By: R. Green, Research Fellow at MEMRI
The global jihad movement has been experiencing a rift of unprecedented proportions in light of the events in Syria. The rising tension between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a multitude of other rebel groups, which has escalated to the point of fierce fighting, has forced Al-Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan-Pakistan to publicly distance itself from ISIS. The following is a review of the events that led to this schism and the conclusions to be drawn from them.
Global jihad has been involved in the war in Syria from the outset. Initially, elements associated with it began operating in Syria as part of a new organization named Jabhat Al-Nusra (JN). The organization, which officially announced its existence in early 2012, portrayed itself as a group of Syrian jihad fighters and avoided revealing that it was established by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). In April 2013, ISI leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared he was eliminating JN as an independent organization and merging it with the ISI, and that the joint organization would henceforth be known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
JN commander Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani rejected this declaration and announced that he and his men would continue operating independently as part of JN. He publicly declared his association with Al-Qaeda and renewed his oath of fealty to its leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri. From this point, a struggle developed between the two organizations over the leadership of the jihad in Syria, with each side attempting to recruit as many fighters as possible and as much support as possible from leading Salafi-jihadi clerics. Al-Zawahiri himself attempted to arbitrate in this matter, determining that ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi should remain in Iraq and leave the Syrian front to Al-Joulani and JN. He even appointed his confidant, Abu Khalid Al-Suri, as his personal representative in Syria. Al-Baghdadi surprisingly rejected this decision and declared that “the Islamic State remains in Syria.”
Throughout the summer and fall of 2013, ISIS gathered strength in the field and became an influential element in rebel-controlled areas. Its success leaned on several foundations:
1. Quality military actions thanks to efficient organization and hierarchy.
2. Effective function on the battlefield with the use of ruthless tactics.
3. An aggressive and sophisticated informational array.
4. Massive recruitment of foreign fighters, who mostly joined ISIS whether they came from Arab countries, Asia, or the West.
5. Considerable financial resources.
6. The flow of manpower from Iraq thanks to successful prison breaks in the course of which many members of the organization were sprung. Yes? They were members of the organization to begin with?
7. The support of leading clerics and figures in the global Salafi-jihadi movement.
Al-Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan-Pakistan, which attributes supreme importance to the Syrian arena, was forced to throw in its lot with JN. It sent a delegation of advisors and instructors who were veterans of battles in Afghanistan-Pakistan to assist Al-Joulani, and upgraded JN to an official Al-Qaeda affiliate. Since several months ago the title “Al-Qaeda in Syria” appears alongside JN’s name.
ISIS center in Al-Dana, near Idlib, bombed by rival rebel forces
Tension Between Rebel Groups And ISIS
ISIS has in fact been in conflict with other rebel groups ever since its establishment in April 2013 – both with groups associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and with Islamist organizations that strive to establish an Islamic state. The struggle is for around control of territory, cities and resources, and often plays out on the local level between ISIS and local militias and bodies. In addition, there is opposition to the very existence of ISIS in Syria, since it is seen as an outside body relying on foreign fighters and as an extremist organization whose ideology and tactics harm the image of all rebels. This, on top of the organization’s tendency to spread its extremist beliefs and strictly enforce shari’a law.
In November 2013, six Salafi organizations and groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood announced the establishment of the Islamic Front – a coalition estimated to include some 100,000 fighters. One of the goals of its establishment, which was clear to all even though it was not openly stated, was to reduce the power of ISIS and present an ostensibly moderate Islamic alternative to global jihad organizations. In recent month ISIS and Islamic Front officials have been exchanging recriminations and tensions have escalated to armed confrontations in several places. The Islamic Front is considered close to the Gulf states, who see it as a major role-player in the war against the Assad regime, as well as a means to reduce the danger they face from the extremist agenda of ISIS. It should be mentioned that JN and its officials hold close ties with the Islamic Front.
Following the unification of the Islamist factions, additional coalitions were established, such as Jaysh Al-Mujahideen in the Aleppo area, whose stated purpose is to fight ISIS and remove it from Syria.
The struggle between ISIS and JN over the leadership of the jihadi arena in Syria, two jihadi organizations that share the same world view, currently encompasses all jihadi circles in the world. Clerics, preachers, activists, donors – all are compelled to take sides. Al-Qaeda central in Afghanistan-Pakistan has always seen itself as the spearhead of jihadi fighters – a kind of guiding body that remotely controls jihadi organizations around the globe. The West too sees Al-Qaeda as an octopus that guides terrorist action in various places worldwide. Now Al-Zawahiri and the few other core members who are still alive are forced to deal with an unexpected threat – a challenge by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, which essentially pulls the rug out from under the veteran leadership. Al-Baghdadi and ISIS continue to pay lip service to Al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda and maintain its honor. However, in practice, Al-Baghdadi has designated himself as a global leader of the jihad fighters in particular and of Muslims in general, and as a herald of the Caliphate. This crisis is expected to continue and rock the global jihad movement in the foreseeable future.
Read more at MEMRI