Call me crazy, but even though al-Qaida is supposedly the quintessential “Salafi-jihadi” group, I think that a lot of people in the al-Qaida fold, even fairly prominent leaders, don’t really care about Salafi theology. That is, they’re either unaware or uninterested in the kinds of purity tests that doctrinaire Salafis, and theologically-minded jihadis, put to other Muslims.
A good example of one al-Qaida leader’s disinterest in Salafism appears in an interview (Arabic, .pdf, p. 4) that Malian national Iyad Ag Ghali recently gave to an al-Qaida publication. Just last month, Ag Ghali publicly and formally became head of a new jihadist formation in the Sahara, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims). The new group is formally part of al-Qaida and the al-Qaida affiliate al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In the interview, Ag Ghali nonchalantly discusses two issues that would give doctrinaire Salafis considerable pause: his career as a nationalist rebel leader in the 1990s (which involved negotiations with the Malian government), and his long relationship with the global Muslim missionary organization Jama’at al-Tabligh.
Both issues arise in Ag Ghali’s answer to the interviewer’s request for his biography. Ag Ghali divides his life into stages, and among them is: “the stage of negotiations with the Bamako regime in 1991, which produced the first agreement with the Malian government.” Ag Ghali describes the agreement, and the resulting situation “between war and peace” in the 1990s, dispassionately. He voices no regret over what many theologically-minded jihadis would view as a real problem: his willingness to enter into agreements with various regimes that hardline jihadis would consider infidels, and his prioritization of a nationalist struggle over a religious one at that time. It is true that al-Qaida has repeatedly considered and perhaps pursued agreements or truces with different governments, including possibly those in Mauritania and Yemen, but Ag Ghali doesn’t even attempt to frame his past behavior as something that advanced the cause of jihad. There is no indication that he repents for his nationalist past. His attitude is in real tension with the frequently invoked jihadi doctrine of al-wala’ wa-l-bara’, or exclusive loyalty toward Muslims and complete disavowal of those considered non-Muslims.
The second issue is one he describes enthusiastically. Speaking of the period in his life from 1998-2011, he says,
God inspired us – to Him be praise and thanks – to join the Society for Preaching and Spreading the Message [Jama’at al-Da’wa wa-l-Tabligh]. This was a beneficial phase in which God Most High facilitated [my] completion of the memorization of the Holy Qur’an, and [my] visits to God’s Muslims and [my] acquaintance with many of them in many places, such as [Saud Arabia], the Gulf, Mauritania, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Niger, Togo, and Benin. [I] even [visited] Muslim communities in the West, in France and other countries.
Now, Jama’at al-Tabligh has been roundly condemned by the senior Salafi scholars of the twentieth century. Such scholars viewed Tabligh as a group that did a little bit of good, by urging people to be more pious, but that did a lot of harm, due to its Sufi roots (most Salafis abhor Sufism). The Salafi scholars also felt that Tabligh’s rather generic preaching was a distraction from what Salafis consider the core issue, namely instilling an understanding of Salafi theology and doctrine in lay Muslims. Those Salafi scholars are not respected by al-Qaida when it comes to politics, but the theological concerns they raised about Sufism and Salafism are theoretically still relevant to al-Qaida.
Al-Qaida’s attitude toward Tabligh may be quietly flexible. There have been long-standing accusations that al-Qaida has used Tabligh for recruits and for forms of cover. My admittedly limited understanding of these issues is that Tabligh itself is not usually understood as culpable in such interactions; rather, al-Qaida may have taken advantage of Tabligh’s sprawling membership to pursue its own activities.
But that is a far cry from speaking fondly of one’s membership in Tabligh. Ag Ghali describes an overlapping period in his life – 2003-2009 – as “the stage of getting to know the mujahideen,” suggesting he saw no contradiction between membership in Tabligh and his emerging jihadi identity. And again, he voices no regret over his time with Tabligh – he says nothing like, “And then I saw that they were Sufi heretics and I repented.”
A lot has been made of Ag Ghali’s “chameleon-like” identity, and sometimes I think that’s overblown, but this interview definitely furnishes another piece of evidence for that view of him. In fact, the sense I got from the interview was: “This is a true politician.” The interviewer is often critical (perhaps to help Ag Ghali anticipate and deflect others’ criticisms of him), and at each juncture Ag Ghali responds like a politician, sometimes with quite vague answers. As a politician, Ag Ghali has committed to jihadism, but it is far from clear that he has committed to Salafism. (All of this, by the way, recalls Thomas Hegghammer’s argument that “Salafi-jihadi” is a deeply problematic category because of the difficulty assessing people’s theological commitments. Hegghammer recommends classifying people by how they actually behave. In the case of Ag Ghali his argument definitely applies.)
This discussion takes us back to yesterday’s post. Could the Malian government fruitfully engage Ag Ghali in negotiations? I’m still not sure, although I reiterate that I think it’s worth a try. His flexibility could be taken as either a hopeful or a doubtful sign – on the one hand, there is hope that one could find points of discussion with someone who’s ideologically flexible, but on the other hand, someone so flexible might make a very unreliable negotiating partner.