Mali and Paris highlight Islamic State-Al Qaeda rivalry

23 November 2015 1:16 pm

The attacks on Paris and the hotel in Mali have highlighted an unprecedented battle between Al Qaeda and Islamic State group for leadership of the global jihadi movement.

The attack on the luxury hotel in Mali was the work of the al-Murabitoun group, an al-Qaeda affiliate led by notorious one-eyed Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, nicknamed the “Uncatchable” or “Mr Marlboro”.

The Mali incident was Al Qaeda’s way of evening up the ledger with Islamic State which launched the deadly attacks in Paris the week before which killed 130 people.

“al-Qaeda and its international affiliates have been surpassed by IS and needed to show that they are still there,” Djallil Lounnes, an expert on radical groups in the Sahara who is based in Morocco told Associated Press.

Writing in the New York Times, Anne Barnard and Neil MacFarquar say the two were once united under the Qaeda brand but split over differing strategies in Syria.

“The Islamic State has since emerged as the most dynamic, popular force among radicalized Muslims, fueling a competition for recruits, cash and bragging rights among extremists who see bloodletting as the best way to advance an Islamist agenda,’’ they write.

“That competition has led to lethal one-upmanship that will be difficult to stamp out, given innumerable soft targets, even if armies can weaken the groups in their bases in the Middle East and Africa.”

Joseph Krauss from Associated Press sums up the differences between the two groups.

“Both groups want to end Western influence in the Middle East and unite Muslims under a transnational caliphate governed by a harsh version of Islamic law. But they are bitterly divided over tactics.

“Bin Laden believed that attacking the “far enemy” of the United States would weaken its support for the “near enemy” of Arab autocracies and rally Muslims to overthrow them. Under al-Zawahri, local al-Qaeda affiliates have sought to exploit post-Arab Spring chaos by allying with other insurgents and tribes, and by cultivating local support in places like Syria and Yemen, where they provide social services. For bin Laden, who was killed in a U.S. raid in Pakistan in 2011, and his successor al-Zawahri, the establishment of a caliphate was a vaguely defined end goal.

“The IS group, on the other hand, began by seizing and holding territory in Syria and Iraq and spawning affiliates across the chaos-riddled Middle East. It declared a caliphate in the summer of 2014 and al-Baghdadi now claims to be the leader of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, the overwhelming majority of whom have rejected his brutal tactics.

“For the IS group, al-Qaeda is both an anachronism, because the caliphate has already been reborn, and a renegade movement, since it has rejected al-Baghdadi’s authority. Al-Qaeda supporters dismissively refer to IS as ‘al-Baghdadi’s group.’ “

One thing is clear. If the Mali attack turns out to be a response to the slaughter in Paris, we could be looking at a new era of global competition between two deadly groups, each seeking to outdo the other with ever more devastating attacks. The victims will just be collateral damage.