On July 2, 2014 the central region judge for AQIM, Abu Abdullah Othman al-Asemi, released a video expressing support for ISIS. In the video, Al-Asemi stated that “ISIS is dearer to us than our own families and relatives and we always pray for you.”
Al-Asemi’s statement provoked a response from AQIM Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel. Droukdel affirmed his continuing commitment to al-Qaeda, saying “we still adhere to our pledge of allegiance to our sheikh and emir, Ayman al Zawahiri…” and rejected the caliphate established by ISIS. “It is obvious for the Muslims and all Jihadi organizations that follow the correct method, that the announcement of such a serious step [meaning the establishment of the Caliphate], will not happen but after the expansion of consultation,” he said.
Droukdel was referring to ISIS’s unilateral proclamation of the caliphate absent consultation with outside religious scholars and leaders. These contradictory announcements, one by AQIM’s judge for the Sahara region backing ISIS, and another from AQIM’s emir backing al-Qaeda and rejecting the ISIS caliphate, demonstrated the growing rivalry between the two organizations and the resulting rift caused within the rank and file of AQIM.
This rift became a full and obvious split in September 2014. AQIM’s central region commander Gouri Abdelmalek, known under the pseudonym Khaled Abu Suleimane, led a splinter group away from AQIM to swear loyalty to ISIS. This new group, the so-called ‘Caliphate Soldiers in Algeria,’ joined with forces under another AQIM commander from eastern Algeria. In addressing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Suleimane stated, “You have in the Islamic Maghreb men if you order them they will obey you…The Maghreb has deviated from the true path.”
The defection of this large contingent of soldiers from AQIM greatly weakened the organization. In the same month, the Soldiers of the Caliphate went into action, kidnapping and executing Herve Gourdel, a French citizen traveling on vacation in Northern Algeria, in retaliation for French air strikes in Iraq against ISIS. The execution signaled support for ISIS, and also demonstrated how organizations external to ISIS were starting to co-opt ISIS’s tactics, namely quick and violent executions of Westerners.
The al-Qaeda-ISIS split is not isolated to AQIM – it has become a global problem for al-Qaeda. Younger cadres of Islamist radicals across the globe are becoming dissatisfied with al-Qaeda, following nearly a decade without a major successful attack on the West. Many believe that Al-Qaeda has stagnated under al-Zawahiri, who cannot relate to younger generations of disaffected men – ultimately the backbone of Islamic jihadism.
ISIS’s unparalleled success and lightning sweep across Syria and Iraq has also won the support and admiration of tens of thousands of Islamists globally. Whatever the cause, al-Qaeda faces an existential threat in the continued popularity of ISIS, as illustrated in AQIM’s experience in North Africa.