Over the last few weeks, al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) released two pamphlets that sent indirect messages to its detractors and supporters in the Sahel and beyond.
Penned by Qutaybah Abu Numan al Shinqiti, a Mauritanian religious scholar affiliated with al Qaeda’s franchises in North Africa, the two booklets addressed complaints regarding JNIM’s implementation of Sharia law and calls for unity among jihadists.
Responding to Islamic State sympathizers
In the first booklet, “Responding to suspicions that you do not apply Sharia,” released late last month, Shinqiti made the case that implementing Sharia is much more multifaceted than simply applying strict hudud [punishments under Sharia].
That release was likely in response to complaints made by Islamic State-sympathetic jihadists within JNIM.
In his argument, Shinqiti heavily quoted Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim, two medieval Islamic theologians who are routinely cited by al Qaeda’s ideologues.
For instance, Shinqiti quoted Ibn Taymiyya on heavy-handed approaches as saying, “[those who rule] without jurisprudence, patience, and consideration of what works and what does not work, he comes with the command and prohibition believing he is obedient to God and he is an aggressor in his hudud.”
Shinqiti added that jihadists must learn from Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim that “the prohibition of evil and the promotion of virtue are not exclusive to what comes to mind among the most famous of evils, such as smoking and listening to musical instruments.”
Instead, the ideologue contends, “it is a comprehensive order of all known orders in Sharia, such as lifting the truth of God and Tawhid [oneness of God], ordering prayer, collecting zakat [charity], and prohibiting breaking of the fast without an excuse, and so on.”
Perhaps most importantly, Shinqiti leveled that “the mujahideen can do as much as that is in their power, energy, and reality presented to them” in the implementation of Sharia.
This caveat highlighted the difference in thinking between the slower and more calculated approach of al Qaeda to the quick and often, heavy-handed, approach of the Islamic State in this implementation.
Moreover, Shinqiti’s argument largely tracks with al Qaeda’s longstanding doctrine of slow implementation of Sharia in order to build public support. For instance, internal al Qaeda documents found by then-Associated Press journalist Rukmini Callimachi in Mali in 2013 detail this exact gradual approach for the Sahel.
Call for Unity
The second pamphlet, “Year of the Group,” Shinqiti utilized the story of the Hasan-Muawiyah treaty to send a message of jihadist unity.
The treaty, which occurred in the early days of Islam, stipulated that Hasan (the grandson of Muhammad and son and successor to Ali as caliph following the former’s assassination) would abdicate as caliph in favor of his father’s rival Muawiyah.
The peace accord was originally designed to prevent further conflict between the two rival camps. In Shinqiti’s retelling of the story, the ideologue makes an appeal to jihadists in the Sahel to also come together to prevent further clashes and disagreements.
Shinqiti explicitly stated “so let us witness a year of a new and unified group between differing Muslims sects, with all their descriptions, doctrines, and orientations.”
Shinqiti said that the goal should be uniting in order to “liberate Muslim lands – and at its head is Palestine.” Championing the Palestinian cause has become a common talking point for JNIM.
Rivalry in the Sahel
These pamphlets came after a period of increased tensions between JNIM and the Islamic State’s men in the region. Clashes between the two jihadist camps have been reported in central and northern Mali in recent weeks.
Additionally, Malian media has reported alleged clashes in January within JNIM’s Katibat Macina over members trying to join the Islamic State’s fold. If this is true, it would not be the first time members of Katibat Macina have defected to the Islamic State.
Other former JNIM militants have also recently defected to the Islamic State. In a video released last month, jihadists in the Nampala area of Mali, which sits close to the borders with Mauritania, a group of fighters announced their loyalty to the new Islamic State emir.
Despite these reports of increased tensions and defections, the two groups have historically coordinated on the ground. In fact, the most recent report from the UN’s monitoring group on terrorist groups around the world repeated this reporting.
In regards to recent attacks in Burkina Faso by both the Islamic State and JNIM, the UN report noted “the operational efficiency of terrorist groups in the region is enhanced by deconfliction and operational collaboration between the groups in high-profile attacks.”
This follows several years of similar messaging. In Jan. 2016, the then leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Sahara Emirate, Yahya Abu al Hammam, gave an interview to Mauritanian news site Al Akhbar in which he stated AQ and the leader of the Islamic State in the Sahel, Abu Walid al Sahrawi, were in communication.
However, it appears that this dynamic may be changing. The release of Shinqiti’s pamphlets signals that the group is likely trying to mitigate tensions both within and outside its organization in the wake of these increased tensions and defections.
As the Islamic State continues to grow in the Sahel, it is possible that it will be able to attract more fighters from al Qaeda’s camp. This will not come without consequences, however, as future clashes between these two jihadist heavyweights are likely to occur.
In the event of increased infighting, it is unclear how long the reported continued coordination between the groups can be sustained.