The long read: The inside story of the coup that has brought the world’s most feared terrorist network to the brink of collapse.
On 5 February Jordanian officials confirmed that the intellectual godfather of al-Qaida – Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi – had been released from prison. Though he is little known in the west Maqdisi’s importance in the canon of radical Islamic thought is unrivalled by anyone alive. The 56-year-old Palestinian rose to prominence in the 1980s when he became the first significant radical Islamic scholar to declare the Saudi royal family were apostates – and therefore legitimate targets of jihad.
At the time Maqdisi’s writings were so radical that even Osama bin Laden thought they were too extreme.
Now the man US terrorism analysts call ‘the most influential living jihadi theorist’ has turned his ire toward Isis – and emerged in the last year as one of the group’s most powerful critics. Soon after the Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of a caliphate last June Maqdisi released a long tract castigating Isis as ignorant and misguided – accusing them of subverting the ‘Islamic project’ that he has long nurtured.
Maqdisi’s war of words with Isis is emblematic of the new fratricidal split within violent Islamic radicalism – but it is also a sign that al-Qaida – once the world’s most feared terrorist network – knows it has been surpassed.
Isis has not simply eclipsed al-Qaida on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq – and in the competition for funding and new recruits. According to a series of exclusive interviews with senior jihadi ideologues Isis has successfully launched ‘a coup’ against al-Qaida to destroy it from within. As a consequence they now admit al-Qaida – as an idea and an organisation – is now on the verge of collapse.