Public and private leaders claim the split between al-Qaeda and the Islamic Caliphate occurred because the Islamic Caliphate was too violent and extreme for al-Qaeda, yet it is more accurate to say the Islamic Caliphate and al-Qaeda split because of a difference in strategic beliefs and subsequently a dispute over power.
Media and national leaders say that al-Qaeda disowned Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic Caliphate (aka: the Islamic State, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham) because Baghdadi and the Islamic Caliphate are too extreme for al-Qaeda. For instance, The Hill published, “ISIS too extreme for bin Laden?” on August 11 and wrote:
A 21-page letter from a top adviser cautioning about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was found at the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in May 2011, said a report published Sunday by the Daily Mail.
One of bin Laden’s senior officials wrote the letter warning ISIS was too extreme even for al Qaeda and advised that it should break its ties with the group, the report said.
ISIS’s disregard for civilians could damage al Qaeda’s reputation, he said.
The report neither identified the adviser nor provided any direct quotes from the letter.
But that’s not a precise analysis of what really happened. Baghdadi and the Islamic Caliphate split from al-Qaeda because the Islamic Caliphate and al-Qaeda have long had differences in strategic beliefs and those differences led to a power struggle—one that ultimately led to them splitting.
The Hill article also fails to understand what letter the Daily Mail article is referencing. The Daily Mail article indeed does not identify the adviser or any direct quotes from the letter, but that letter and the adviser are both identifiable and available to the general public.
In fact, all the declassified documents captured during the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden are available at the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point website. (That these are the only declassified documents from the Bin Laden raid is a separate story. And as others have noted, this means there are huge intelligence gaps that might drastically change analyses once they become available.) The specific letter the Daily Mail article references is labeled, “SOCOM-2012-0000004.” The Adobe document is 28-pages long but it notes the original Arabic letter is 21-pages long. American-born al-Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn wrote the letter.
There are multiple issues that caused the two terror groups to separate. But there are two main things that really angered al-Qaeda about the Islamic Caliphate. First, the Islamic Caliphate wouldn’t follow al-Qaeda orders. Gadahn writes on Adobe pages 9-10 of “SOCOM-2012-0000004”:
I do not see any obstacle or bad act if al-Qa’ida organization declares its discontent with this behavior and other behaviors being carried out by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq, without an order from al-Qa’ida and without consultation. I see that this is done immediately or lately, favorably sooner. I see that the organization should declare the cutoff of its organizational ties with that organization (TN: Islamic State of Iraq). The relations between al-Qa’ida organization and (the state) have been practically cut off for a number of years. The decision to declare the State was taken without consultation from al-Qa’ida leadership. . . .
Secondly, al-Qaeda didn’t like how the Islamic Caliphate was attacking and alienating other Muslims. Gadahn explains this on Adobe pages 9-10, and a little bit more on Adobe page 14. He then expands on it in Adobe pages 19-20:
As for the possibility of breaking ranks, it is that: just a possibility, and the fact that those conducting those acts, maybe it is better for them not to be in the ranks of the Mujahidin, as they are just like a polluted spot that should be removed and sanitized and cleared from the ranks.
As for exposing our weak spots in front of our enemies to exploit it, these attacks are –I swear– a greater shame and more horrible weak points, and it has been exploited by the enemies to a great extent. It has been exploited to distort the picture of the pious and loyal Mujahidin. Now many regular people are looking at the Mujahidin as a group that does not hesitate to take people’s money by falsehood, detonating mosques, spilling the bloods of scores of people in the way to kill one or two who were labeled as enemies. . . .
Do not expect the media, politicians, and pundits to stop saying that al-Qaeda disowned the Islamic Caliphate because the Islamic Caliphate is too extreme for al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, the precise reason the groups split was because they had differing ideas on strategy which eventually led to a struggle over power—which group would be the leader of the worldwide Islamic jihad.
Now the Islamic Caliphate and al-Qaeda will compete with each other for the loyalty of the jihadists of the world.
An extended version of this column, with additional quotes from Gadahn’s letter, is available at the Security and Culture Intelligencer website.