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 US 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-Qaida to the brink of collapse. According to a new investigation by the Guardian, the Islamic State has successfully launched “a coup” against al-Qaida to destroy it from within. The Islamic State began as al-Qaida’s branch in the heart of the Middle East but was excommunicated in 2014 after disobeying commands from al-Qaida 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.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s “TPP = Corporate Power Tool of the 1%,” a remix of the classic “ABC” by the Jackson 5, produced by Public Citizen. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The war and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh.
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 US 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-Qaeda.” Shiv, if you could talk about, well, just how ISIS crippled al-Qaeda and your meeting in Jordan with the leading al-Qaeda theorists.
SHIV MALIK: This is been going on for a while now, for a couple of years at least. 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 confrontation last year in January 2014 in which thousands died. But the real inside story of this comes from just actually a few players, really. 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 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’s actually little known in the west is actually more senior than Qatada in regards to al-Qaeda. What they have 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, 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 is the story that we got from them. Which is this process of, about over two years, of how ISIS has sort of risen to take the mantle of the leadership of the 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 are, kind of, for obvious reasons – both have – well Maqdisi also has, sort of, terrorist convictions, but they’re in and out of prison all the time. As you can imagine. Maqdisi 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 – 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 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, of course, to create absolute havoc in Iraq in 20013, beheading people, massacring Shia’s by the thousands.
So you don’t know what to expect. But when you meet him, he is a very interesting guy. He is 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 sort of throws you; 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 hard to grasp just how big this guy is from some of the pictures that we have. He speaks very quietly and almost has, like, Marlon Brando in The Godfather but slightly higher pitched. And he pauses a lot. They 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 breen bringing to 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 twofold.
First, and we often look at this from the Western perspective, but these guys have their own agency. So the first part of this is that al-Qaeda was created as a kind of failure, a response to the failures of kind of local jihadist issues going back to the 1980’s and 1990’s and Algeria, for example, being a failure and Afghanistan. So the idea is 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 theory was – look, attack the snakes head, if you want. And so that’s what they did. And they planned against that, obviously, culminating most viscously in September 11.
The scholars then – this was their idea. But the second part of this is there is also a vanguard for a revolutionary idea of setting up the caliphate. Those who are [indiscernible] with, kind of, what happened with the Communist movement will know about vanguardist organizations – 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. Isis had been quietly bubbling away. They have alway been – they have been a branch of – they’ve been al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq. That’s the best way to think of them. And they have been for a very long time. The most troublesome branch as well. They, kind of, don’t listen to orders, don’t take criticism very well, won’t listen to anyone. Bin Laden had problems with them and we know that from the Abadabad documents that have come out, the 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 have been very troublesome.
At one point, the piece was broken, if you want, when when ISIS sent – when the Syrian civil war started, they sent some people into Syria, and they said, we’ll grab some turf, we’ll start a branch there. And the people who then went on to lead that bunch of rebels, fighting against Assad, when on to become incredibly powerful. And ISIS in Iraq say, we’re a bit threatened by this, I’ll tell you what, we’ll just create a merger. 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. It’s almost impossible to keep track of. 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. At one point, they even killed – ISIS ended up killing Zawahiri’s emissary which he’d sent over to make peace; they killed him too. So it was incredibly vicious and incredibly bloody. In step with scholars –