“Attacking the Khawarij of al-Baghdadi”: Is al-Qaeda’s Egyptian Affiliate Making a Comeback?

ISIS may have a new competitor in the Sinai Peninsula.

In addition to the crumbling of its self-declared Caliphate in Iraq and Syria and a significant decline in the output of its media apparatus in recent weeks, ISIS’ branch in the Sinai Peninsula may be facing a new challenge from an old pro-al-Qaeda group which recently published a new statement, claiming to have attacked its forces in the Peninsula and promising to “uproot” ISIS in Sinai.

On November 11th, the al-Qaeda affiliated group Jama’at Jund al-Islam (“The Group of the Army of Islam”) released an audio statement on Telegram claiming to have committed “military operations” against the forces of ISIS’ Sinai Province on October 11th. In the statement, Jama’at Jund al-Islam is blaming ISIS for “repeated aggressions against the Muslims in Sinai” and calling ISIS’ members there “to repent” for their crimes before the “uprooting” of ISIS presence in the Peninsula. Jama’at Jund al-Islam is a pro-al-Qaeda group which was responsible for a series of suicide car bombings against the Egyptian Military Intelligence in Rafah in September 2013, but as analyst Aaron Y. Zelin noted, the group has been silent until the past week.

The statement is also justifying the attacks by accusing ISIS of being the “khawarij of al-Baghdadi”, the leader of ISIS, in Sinai. The khawarij (or Kharijites) were the first sect in Islamic history who seceded from the Muslim community and were known for their practice of ex-communicating and attacking other Muslims who did not accept their interpretation of the Quran. Since then, the khawarij became synonymous with extremism and are remembered by most Muslims as violent rebels against Islam (according to one established hadith, the Prophet Muhammad said that “The Khawaarij are the dogs of Hellfire”). Since the rise of ISIS, some Salafi Muslims have accused ISIS of being a modern-day khawarij, but Jama’at Jund al-Islam’s statement shows how this de-legitimizing label is also used by a rival global jihadi group to attack ISIS.

ISIS, for its part, did not remain silent in the face of Jama’at Jund al-Islam’s accusations. In a Telegram channel of Egyptian pro-ISIS supporters, ISIS supporters accused al-Qaeda of cooperating with the Sahawat (the local tribes which oppose ISIS’ existence in the Sinai) and the Egyptian military against ISIS’ jihadists as part of a broader pattern of betrayal and cooperation with the “apostate” anti-ISIS forces, just as al-Qaeda had done in Syria.

ISIS and al-Qaeda have been in open competition with each other since ISIS declared its Caliphate in June 2014, and the war of words between the two groups became a central aspect of the conflict within the global jihadi movement since then (as part of this rivalry, ISIS regularly calls al-Qaeda “the Jews of jihad”). While the Sinai Peninsula has been the heart of an ongoing jihadist insurgency since 2011, most of the jihadist activity in the Peninsula was the work of ISIS’ Sinai Province. The new statement, therefore, indicates a potential comeback of an old global jihadi group and the emergence of a new competitor to ISIS in Sinai.