seems to have been reported, was, you know, they’re going to send a few other thousand people over to Iraq, or a couple hundred other extra advisers 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: Yeah, I mean, the civil war has allowed for chaos, and in that sense, you know, these people are sort of like gangsters or sort of 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 the chaos. Then, in stepped—as I said, you know, 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’s been going on, but that’s 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’s a despicable dictator. So the question—you know, it’s 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 very 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 the new in-depth report, “How Isis Crippled al-Qaida: 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 democracynow.org. 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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