Maqdisi and Abu Qatada continue to hope that the unity that once prevailed under bin Laden will return – but they admitted openly that Isis is winning the war on the ground and the propaganda struggle alike. “It’s a fluid state of affairs,” Abu Qatada suggested hopefully. “At the moment, Isis are drunk on power.” But at some point, he believes, they will need to negotiate with al-Qaida again. He pointed out that al-Qaida’s branch in Syria had achieved some recent successes against Assad’s forces, while Maqdisi observed that there were several other branches, including the one in Yemen, whose allegiance remains unquestioned. “Its loyalty is strong and clear,” Maqdisi said. “When Zawahiri sends a message to Yemen, he knows his orders will be obeyed.”
But the two men believe that the events of the past decade – and especially the war with Isis – are a sign that al-Qaida needs to reappraise its tactics. Maqdisi believes that al-Qaida should no longer aim to recruit followers in large numbers; it needs “people of quality”, he said, who thoroughly understand Islamic scholarship, and will not merely deploy it in the furtherance of their own personal ends.
In recent years, Maqdisi has even come to believe that al-Qaida’s conception of jihad – one licensed in part by his own scholarship – may have been incorrect, a jihad of “spite” rather than “empowering believers”. Even the attacks of 9/11, Maqdisi said, were part of a misguided strategy. “The actions in New York and Washington, no matter how great they appeared to be – the bottom line is they were spiteful.”
Maqdisi now wants al-Qaida to begin providing social services, as Hamas has done in Gaza. “That kind of enabling jihad will establish our Islamic state. It will enable it to become a place of refuge for the weak,” he said.