February 6, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Al-Qaeda-ISIS Split: Tactics Over Strategy

• Al-Qaeda Core (AQC) leader al-Zawahiri’s rejection of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) as an affiliate reveals deeper differences than simply ISIS’ tactics
• Underpinning the disagreements are issues of leadership and control. By insisting that it has formed an Islamic Emirate, ISIS aimed to put itself above AQC
• ISIS has also sowed discord (fitna) in al-Qaeda’s salafi-jihadi movement by its disobedience to AQC and by assuming to judge the religious credentials of others—a serious crime.

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The AQC leadership, and Ayman al-Zawahiri in particular, has had trouble with its Iraqi affiliate almost since the day Abu Musab al-Zarqawi joined the movement by swearing baya’ (fealty) to Usama bin Laden in 2004.

Abu Musab was never close to al-Qaida, even when he ran a training camp in Afghanistan in the years before 2001, and it is likely that he joined al-Qaeda merely as a way to attract recruits and money. By 2005, al-Zawahiri was already taking Abu Musab to task for his sectarianism and the brutality of his methods, not so much because he disagreed with them in principle, but because Abu Musab’s approach was turning people against al-Qaeda generally.

But al-Qaeda had no option but to stand by Abu Musab, or else risk irrelevance by being absent from the fight in Iraq during a period when this was the most important front against the United States. After Abu Musab’s death in 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was taken over by an Egyptian ally of al-Zawahiri and things calmed down, at least for a time. The AQC leadership even accepted the change of name from AQI to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2007, as a way to emphasize the local nature of the movement.

By the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had taken over the leadership of ISI and had sent several of his Syrian fighters back to Syria to establish a presence there as the anti-government protests became more violent. These fighters established themselves as Jabhat al- Nusra (Nusra Front) and quickly became one of the most successful rebel groups. This led Baghdadi to change the name of ISI to the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (the Levant) in April 2013, and claim that the Nusra Front was part of his organization.

The Nusra Front complained to al-Zawahiri, who ruled that Abu Bakr’s ISIS group should stay focused on Iraq and that Nusra should fly the al-Qaeda flag in Syria. Abu Bakr rejected this ruling and continues to operate in Syria, even though he has not tried to enforce his control over the Nusra Front.

This led to a series of increasingly impatient communications from al-Zawahiri, who in early February finally disavowed any connection with ISIS.


ISIS & Jabhat al-Nusra: A Question of Tactics Rather than Strategy

Whether AQC, ISIS, or the Nusra Front, the long-term goal of all the al-Qaeda affiliates is the same: the re-creation of a Caliphate (Islamic Empire) covering all Muslim lands from northwest Africa to Xinjiang, China, to Southeast Asia, and to implement their version of Sharia law. However, it is the divergent methods of achieving this shared goal that brought about al-Zawahiri’s public repudiation of ISIS.

Back in 2005, AQC warned Abu Musab to refrain from any unilateral declaration of an Islamic emirate and to take direction from central command. It did the same for its affiliate in Yemen, now known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and later its affiliate in Somalia, Al-Shabab. The reason: according to AQC there can be only one Islamic emirate, with only one leader, the Amir al-Mu’manin (leader of the faithful), to whom all groups must swear baya’. Furthermore, according to AQC edict, when al-Qaeda groups control territory they cannot claim to have created an Islamic emirate as Abu Bakr has done. By doing so, he not only rejected the role of al-Zawahiri’s leadership and the efforts of all other jihadi groups, but also implied he is the only leader.

An example from recent history illustrates where Abu Bakr went wrong with al-Zawahiri: in the late 1990s, Usama bin Ladin pledged baya’ to Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, who had declared an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Bin Ladin recognized—in a religious and political move to preserve his group’s sanctuary—the Emirate as legitimate and, thus, Mullah ‘Umar as the leader of the faithful.

Abu Bakr challenged al-Zawahiri’s clear ruling that his field of activity does not extend beyond Iraq. By disregarding that instruction, he has questioned the whole premise of al-Qaeda as vanguard of the Islamic Ummah (faithful community), active across many fronts. He challenged al-Zawahiri's relevance, and by doing so exposed AQC's weakest point.

The sowing of discord is considered a major crime in extreme Islamist movements, and al-Zawahiri has urged groups that disagree to submit their arguments to a Sharia court for decisions, rather than air them in public. Abu Bakr has disdained to do so.

Although al-Zawahiri is clearly concerned that the brutality and abuse of the local population by ISIS, as well as its sectarianism, will alienate support for al-Qaida, it is the more fundamental issues of authority and discord that have brought him to disown the group. By doing so he has abandoned any chance of influence over ISIS, the strongest and most active group of Islamist extremists in the world today. He will need now to work hard to maintain the unity and cohesion throughout the rest of what remains of al-Qaeda.


• While AQC will remain committed to attacks on the West, most affiliates like the Nusra Front will focus on local power, in accordance with AQC’s consistent guidance

• Al-Zawahiri’s public separation from ISIS could unleash even more violent battles among and between ISIS and affiliates and Nusra Front and allies

• Infighting between ISIS, Nusra Front, and respective confederates will continue to serve the interests of al-Assad by weakening the Sunni-jihadi opposition

• In speaking to the complexity of the opposition landscape of the Syrian civil war, ISIS realizes it could not and probably would not want to overthrow the Assad regime; thus, some opposition groups accuse ISIS of working on behalf of the status quo

• Ultimately, the current chaos is an indication of the nature of the opposition, not the nature of Syria.



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