"The conflict between the Islamic State and the leadership of al-Qaeda is one of method... This is the issue. It is not an issue of allegiance of whom to whom." --Islamic State Spokesman Abu-Muhammad al-Adnani, May 2014 The Islamic State grew out of al-Qa'ida. The Islamic State's founding father, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the leaders of al-Qa'ida initiated contact back in 1999 in Afghanistan, and five years later, al-Zarqawi's group 'Jamaat al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad' became an official al-Qa'ida affiliate. In February 2014, their common history ended, however, as the Islamic State was finally expelled from al-Qa'ida as a result of its disobedience and aggressive attitude toward other mujahideen. (1)
This trajectory and the Islamic State's 'origin' in al-Qa'ida is commonly accepted, but when looking closer, both seem to be too simplistic. Despite its history of being an al-Qa'ida affiliate, the Islamic State and its predecessors, as al-Adnani indicated, are in essence not al-Qa'ida. The differences may appear minimal to most observers, but that does not imply that they are unimportant. In fact, the ideological vision of the Islamic State developed in some ways in opposition to al-Qa'ida. And the Islamic State's predecessor group was later only incorporated into al-Qa'ida due to the strategic gains both groups hoped to benefit from as a result of a merger. However, as the Islamic State's caliphate has now crumbled, it is pertinent to re-examine the early history of the ideology and culture that it espouses and put it into context.
From late-1980s Afghanistan to 1990s Algeria and Afghanistan and in Iraq in the 2000s, this article will trace the distinctive ideology that most influenced the Islamic State and led to a critical ideological cleavage between the group and al-Qa'ida years later.
'The Jalalabad School'
To understand the Islamic State, it is necessary to go back to 1989 in Afghanistan. Not more than four months after the devastating defeat of the mujahideen in the battle of Jalalabad in July that year, Usama bin Ladin, already a prominent Arab-Afghan leader at the time, left Afghanistan for his native Saudi Arabia (2) to take care of family business in Jeddah. In November 1989, Abdullah Azzam, bin Ladin's mentor and the most influential figure among the Arab mujahideen, was assassinated. The departure of bin Ladin and the death of Azzam by late 1989 left a critical leadership vacuum among the Arab Afghans. This, in turn, facilitated the blossoming of a new jihadi trend mainly composed of Arab youth from the Gulf and North Africa, especially Algeria, that promoted a more doctrinally rigid view than al-Qa'ida's hitherto in addition to a vehement opposition to the authority of established jihadi leaders. As explained by the Australian scholar Leah Farrall, "Consequently, the youth looked elsewhere and found new 'leaders' who were still fighting or sought to fight. The youth followed them and saw them as not only effective, but also less restrictive. These new leaders established themselves in the surroundings of Jalalabad, setting up their own camps, and essentially followed an 'anything goes' approach to combat." (3)
The youth espousing these more radical ideas quickly became infamous within jihadi circles for the internal conflict (fitna) they caused. One of the earliest seeds of such fitna was, in fact, sown a few years earlier in 1986. An Algerian named Ahmed Abu Amra, a salafi in creed and doctor by profession, worked in a hospital in the Afghan province of Wardak. One day, an injured mujahid came into the hospital, but when Abu Amra saw that the man wore an amulet (tamina), he asked him to remove it as it was idolatry (shirk). Abu Amra told the mujahid he would not treat him until he removed it. The family of the wounded man reacted angrily, threatening to kill the doctor if he did not treat their family member. Whether Abu Amra eventually treated the wounded mujahid remains unknown, but after this incident, the jihadi doctor continued to preach his message of extreme doctrinal rigidity that was critical of many involved in the Afghan jihad and particularly against Azzam, whose Islamic interpretation Abu Amra did not find satisfactory, in the streets and guesthouses of Peshawar. (4)
The seed of Abu Amra grew during 1989-90 in the vacuum left by Azzam and bin Ladin. The atmosphere in the guesthouses and training camps of Peshawar was negative. People wanted to either fight or to return home. They were "angry souls," Azzam's son-in-law Abdullah Anas told this author. (5) In the decade that followed, one particular issue would be their refusal to fight alongside the Taliban (6) because of the movement's alleged deviance in matters of Islamic law, creed, and its reliance on tribal customs. The critique, however, did not stop with the Taliban, but extended to other Arab Afghans who were considered to be insufficiently pure of creed and doctrine. Mustafa Hamid, a former senior Egyptian figure in the Afghan jihad, recounts how during a lecture in 1990 he and Abu Musab al-Suri held at the al-Qa'ida-run Jihadwal camp, attendees started arguing fiercely and eventually proclaimed takfir on one another. (7)
In Afghanistan, the Jalalabad school--as the trend has been dubbed by Farrall and Hamid (8) due to its emergence as a reaction to the Jalalabad defeat--did not organize as a formal organization, but many of the adherents to the Jalalabad school spent time training at the Khalden camp in Khost province. In size, Khalden (9) was relatively small, providing mainly basic training in small arms, but its doctrinal influence has proven much greater than its limited size would suggest. This influence on the Arab community was only enhanced after 1992 as Khalden was just about the only training camp remaining that offered Arabs basic training. (10) Unlike other camps, it kept its independence from the large, established jihadi groups and welcomed recruits from all over, (11) although its main constituency was the Algerians. (a)
Hence, it was perhaps no surprise that Algeria, a few years later, would be the first place to witness an organized expression of the Jalalabad ideology. Under the leadership of camp emir Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi and Abu Zubaydah, (b) who was based in Peshawar and acted as a gatekeeper to the camp, (12) (c) Khalden became the strongest competitor to al-Qa'ida and for a period a strong pole of criticism for its alliance with the Taliban.
Perhaps the main reason behind this was the presence of the Egyptian Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir (Abdul Rahman al-Ali), (d) an important and understudied Egyptian figure who was critical of al-Qa'ida and bin Ladin during his time at Khalden after his arrival in Afghanistan. (13) At Khalden, al-Muhajir became the camp's sharia official (mas'ul shara'i) in charge of the religious Beliefs Battalion Institute. (14) As in other camps, the religious component was complementary to the military training and thus al-Muhajir's extreme ideology (15)--hostility toward others who either disagreed or simply differed--and his anti-Taliban (16) and anti-al-Qa'ida (17) discourse influenced the Arab recruits joining the camp. According to Mustafa Hamid, "The camp was distinguished by a Salafi methodology (manhaj) that was the most stringent of all Arabs." (18) Al-Muhajir harshly criticized bin Ladin for his alliance with the Taliban and his previous ties to the 'un-Islamic' Sudanese regime. (19) (e)
Al-Muhajir's ultra-hardline views would persist, and he would continue to be significantly more extreme than the al-Qa'ida 'mainstream.' But his criticisms of al-Qa'ida and the Taliban did not endure. He later joined bin Ladin's jihadi organization, (20) and by 1998, he had become dean of al-Qa'ida's Shariah College. (21) Nevertheless, his arguments at Khalden had a lasting impact on his students. According to Mustafa Hamid, "the most tolerant of [the graduates of al-Muhajir's Institute] saw the Taliban as infidels... their stance was the most easily comprehensible, simple and contrarian; it began with excommunicating (takfir) the Taliban and ended with excommunicating everyone in their vicinity, from Arabs to the residents of Afghanistan." (22) The strong focus on an extremely rigid doctrine, and especially the issue of takfir, had put off some other jihadi groups present in Afghanistan at the time. For instance, the Uighurs from western China had initially trained in the camp but quit as the emphasis on takfir became too dominant. Similar concerns emerged among the Indonesian Jama'ah Islamiyya, themselves a doctrinally strict group, who refrained entirely from frequenting Khalden. (23)
The Jalalabad School Outside of Afghanistan
The Jalalabad School would eventually manifest itself in Iraq. However, its first organizational manifestation was in the 1990s Algerian civil war. In Algeria, the Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA) showed traits similar to that of the rebellious youth in Afghanistan, especially concerning its attitude toward other jihadi movements in the years 1994-1996, during the terror campaign of its leader Jamal Zitouni. GIA had operated since 1992, (24) but was formally established in May 1994 when it merged with a faction from the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) and the Mouvement de l'Etat Islamique (MEI). One of the early influential figures of the group was none other than Abu Amra, the doctor who refused to treat the mujahideen patient years earlier in Pakistan. (25) The journalist Camille Tawil has described how a steady stream of Arab Afghans returning home for jihad in Algeria became central to GIA's...