Maya Gebeily

Al-Qaeda disowns Syria’s ISIS

Al-Qaeda may seek to consolidate control over jihad in Syria via Jabhat al-Nusra

SYRIA, ALEPPO : A member of Jabhat al-Nusra stands in Aleppo on January 11, 2014

In a cutting statement last night, Al-Qaeda’s central command formally disavowed the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the extremist group fighting for over a year in Syria’s civil war. “We were neither informed about its creation nor counseled about it,” the statement read. “ISIS is not a branch of Al-Qaeda. No organizational ties link us together, and AQ is not responsible for ISIS’s actions.” Though very significant for Al-Qaeda’s future in Syria, analysts told NOW the move isn’t surprising, and its effects remain to be seen.  


The statement from Al-Qaeda central had been a long time coming. Tensions between ISIS and Al-Qaeda’s main leadership became public as early as April of 2013, when Al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri sided with Jabhat al-Nusra head Mohammad Jolani against ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The first kinetic confrontation between Nusra and ISIS came in September, when ISIS forces stormed Nusra’s headquarters in the northeastern city of Shaddadi. Hostilities fully erupted in January of this year, when the Islamic Front, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, and the Muhajideen Army launched a military campaign against ISIS in northern Syria. Though Nusra was not formally involved in the intra-rebel clashes, some of their fighters independently joined the battles against ISIS.


Throughout the past year, Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda central have tried to rein in ISIS. In a written statement in May 2013, the Al-Qaeda chief called on ISIS to return to Iraq; he did so again in an audio recording six months later, demanding that ISIS be disbanded. The latter ignored Zawahiri’s directives, continued to operate in Syria, and increasingly pointed its guns at other anti-regime rebels – thereby sparking central command’s latest and most damning statement.


Still, analysts say the release shouldn’t come as a surprise. “It was always clear from the beginning… that there was something that wasn’t really ‘AQ’ about ISIS,” said Pieter Van Ostaeyen, an independent analyst of Syria’s Islamist groups. Van Ostaeyen told NOW that the first clue about ISIS’s independence from Al-Qaeda was that Baghdadi never actually pledged allegiance to Zawahiri and central command. Furthermore, ISIS was born out of the Islamic State of Iraq, which in turn had its roots in Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). According to Ostayen, even AQI had been having problems with the terrorist group’s overarching leadership: AQI’s head, Abu Musab al-Zaraqawi, had frequently been reprimanded by Osama bin Laden for failing to fall in line with Al-Qaeda’s general strategy. Charles Lister, analyst at the Brookings Institute, also pointed out that many individual ISIS fighters in Syria had for some time been refusing or failing to identify themselves as Al-Qaeda. Combined with Baghdadi’s repeated disregard for Zawahiri’s demands and the latter’s accusation that ISIS was fomenting fitna in Syria, it becomes clear why the Al-Qaeda head chose to disown ISIS entirely.


The statement’s effect on the ground has yet to be seen. Van Ostaeyen expects ISIS to remain in Syria and to intensify its operations against the Islamic Front, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, and the Muhajideen Army. In turn, those factions would reinforce their efforts to safeguard their arms depots and protect their leaders, who have been under attack by ISIS since the infighting started. Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis website, told NOW that there are no indications ISIS will adhere to Zawahiri’s repeated demands that its fighters return to Iraq. “Maybe if they’re really badly mauled on the battlefield or their leaders are killed off, they will reconsider their no-compromise philosophy – there’s great persuasive force in that,” he said.


Al-Qaeda central’s statement does give a boost to Nusra, once again. The release serves as yet another instance that Zawahiri throws his weight behind Nusra and scolds ISIS, this time with particularly strong language. Nevertheless, it remains unclear just how much Nusra will boast of its Al-Qaeda ties. Lund said that as Nusra continues to build its ties with Islamist, non-Al-Qaeda rebel forces within Syria, it may choose to publicly downplay its relationship with its parent organization – even though it has already pledged allegiance to it. Lister, on the other hand, has noted a number of Nusra factions referring to themselves as “Al-Qaeda in Syria,” perhaps in an effort to reassert Al-Qaeda’s control of jihad operations in Syria.


ISIS’s future in Syria is growing increasingly precarious. Not only is it facing civil protests against it in the country’s northern and eastern provinces, but it is also losing ever more ground in the global jihadist movement. Last week, it rejected an influential jihadist sheikh’s proposal – endorsed by other jihadists around the globe – to end rebel infighting in Syria, thereby isolating itself even from its ideological allies.


“Whether it will go further and we’ll see global jihadists openly backing armed action against ISIS is another issue,” Lund told NOW. “But it’s certainly closer now than it was a few days ago.”

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters could stand to gain much from ISIS’s growing isolation. (AFP Photo/Baraa al-Halabi)

“ISIS is not a branch of Al-Qaeda. No organizational ties link us together, and AQ is not responsible for ISIS’s actions.”