Counter-terrorism experts appear to find themselves befuddled yet again by revelations that while the Kouachi brothers, who massacred twelve at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo Magazine declared themselves operating on behalf of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and reportedly trained in Yemen for the attack, their apparent partner in jihad, Ahmed Coulibaly issued a video statement recorded some time before the attack, declaring responsibility for the Islamic State (ISIS) and pledging allegiance (bayat) to it’s leader AbuBakr Al-Baghdadi. His common-law wife Hayat Boumeddiene , believed by French intelligence to have played a role in the attack, has apparently fled to Turkey, before making a beeline for the Syrian border, and the would-be Caliphate’s territory.
The Islamic State and Al Qaeda have been at odds with each other since AbuBakr Al-Baghdadi declaration of authority over Al Qaeda activities in both Iraq as well as Syria was rebuffed by AQ leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
How is it that these two groups, who are in dispute with one another, manage to work together to carry out a coordinated attack? Firstly, of course, the Kouachi brothers and Ahmed Coulibaly knew each other personally, and had history together, including the older Kouachi spending time in prison with Coulibaly. Obviously this would play a role. But secondly, and importantly, Jihad doctrine emphasizes cooperation, rather than competition, and the goal, of fighting in the cause of Allah (Jihad Fisabillah), as a religious obligation, is viewed as above inter-group rivalries. See for example, Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif (aka Sheikh Abul Qadir Abdul Aziz, a major Al Qaeda ideologue, who would eventually recant in Egyptian prison)’s essay, “Jihad and the effects of intention upon it”, taken from the larger jihadist work “al-‘Umda fi I’dad al-‘Udda (“The Essentials of Making Ready [for Jihad]”) which was taught in Al Qaeda training camps. In it Al-Sharif writes:
“And the Muslim should not train or perform Jihad with the aim of supporting as specific Jam’ah or party, so that if the jihad is with other than his group he abandons it. So this one is not fighting so that the word of Allah will be the highest, rather so that the banner of the party or the Jama’ah will be the highest, and thus is the asabiyyah of Jahiliyyah, about which the Messenger of Allah said, “What is the matter with the call of Jahiliyyah. Abandon it, as it is rotten. And then he said, “whoever is killed beneath a blind banner, becoming angry for the group and fighting for the group, then he is not from my Ummah.”
This concept of fighting for the Ummah representing all Muslims everywhere, is a powerful driver of unity of action, and helps to explain how Islamist terror groups come together to cooperate, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable differences (such as Shia-Iran supporting aggressively anti-Shia Al Qaeda in Iraq, during the insurgency against the U.S.). It’s often illustrated by the hadith, “This Ummah is like one body, if one part is hurt then whole body suffers.”
For Shariah-adherent Muslims who insist on upholding classical interpretations of Islamic blasphemy, the publication of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons “defaming” Mohammed represented an injury to the entire Ummah. As a result the need to cooperate in order to avenge the insult could easily be placed above inter-group rivalries. This is not to say that studying in granular detail the individual personalities and group dynamics among various Jihad organizations is unnecessary or irrelevant. Even jihadists are people and suffer from the same sorts of personal rivalries and disagreements that any organization does. However it is just as important to understand the ideological bonds the act as a force for cooperation, as it is to study disagreements if we wish to have strategic comprehension of those engaged in jihad.