November 18, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: ISIS & Nusra: Tactical Not Strategic Alliance

• The Islamic State’s impressive advances since June have stalled, and thus, its leader may have authorized some form of an alliance with its al-Qaeda affiliated rival, Jabhat al-Nusra, in Syria

• Al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remain estranged despite calls from some in Sunni extremist circles to settle their differences

• However, mutual interests and ground realities on certain battlefronts make plausible temporary—though likely fleeting—alliances, such as in northern Syria and in spillover fighting in Lebanon

• Ultimately, though, al-Qaeda core and the Islamic State are competitors and will remain as such until, at least, one of their respective leaders dies.


In his latest ‘proof of life’ tape, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the so-called Islamic State, threatens to carry on fighting even if only one soldier remains. While not an immediate possibility, the Islamic State has certainly taken some hard hits in recent weeks. The group’s momentum, which looked so impressive in June, has stalled. This is one of the reasons that Baghdadi has authorized a closer association between his fighters in Syria and the al-Qaeda affiliate there, Jabhat al-Nusra.

The split between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, which was triggered by Baghdadi’s attempt to reclaim authority over Jabhat al-Nusra in April 2013, was essentially a split between the leadership of the two groups rather than the result of any ideological or strategic dispute that divided the rank and file. The differences between Baghdadi and Ayman al-Zawahiri harked back to the differences between Zawahiri and Baghdadi’s predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who came to verbal blows in a famous exchange of letters in 2005. Zarqawi believed in the power of terror and the recruitment benefits of outright sectarianism, while Zawahiri argued that videos of the brutal killing of fellow Muslims went against al-Qaeda’s objective of building public support.

Baghdadi follows Abu Musab’s example of conducting well-publicized acts of brutality, but his break with Zawahiri was as much about autonomy as it was about style. Baghdadi saw no need and no reason to follow the orders of an aging and invisible leader holed up in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area, particularly if that meant prioritizing sporadic and clandestine attacks against the West while ignoring the chance to make dramatic territorial gains in Iraq and Syria.

Zawahiri tried for many months to mend the rift between the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, but in February this year lost patience with Baghdadi and severed all ties. Baghdadi’s declaration of the Caliphate and his appointment of himself as Caliph in late June appeared to make the split irreparable. Since then, however, the dynamics of the civil war in Syria and the effect of U.S. airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria have forced Baghdadi to think again. Although there is neither likelihood nor possibility that Baghdadi would ever seek reconciliation with Zawahiri, there is clear tactical advantage in some local collaboration with Jabhat al-Nusra.

Many al-Qaeda groups and supportive ideologues around the world have been urging the two groups to put their differences behind them, especially since the U.S. airstrikes began. The attacks by the coalition have not only aligned both organizations against a common enemy, but they have also reminded their members and sympathizers of all that unites them rather than of what divides them. In this regard, both organizations have a shared interest in ensuring that there is no opposing rebel group left in Syria strong enough to attract U.S. support. Furthermore, although al-Nusra has been doing well enough without the Islamic State’s help, an alliance protects it from sudden attack in northern Syria as it gains ground in the west and south. For the Islamic State, the same is true. It does not need al-Nusra attacking its bases in Syria while it faces increasing difficulties in Iraq. Also, Baghdadi must fear that as his momentum slows and his difficulties increase, his reluctant subjects in Syria may become bold enough to invite al-Nusra to take over. After all, he would have no hesitation in sparking such a revolt if the positions were reversed.

But while there are many reasons for temporary and local alliances between the two groups, a lasting peace is unlikely. Ultimately, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are competitors, not just for the same recruits but, more importantly, for the same legacy of global ‘jihad’ spawned by Usama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are indistinguishable in terms of their ultimate objectives, even if their tactics differ. But having declared himself Caliph, Baghdadi cannot now descend to the level of an acolyte like Zawahiri. And Zawahiri, as the agreed successor to bin Laden and the established leader of al-Qaeda, could never swallow his pride and agree to follow Baghdadi. The two are doomed to keep their movements separate, at least until one or the other dies.


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