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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Mullah Omar and the AQ-ISIS War

The Taliban's confirmation of the death of Mullah Omar has huge implications for Afghanistan, but it also raises the stakes in the battle for global jihadist supremacy between al Qaeda and the upstart ISIS, a shift reflected in the overwhelming chatter among ISIS supporters online regarding the new development. 

Mullah Omar was the centerpiece of al Qaeda's rebuttal to ISIS's demand for allegiance from jihadist groups around the world, based on two key arguments. First, that al Qaeda had already pledged allegiance to Omar, therefore it could not pledge to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Second, that Baghdadi had illegitimately usurped Omar's title of Amir al Mumineen – Commander of the Faithful. 

Omar's death releases everyone who had pledged allegiance to him. Neither the pledge nor the title of Amir al Mumineen are automatically inherited by his successor. The timing of Omar's death adds another wrinkle. If he died two years ago, as reported by the press but not yet confirmed by the Taliban [UPDATE: Now confirmed], that means the position of Amir al Mumineen could possibly have been vacant when Baghdadi claimed it most consequentially in conjunction the declaration of the caliphate (the term had been used earlier, but not necessarily in a context that would usurp Mullah Omar), meaningfully destroying the pro-al Qaeda argument that ISIS had usurped Omar's rightful authority. 

Furthermore, if its leaders have been perpetuating the fiction that Omar was alive for two years in an effort to cling to power, it provides an additional opening for ISIS sympathizers in both al Qaeda and the Taliban itself to reject the current leadership as corrupt and switch sides. 

No matter how you slice it, this development is very, very good news for ISIS, which can now reiterate its demand for loyalty from global jihadist groups, thanks to the removal of the sole significant challenger to the legitimacy of its so-called caliph, and the mendacity of running an organization by issuing orders and guidance in the name of a dead leader, also known as the "Weekend at Bernie's" strategy. 

If al Qaeda's emir Ayman al Zawahiri is not also a "Bernie" at this point, he faces a dilemma. His lethargic stewardship of al Qaeda has deflated his ability to challenge Baghdadi directly on the basis of his own authority, and the pledge to Mullah Omar is one of very few planks in al Qaeda's argument against ISIS's hegemony (others revolve around the brutality of tactics, sectarian focus, and the lack of consultation with other jihadist groups in declaring the caliphate). 

Zawahiri's slate of bad options includes submitting himself to yet another figurehead's authority, which does little to reinforce an impression of strength, or trying to argue that he himself is strong enough to carry the mantle of the global jihadist movement, which is a tough sell. Or he could continue to rely on his existing strategy, which appears to be fervently hoping ISIS will just go away. 

Ultimately, the battle between al Qaeda and ISIS has less to do with technical legitimacy and jurisprudence, the fundamental elements of AQ's "Mullah Omar" gambit, and more do to with credibility and the appearance of strength. But the death of Mullah Omar hits al Qaeda in both hemispheres, forcefully, and it provides a convenient out for restless supporters who have until now resisted ISIS's siren song. 

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam.

Minor updates made at 12:20 p.m., 1:09 p.m. and 1:22 p.m.

Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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