In early February, al-Qaeda disowned the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which has faced repeated accusations of attacking fellow rebel groups in Syria.
ISIS became one of the strongest jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria after a tumultuous birth in April 2013. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of an al-Qaeda affiliate group known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), announced that ISI and the aggressive al-Nusra Front in Syria had merged into the new group ISIS. This would allow the local terrorist organisation, with Baghdadi heading some 3,000 to 5,000 fighters, to be more active in the Syrian civil war.
Al-Nusra’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani, however, rejected the idea that his group had ever been ISI’s junior. He snubbed Baghdadi’s claimed merger and instead pledged al-Nusra’s allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who replaced Osama bin Laden as the leader of al-Qaeda.
In June, Zawahiri ruled against the merger in order to reduce tensions and infighting. He censured Baghdadi for neglecting to consult either Julani or al-Qaeda’s central command, instead referring to the al-Nusra Front as “an independent branch of al-Qaeda.” Zawahiri also criticised Julani for his poor tact in refusing to join ISIS, which he ordered to return to its old name.
Baghdadi then immediately defied the general leadership when he said that “we have many legal and methodological reservations” to Zawahiri’s letter, choosing “the order of God over the orders that contravene Allah in the letter.” This was the first time in al-Qaeda’s history that one of its franchises had ever publicly contradicted its leader.
Al-Nusra’s well-armed jihadists and effective suicide bombings have allowed it to build a reputation on the battlefield, where it has tried to reconcile with other opposition groups in the hopes of maintaining a degree of popular support among the Syrian people. Whereas al-Nusra hopes to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, ISIS has been far more concerned with gaining territory and enacting its ruthless rendition of Islamic law.
The groups’ complicated bureaucratic infighting had soon turned into actual fighting. ISIS has brazenly confronted other rebels in its quest for military supremacy. In early January, more than 2,300 people died during an assault on its strongholds by Western-backed and Islamist groups.
By February, various secular and Islamic groups, including al-Nusra, began to voice their concern that ISIS fighters had gone too far. It appears that Baghdadi’s broken ties with Zawahiri were irreconcilable behind the scenes.
Al-Qaeda General Command announced that it “has no connection with the group called the ISIS, as it was not informed or consulted about its establishment. It was not pleased with it and thus ordered its suspension. Therefore, it is not affiliated with al-Qaeda and has no organisational relationship with it.”
ISIS had been al-Qaeda’s most successful franchise. It had long been the organisation’s representative in Iraq, where fighters have recently taken over parts of Ramadi and Fallujah. But given the group’s reported brutality as of late, al-Qaeda’s disowning of ISIS may allow it to gain more public support.
The move could reflect a willingness to work with other groups with aligned goals, such as rebel opposition in Syria. It will, however, prove damaging to the Syrian revolution. According to Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Centre, “So long as it continues, these inter-group hostilities make any kind of provincial, let alone national, opposition victory in Syria highly unlikely.”
Such hostilities are likely to continue. In February, Julani of the al-Nusra Front gave ISIS an ultimatum, threatening to drive it out from Syria and Iraq unless it agreed within five days to accept clerical arbitration. The issue stems over accusations of “takfir”, or unbelief, as ISIS is accused of unfairly labeling other rebel groups as infidels. Earlier in the month, an al-Qaeda emissary sent to help reduce tensions was killed in a suicide bombing in Aleppo. ISIS has been blamed for the attack.
In the long run, the disavowal from al-Qaeda will harm ISIS. It will have to expend more time and resources on keeping its territory from other rebels, maintaining its thin public support despite disapproval from established jihadi groups, and attempting to prevent defection and internal dissent. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda will refocus its image as the defender of Sunnis, appearing less interested in being dominant over other pro-Sunni groups and more interested in appealing to local constituencies.
US counterterrorism would be well-served by reaching out to slightly more moderate Islamist groups, including al-Nusra. After all, the continued backlash against ISIS will encourage these groups to reflect on the limits of violence. For the time being, the apparent differences between ISIS and al-Qaeda will allow the United States to push for its interests in Syria and Iraq.
A UN study on al-Qaeda found that although it had lost “its former strength”, resulting in strategies to recruit members as young as 12, the organisation remains a global threat. “The ideas, inspiration and networks generated by al-Qaeda continue to reverberate.” By allowing it to regain a measure of bureaucratic control, the disowning of ISIS will enable al-Qaeda to continue its role in being a dominant force shaping the direction of jihadi movements in the Middle East.