Al Qaeda Condemns ISIS for Beheadings. Is ISIS Still Al Qaeda for 2001 AUMF?

December 9th, 2014

Last month the Associated Press reported that Al Qaeda and ISIS made peace. This led me to conclude (tongue in cheek) that the President’s authority under the 2001 AUMF to target ISIS got a lot stronger.

But now, another fracture between the groups has become clear. The Times reports that Al Qaeda has condemned ISIS for beheadings.

On Monday, Al Qaeda came out publicly against the practice of beheading in a strongly worded interview with one of its field commanders, making clear that the organization founded by Osama bin Laden was more pragmatic and as a result less extreme than its jihadist rival in Syria — which has turned the act of decapitation into a signature of its brutality.

In a 43-minute video, Nasr bin Ali al-Ansi, a military strategist and official of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, is asked whether he condones recent beheadings. He says that although some Qaeda members may have carried out such acts, the organization does not sanction the practice.

“No doubt, some of our brothers were affected by seeing scenes of beheadings that were spread recently. We do not accept — and we strongly reject them,” Mr. al-Ansi says, according to a transcript provided by SITE Intelligence, an organization that tracks jihadist propaganda. “Recording such acts and spreading them among the people in the name of religion and jihad, we see as a big mistake. It is not acceptable, no matter the justification.”

“Big mistake.” Al Qaeda and ISIS do not agree here. Al Qaeda is the more “pragmatic” of the groups, and “less extreme.”

And we aren’t only talking about Al Qaeda Yemen. We are talking about the whole network.

He makes clear that the position he is articulating is not just his own, or even that of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but rather is the guidance of the group’s most senior current leaders — and reflected the wishes of Osama bin Laden himself. “Therefore, I assert that whoever does such actions,” he says, “he has violated the command of Sheikh Osama.”


Can it still be said that ISIS is the true inheritor of Usama Bin Laden’s legacy, as the President reminded us? After all, they have differed over beheadings since at least 2005–well before UBL’s death.

Nearly a decade ago, Ayman al-Zawahiri — the man who would go on to become the head of Al Qaeda — wrote a letter to his deputy in Iraq, scolding him for beheading hostages and posting videos of their execution online. He explained that although he was in favor of killing the enemy and agreed with the principle of sowing terror, the scenes of slaughter risked turning public opinion against their organization.

His advice was to be more discreet: “Kill the captives by bullet.”

The letter — written in 2005 and recovered by American forces in Iraq — was addressed to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the group that would become the Islamic State, which split off from the Qaeda network earlier this year.

And Bin Laden himself opposed this tactic!

A veteran of Al Qaeda, Mr. al-Ansi moved to Afghanistan in the 1990s to train in the group’s elite camps. He was dispatched by bin Laden to the Philippines in 2001 to help guide jihadists there, including by teaching them the principles of Shariah law, as well as military tactics.

He says in Monday’s video that bin Laden specifically asked him to stress to the cell in the Philippines that recording scenes of brutality was forbidden.

In case you couldn’t tell, this post is mostly facetious–as is the President’s argument that the 2001 AUMF covers ISIS in Iraq and Syria.