In a move with fairly wide-ranging implications for global Islamic terrorism and the Levant region, Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) has issued a communique denying any link between itself and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As you know, ISIS has been embroiled in a civil war within a civil war, in recent weeks spending far more of its time fighting other rebels than fighting the Assad regime (in fact, evidence suggests that ISIS is a lot more interested in selling oil to Assad than in actually fighting him, and Assad may in fact be cultivating ISIS in order to tar the entire rebellion with the Al-Qaeda label). Of course, the link between ISIS and AQC has been tenuous since ISIS first formed as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006. That group included the remnants of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), but was not exclusively the successor to that group, and AQC leader Ayman al-Zawahiri acknowledged as much the following year. Still, ISI’s leader, the man known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been part of AQI and thus had a bayʿah (pledge of allegiance) to AQC and Zawahiri. It’s worth noting that AQC had been at odds with AQI prior to 2006, and in 2004 Zawahiri (then AQC’s number two) wrote a letter to then-AQI head Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that criticized Zarqawi’s tendency to spend more time killing Iraqis than killing Americans (which Zarqawi, like Baghdadi last year, ignored).
However, it wasn’t until last year, when Baghdadi announced that ISI was becoming ISIS, and that it was absorbing the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN, although lately they’ve started calling themselves Al-Qaeda in Syria or AQS), that the split between Baghdadi and Zawahiri became fully apparent.
JN’s leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani, rejected the idea that his group was simply the Syrian branch of ISI, and pledged his loyalty directly to Zawahiri, not to Baghdadi. Zawahiri responded by ordering Baghdadi to cease operations in Syria and remain in Iraq, and Baghdadi then responded by offering Zawahiri the jihadi equivalent of a raised middle finger. Although most media and other observers (including this blog) have continued to refer to ISIS as an Al-Qaeda affiliate, and neither Baghdadi nor Zawahiri had suggested there was a real break between their organizations, it seems clear at this point that any real affiliation was over when Baghdadi refused Zawahiri’s order and kept operating in Syria. ISIS and JN/AQS have had a back-and-forth relationship–sometimes operating in tandem, sometimes working against each other–but JN has generally been more open to working with other rebel factions, whereas ISIS has preferred to work alone (aside, as I say, from the occasional partnership with JN).
Zawahiri’s statement says that Al-Qaeda has neither “links to” nor any “organizational relationship with” ISIS, and that it is not “responsible for [ISIS’] actions and behaviors.” It stresses that AQC wants shura (consultation) with all Mujahideen, and decries the recent fitnah (strife) between the rebel factions, which it is obviously blaming on ISIS. Aymenn al-Tamimi, who is really invaluable reading on the relationships of the various jihadi groups operating in Syria and Iraq (I’ve linked to him three times in this post), actually has been reporting for a little while now that ISIS was requiring its fighters to make their bayʿah to Baghdadi, but not to Zawahiri, which could obviously be interpreted as a break with AQC but is also ambiguous enough that Baghdadi and Zawahiri both could maintain the pretense of an organization link as long as it suited them; a pledge of loyalty to Baghdadi, who had already pledged his loyalty to Zawahiri by the transitive property of terrorist loyalty oaths, I guess. Clearly it no longer suits AQC’s purposes to be tied to ISIS, and now we know that it’s possible for a group to be too indiscriminately violent for Al-Qaeda’s taste.
It’s unlikely, in my view, that this will change the situation on the ground in Syria or Lebanon (where both ISIS and JN have active affiliates); some of the fighters who pledged themselves to Baghdadi may have done so under the assumption that they were working for AQC, but many more seem to have done so without feeling that they had also joined the supposed-parent organization. ISIS, for its part, is unlikely to let Zawahiri’s statement change what they’re doing in any way. At any rate, the fighting between rebel groups in Syria is unlikely to reach a climax anytime soon. Where this is potentially a big deal, again in my opinion, is in Iraq, where terrorism expert Charles Lister (his thoughts on the AQC declaration are here) notes that Al-Qaeda now has no affiliate:
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 3, 2014
You’ve presumably noticed that Iraq has its own uprising/internal strife going on right now, with ISIS at the point of the spear but including other disaffected Sunni fighters from Anbar province. A Sunni uprising against a Shiʿi government that has strong Western backing is not the kind of fight that AQC can passively observe without losing credibility in the wider jihadi community. ISIS has presumably a good deal more credibility in Iraq than it has in Syria, given its Iraqi origins, but on the other hand ISIS’ extremism and willingness to attack anyone who doesn’t pledge allegiance to Baghdadi has managed to alienate Iraq’s Sunnis about as thoroughly as it has alienated the other rebel factions in Syria. There’s fertile ground for a Nusrah-like group, one that espouses Al-Qaeda’s ideology and has ties to Zawahiri while working with potential allies rather than fighting to subjugate them, to recruit in Iraq, and it’s very possible that JN itself, which, as I said, is already active in Lebanon, could simply branch into Iraq as well. This could make the situation in Iraq even less stable than it is now. It would also be pretty ironic, given that it was ISIS expanding across the border that triggered this whole thing.