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Why ISIS's Yemen attack was too extreme even for al-Qaeda

A Yemeni man looks over the damage to a mosque attacked by suicide bombers
A Yemeni man looks over the damage to a mosque attacked by suicide bombers
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty

When terrorists allegedly associated with ISIS killed more than 100 people in suicide bombings at mosques in Yemen on Friday, they were doing more than terrorizing the country's Shia Muslims. They were exposing, and perhaps deepening, the ideological rift between ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda's Yemen-based branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has condemned the attack as "unlawful." It might sound odd that al-Qaeda would so criticize a fellow Sunni jihadist group. But this attack shows the rift that has developed between al-Qaeda and ISIS and the difference in how they think about the mass murder that both groups embrace. This attack simply goes too far, even for al-Qaeda.

New York Times journalist Rukmini Callimachi drew this out in a series of insightful tweets:

Al-Qaeda has denounced ISIS attacks before, including its practice of beheadings. So this is not new, but it does show the degree to which their rift is not going away, and is following the two groups into new arenas.

The ISIS/al-Qaeda rift, in some ways, has its roots in ISIS's predecessor group: al-Qaeda in Iraq, the branch movement that flourished during the mid-2000s but was also chastened by central al-Qaeda leaders for its depravity. Looking back, that should have been a warning to us all that the movement that al-Qaeda had helped launch in the 1990s was somehow heading in an even more violent, barbaric direction, beyond even what Osama bin Laden could tolerate.

Now it may be too late; the ideological momentum of jihadist violence is shifting from al-Qaeda to ISIS. The two are in very real competition in Iraq and Syria already, and perhaps now in Yemen, as well. It is difficult to predict what these trend lines in jihadism mean for the future of the Middle East, but it does not look good.

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