Middle East

Al-Qaida Steps In To Step Out Of Syria

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Al-Qaida's central leadership has cut ties with the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria, or ISIS. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with Jessica Stern, author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, about what this split tells us about the future of al-Qaida.


The news came in the form of a letter. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaida, instructed its affiliate group in Syria to withdraw from there and leave the fight to someone else. The group, the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria, or ISIS, refused. What does this tell us about al-Qaida and how it is changing? To try to get an answer to that question, we've reached Jessica Stern. She's the author of "Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill," among other books. She joins us from the studios of WGBH in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.

JESSICA STERN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: ISIS is a group that has come up relatively quickly. Can you explain how its aims and methods differ from al-Qaida?

STERN: Well, al-Qaida has often had problems with regional affiliates and have had trouble controlling them in the past. And one of the things that al-Qaida central has long been concerned about is the public image of the organization and groups that end up fighting each other rather than carrying a jihad against the enemy. Also groups that fight and kill Muslims.

MARTIN: And that's something that ISIS is accused of doing.


MARTIN: Does al-Qaida have a history of this distancing itself from affiliates or other militant groups when it didn't think they were completely aligned in their objectives or tactics?

STERN: Yes. And the theme is groups that massacre Muslims are a problem for al-Qaida. Bin Laden got very angry at the Algerian group GIA in 1996 when there was a massacre of Muslims. And bin Laden actually helped facilitate the formation of a new group that was more aligned with his goals, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. So, that would be one example. Another is al-Shabab, the group that is now affiliated with al-Qaida formerly in Somalia. Bin Laden did not want to affiliate with al-Shabab because he didn't like their practices. He thought they were ideologically problematic and their tactics were inconsistent with the image he wanted to project. Eventually, Zawahiri accepted al-Shabab, but it's all about image, I think.

MARTIN: So, what is the nature of the relationship between al-Qaida central or al-Qaida core, Ayman al-Zawahiri and his original organization and these affiliates? You mention al-Shabab in Somalia, other strong affiliates in Yemen and other countries. What is the nature of that relationship? What does it mean to be an al-Qaida affiliate today?

STERN: Well, it doesn't mean what it once did. I mean, in the past, al-Qaida actually funded these organizations. Now, some of them are apparently sending money to al-Qaida at times in order to be able to use the brand. Al-Qaida and affiliated groups are now much bigger. And there's a lot of combining, breaking apart, competing one day, the next day working together. This is typical actually of jihadi groups. But as they become more diffused, of course they are harder to monitor.

MARTIN: Jessica Stern is a fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health. She's also author of the book "Terror in the Name of God." Thanks so much for talking with us, Jessica.

STERN: Thank you.

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