When al-Qaeda struck a hotel in Mali exactly one week after the Islamic State's attacks in Paris, it was another competition in what we've dubbed the "Jihad Olympics." Al-Qaeda's latest assault also doubled as an attack ad against the Islamic State (ISIS), contrasting its relative mercy towards Muslims with the Islamic State’s complete disregard for Muslim casualties.
Watch Clarion Project's National Security Analyst, Prof. Ryan Mauro, on FOX News Channel's "America's Newsroom" as news broke of the attacks in Mali and the anchor noted our correct prediction of Al-Qaeda's responsibility:
Responsibility for the attacks was claimed by two al-Qaeda branches: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Mourabitoun. The Macina Liberation Front, a group that has links to Al-Qaeda but has not formally sworn allegiance, later also took credit.
Aside from the obvious fact that al-Qaeda believes it is required by Allah to carry out attacks like what we saw in Mali, the timing strongly suggests it wanted—and desperately needed—to show it still has a pulse. Success is seen as Allah's endorsement, so al-Qaeda's decline since 2001 and the rise of the Islamic State since 2014 have potentially existential consequences for the group.
Success wins arguments between Islamists. There are lengthy debates between Islamists referencing Islamic scripture and legal rulings and scholars' interpretations, but at the end of the day, there's no stronger argument than success (a.k.a. Allah's blessing).
Temporary setbacks may be shrugged off as tests of faith, but undeniable defeat will cause even the most confident-sounding jihadist to privately question how he has offended Allah. This can be seen in letters between senior al-Qaeda leaders and public criticism from former al-Qaeda supporters, including a mentor to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
A second purpose of the Mali attacks was to serve as the jihadist equivalent of a political attack ad against the Islamic State. al-Qaeda made sure to release hostages who could recite verses from the Quran in order to minimize Muslim casualties, regardless of whether those Muslim hostages support the group or not.
Al-Qaeda supporters online immediately pointed this out. al-Qaeda derides the Islamic State as being equivalent to the Khawarij (or Kharijites), a puritanical Islamic sect that waged war against the ruling caliph and branded rival Muslims as apostates deserving of death. The comparison stings ISIS enough that its propaganda regularly addresses it.
Of course, the parallels can just as easily be seen with al-Qaeda and all the Muslim blood it has on its hands. The private communications of al-Qaeda leaders indicate they believe that its targeting of Muslims was frowned upon by Allah and so decided to calibrate their massacres. Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban's condemnation of the Pakistani Taliban's massacre of Muslim children in Peshawar is an example of this course correction.
The "Jihad Olympics" can produce the desired headlines, such as news that al-Qaeda has delivered a "severe blow" to the Islamic State in the Golan Heights area by suicide bombing the leadership of one of its militias (the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigades). But the terrorist-on-terrorist violence comes with a price.
Attacks like those in Paris and Mali are benchmarks in the competition that each group must achieve, especially as its capabilities are doubted. The Islamic State attacked an Italian priest in Bangladesh not only because he is a legitimate target in their minds, but because Bangladesh is a focal point of a new al-Qaeda affiliate that attacked two publishers there only weeks earlier.
The competition and inter-jihadist bloodshed only raises the pressure on each group to attack Western targets. And the gold medal in this "Jihad Olympics" will unfortunately be won by whoever does the most damage inside Western countries, especially the United States.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.