ISIS Turns on Its Creator, a Marginalized, Drained Al-Qaida

Ideology is far from the best to tool to use when attempting to decipher the constantly shifting kaleidoscope of Jihadist alliances, from Syria to Afghanistan.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Members of Al-Qaida's Nusra Front man a checkpoint in Idlib, Syria. March 30, 2015.
Members of Al-Qaida's Nusra Front man a checkpoint in Idlib, Syria. March 30, 2015.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A special event is rocking jihadist groups these days. This week, for the first time in twenty years, The Afghani Taliban published the life story of their leader Mullah Omar. Omar, who hosted and protected Osama Bin Laden before the attacks on September 11, took great care for many years to remain undercover, fostering a secretive, mysterious image. He was known to very few people, his photo was never published and his lifestyle and whereabouts were unknown.

Thus the publication of his history, education and numerous feats against the “American enemy” is an exceptional occurrence evoking much interest, particularly due to its timing. According to Afghani and Pakistani pundits who follow Islamic organizations in the two countries, the reason for shedding the layer of mystery around Omar is the increasing defection of senior Taliban leaders towards the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) organization, based on their sense that the Taliban leader can no longer fulfill the prime mission of the group, that he is disconnected from his followers and mainly because Taliban funding sources are drying up.

Other sections of the Taliban oppose the attempts at reconciliation with the Afghani government, concerned that this reconciliation – the success of which is doubtful – will isolate the Taliban from their power bases. This requires that Mullah Omar appear in public, presenting himself as the only leader in the eyes of the Taliban, thus trying to stanch the flow of deserters going to the “ISIS caliphate of Khorasan,” which is portraying itself as the sole representative of Islamist groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and India.

At the other end of the Middle East there have been recent reports that Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is considering stepping down as the group’s leader. These reports claim that he has transmitted messages to various branches of the group, releasing them from their vows of allegiance to the group, calling on them to join other Islamist groups, including Islamic State, and continue operating within them. The most detailed such report comes from Ayman Din, a former Al-Qaida operative, who left the organization in the 1990s but still maintains close ties to Islamic groups.

In an interview to the London daily Al-Khayat, he related that al-Zawahiri feels he can no longer compete with Islamic State. Even though he’s succeeded in setting up three new branches - in Somalia (the al- Shabab organization), in Egypt's Sinai and in India - the internal conflicts within these branches, including the most important one in Yemen, where some of his operatives crossed the lines and joined Islamic State, have transformed Al-Qaida into a secondary and even marginal group.

In Syria too, in which Al-Qaida operates through its proxy Jabhat al-Nusra, headed by Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, al-Qaida’s situation is not great. Jabhat al-Nusra linked up with al-Qaida at a late stage of the civil war in Syria, following a bitter clash between al-Joulani and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Baghdadi, who headed Al-Qaida in Iraq before arriving in Syria, was told by al-Zawahiri to return to Iraq and conduct operations from there, leaving Jabhat al-Nusra to conduct the war in Syria. Al- Baghdadi, who was already in control of many areas of Syria, rejected this demand and in effect announced the severing of his links with al-Qaida, heaping abuse at al-Zawahiri in the process.

However, it seems that the leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra is also facing a serious dilemma. Qatar, which has financed and fed the group for years, wants the group to dissociate itself from al-Qaida and join what are mistakenly labeled the “moderate” groups. The objective of this is to remove Jabhat al-Nusra from the U.S. Administration’s list of terrorist groups, thus allowing Qatar to support it directly without causing itself any embarrassment. It would thus join the common struggle against Islamic State and Syrian president Bashar Assad.

However, Jabhat al-Nusra, which controls several strategic areas such as parts of the Syrian city of Idlib, parts of the Golan Heights and the Daraa area, has yet to make a choice. The group can’t see any advantage in dissociating from al-Qaida, which would force it to join the fighting alongside groups that differ from it ideologically, and possibly even having to share control over areas it already holds and from which it currently reaps financial profits.

On the other hand, rejecting Qatar’s demands risks losing the financial support it enjoys. If Qatar convinces Turkey to join the attempts to budge Jabhat al-Nusra, its refusal may also block the vital free passage to and from Turkey, now available to its fighters. These calculations illustrate the fact that loyalty to al-Qaida or its absence is not dependent on ideological grounds but on pragmatic considerations that relate to the group’s very survival. The faction is therefore considering setting up a new group with a different name, which will allow its removal from the list of terrorist groups and secure its funding. However, such a move may lead to further splitting of the group, which will weaken it militarily and thus debilitate its bargaining power vis-à-vis Qatar.

Jabhat al-Nusra was dealt another severe blow this week when it lost the battle for the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus. The most significant armed group within the camp is the Hamas-affiliated Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis. As such, it is supported by the Muslim Brothers in Syria, the rivals of Jabhat al-Nusra. This rivalry played well into the hands of Islamic State - and according to some reports, al-Nusra activists even assisted Islamic State fighters in their battles with the Hamas-linked group.

It’s doubtful whether these moves by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, were coordinated with or reported to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is ideologically far removed from both Islamic State and the Muslim Brothers. The constantly shifting kaleidoscope that presents new patterns of alliances - often illogical - between different groups, makes the exact pigeonholing of each group irrelevant. It no longer makes any difference if Jabhat al-Nusra is linked to al-Qaida or is even financed by it, if in some local arenas it cooperates with Islamic State while in others it fights it. This is also how one should relate to the “pledge of allegiance” to Islamic State, taken by more than 30 Islamic groups across the world, or to the abandonment of al-Qaida by some of these groups. Islamic State needs these allegiances in order to portray itself as the largest and strongest organization, and in order to depose - if not to eradicate - al-Qaida as a competing organization. This is the same manner in which al-Qaida operated before a competitor that now threatens its existence grew within its own ranks.

At the outset, Osama Bin Laden distinguished between two kinds of enemies. The nearby ones; those Arab or Muslim regimes who are not implementing Islam correctly - and the distant enemy, mainly the West, intent on disseminating its culture and controlling Islamic states while endangering their religious values. The fight against the two enemies must be waged in parallel, determined Bin Laden. Following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the distant enemy became much more accessible due to its presence in these occupied countries. This fact helped al-Qaida recruit supporters based not only on religious grounds but on national ones, thus mobilizing thousands of volunteers across Muslim nations for a war against the occupying Western armies.

Subsequently, Bin Laden set up branches in most Muslim nations, basing them on local radical and terrorist groups whose main aim was to fight local regimes - but who also provided activists for international operations. On this al-Qaida infrastructure, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is basing his widespread control network. With such a structure, Islamic State can afford to suffer defeat in one country or region, but its infrastructure will continue to exist, continuing to absorb local al-Qaida branches.

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