by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Current Trends in Islamist Ideology
January 27, 2014
In the course of the Syrian Civil War, two major rebel factions have emerged who share al-Qaeda’s ideology: Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), which was founded at the beginning of 2012 by Abu Mohammed al-Jowlani, and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS). In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI—the umbrella front for al-Qaeda in Iraq), proposed that JN and ISI merge together. He thus announced the formation of a new Islamist polity, ISIS, which included territories in Iraq and Syria (ash-Sham). Baghdadi argued that Jabhat al-Nusra had been initially set-up with financial support and manpower from the ISI and therefore that the Syria-focused JN was a mere “extension” of the Iraq-based organization. Jowlani, however, rejected Baghdadi’s proposal to combine their efforts on the grounds that he was not consulted. Subsequently, he renewed JN’s bay’ah (pledge of allegiance) to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda Central.
ISIS militiamen pose with the organization’s flag. (Image source: hanein.info)
In June of 2013, al-Jazeera revealed a leaked letter in which Zawahiri ruled in favor of maintaining a separation between ISI and JN in Iraq and Syria respectively. The network released video footage of Zawahiri reading the letter aloud in November 2013. Many observers interpreted this televised pronouncement from al-Qaeda Central’s leader as a renewal of the call to disband ISIS, although sources within ISIS circles inform me that the video in question had, in fact, been in private circulation among their members for months. In any event, Baghdadi has personally rejected the call to disband ISIS. Similarly, ISIS’s new official spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a Syrian veteran of the Iraq War, has also rejected the proposal in even more forceful terms, going so far as to accuse Jowlani of “defection” and affirming that ISIS would not accept geographical limitations based on “Sykes-Picot.”
There are variations in the membership composition of both JN and ISIS that are worth noting. Indeed, the differences between the two groups have national as well as ideological dimensions. JN has a greater proportion of native Syrian members in its ranks, while most foreign jihadis fighting in Syria have declared their allegiance to ISIS. The national differences between the two factions are significant; however they must not be exaggerated. Most foreign fighters in Syria are disproportionately represented among ISIS’s leadership and elite paramilitary corps. The vast majority of ISIS fighters in the rank and file, however, are Syrian nationals. Therefore, while there is a distinct national difference between the two groups, it is not the most important factor that distinguishes them from each other.
ISIS in Syria embodies three important new trends in the overall development of the global jihad movement. First, the group’s existence in Syria marks an open challenge to the leadership of al-Qaeda Central, and to Zawahiri’s directives in particular. An unprecedented split in the jihadist movement in the Fertile Crescent has resulted. Though ISIS is striving to realize the same transnational political vision as al-Qaeda’s central leadership, the ISIS leader Baghdadi has been purposefully ambiguous about whether he or his group has any sort of allegiance to Zawahiri. Is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seeking to establish himself as a Caliph by launching his own Islamic state-building project in Syria independent of Zawahiri’s directives? If so, then infighting with Jabhat al-Nusra, whose ultimate amir is Zawahiri, will become a logical inevitability. Will ISIS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi eventually displace al-Qaeda Central and Zawahiri as the main figures of reverence for jihadist fighters and their supporters worldwide? This, of course, will ultimately depend on ISIS and the success of its efforts in Syria.
Second, ISIS in Syria has enjoyed a level of success in the founding of an Islamic state that is unmatched by any al-Qaeda affiliate or group sharing al-Qaeda’s ideology. Because of its efforts to design and implement a political strategy through social services, the media and educational outreach, it is likely that ISIS in Syria will become the model for current and future jihadist movements seeking to consolidate their control over territory in a lawless environment. Third, despite the disagreement among ISIS members as to whether ISIS is actually an al-Qaeda affiliate, it is ISIS in Syria that perhaps most openly expresses the global jihad movement’s true long-term goals: namely, the establishment of a Caliphate that should encompass the entire world.
Nevertheless, the future viability of ISIS’s “state-building” and its political outreach is in serious doubt. The situation in Syria is simply far too fragmented to allow ISIS to unite the country as a whole under its rule. Indeed, for ISIS to achieve such a goal requires opening up too many fighting fronts, an approach that has already cost ISIS some significant territorial control within Syria. Such is evident in ISIS’s open conflict with the Kurdish YPG militias following its expulsion from the northern border town of Ras al-Ayn in July 2013. While ISIS quickly countered by expelling pockets of YPG militias from multiple locations in the Raqqa and Aleppo governorates (such as the Jarabulus area in July 2013, and Tel Abyaḍ in August), the group has suffered serious setbacks in the far northeast at the hands of the YPG. As a result, ISIS commanders have had to rely on reinforcements from the Ninawa province in Iraq. This diversion of manpower to the northeast has resulted in weaknesses along the Aleppo front against regime forces. Consequently, the Assad regime has managed to exploit rebel infighting in the Aleppo area and to retake some territory.
Moreover, despite ISIS’s political outreach, the group faces a fundamental problem in dealing with other rebel factions and thus in consolidating political control. This is partly because ISIS already sees itself not merely as a “group” or “faction” like the other rebels but as a “state” that has the prerogative to rule over all others. Therefore, ISIS is inherently unwilling to share power, and often adopts a particularly brutal approach to dealing with other rebel factions. In fact, insurgent groups in Iraq, like Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, and also in Syria, like Ahrar ash-Sham, have all complained about ISIS’ intractability. Tensions between ISIS and other rebel groups are likely to grow, as the serious infighting between ISIS and other rebel groups in Aleppo, Idlib, Raqqa and Deir az-Zor governorates suggests. In January 2014, ISIS killed a leading figure in Ahrar ash-Sham, Abu Rayyan, who had attempted to mediate a dispute between Ahrar ash-Sham and ISIS over the latter’s seizure of an Aleppo town called Maskanah.
In all likelihood, the murder will exacerbate existing tensions among the Islamist rebel factions. At present, two rebel coalitions—the Jaysh al-Mujahideen of Aleppo and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front in Aleppo, Idlib and Hama—are committed to evicting ISIS out of Syria. A third coalition that formed in November 2013, the Islamic Front, has been more ambiguous with respect to ISIS. While some of its fighters have battled with ISIS, the Islamic Front’s leaders do not indicate a desire to destroy ISIS per se, but rather lack the ability to restrain their fighters in various localities.
ISIS has weakened itself by fighting along too many battlefronts; it has spread itself too thinly in various towns where it has sought to consolidate political control. On January 10, 2014, rival factions evicted ISIS from almost all Idlib localities except the town of Saraqeb. In Aleppo, Azaz remains the only substantial ISIS stronghold in the Raqqa province. Even there, however, ISIS must continually fight with FSA-banner militants who pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra in the city of Raqqa. In Deir az-Zor province, fighting broke out in the town of Mayadeen between Ahrar ash-Sham and ISIS, culminating in a suicide car bombing by the latter against the former’s local headquarters in the town.
It is worth noting that the rebel groups that have emerged in opposition to ISIS differ from the ones which ultimately became the Iraq “Sahwa” movement in three important ways. First, Islamic Front fighters generally decline to have any kind of Western support in the fight with ISIS. Second, this fighting has been spontaneous and opportunistic, rather than a pre-planned initiative against ISIS. For example, the murder of Abu Rayyan provoked widespread demonstrations in northern Syrian towns against ISIS, thereby allowing members of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the Jaysh al-Mujahideen to exploit the opportunity to attack ISIS. The squabbling that ensued dragged Islamic Front fighters into the conflict. Third, there is a degree of localization to these clashes: Ahrar ash-Sham fighters still collaborate with ISIS on the Qamishli front against the YPG, and some Ahrar ash-Sham affiliates (e.g. in Tel Abyad) refuse to fight ISIS. Likewise, Jabhat al-Nusra tries to play a mediating role in Damascus and Idlib provinces and to protect ISIS fighters in Qalamoun.
So far, ISIS’s loss of territory has been substantial, but the infighting among these rebel Islamist groups should not be construed as the beginning of the end of ISIS in Syria. The group can still retreat into the shadows in its all out-war against the “Sahwa” among the rebels (to quote ISIS’s spokesman in a recent speech on the clashes), and it can pursue clandestine sabotage attacks in an attempt to undermine its rivals within the rebel ranks. Thus, the ISIS bombings and assassinations targeting Sahwa militiamen that we observe in Iraq with regularity today may well become the new norm in Syria.
Since January 2014, however, ISIS’s brutal conduct toward rival rebel groups has drawn strong condemnation from central figures in al-Qaeda. In one instance in Jarabulus, an ISIS suicide car bomb targeting other rebels killed 33 people. Abu Khalid al-Suri, the man appointed by Zawahiri to mediate between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, has since released a statement distancing bin Laden, Zawahiri, and even Abu Musab al-Zarqawi from ISIS’s recent “crimes.” He called on ISIS members to repent. It now appears the gap between al-Qaeda Central and ISIS will continue to grow.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.