After Disowning ISIS, al Qaeda is Back On Top

Here's Why That Isn't Necessarily Bad News

An Iraqi security forces member takes position during clashes with ISIS in Ramadi, February 12, 2014.
An Iraqi security forces member takes position during clashes with ISIS in Ramadi, February 12, 2014. (Courtesy Reuters)

In early February, al Qaeda’s central leadership announced that it had severed ties with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an affiliate in Iraq and Syria. This step came at some cost of reputation for al Qaeda, but it will serve al Qaeda’s interests far better than maintaining a relationship with an affiliate that subverted al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and damaged the terrorist group’s image. Now that ISIS is disowned, its own reputation is in peril, with potentially devastating consequences. In the weeks and months to come, the United States would be wise to use the rift between al Qaeda and ISIS to promote its own interests in Syria and Iraq.

The move wasn’t particularly surprising: over the years, there have been many signs that the relationship between al Qaeda Central (AQC) and the group’s strongest, most unruly franchise was strained. The 2004 merger between al Qaeda and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Tawhid wal Jihad (it became al Qaeda in Iraq after the merger and then the Islamic State of Iraq after Zaraqawi’s death) had always been more a matter of mutual interests than of shared ideology. But despite growing unease with the Iraqi group’s brutal tactics and its disrespect and even outright subversion of al Qaeda’s authority, AQC had remained reluctant to disown it.

Tensions reached new highs in April 2013 when the leader of the Iraqi faction, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made public his group’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, claimed to command al Qaeda’s designated Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), and declared that the Iraqi and Syrian factions would now operate together under the name ISIS. Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, JN’s leader, denied Baghdadi’s claims and Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s leader, was forced to intervene. He reaffirmed JN’s direct subordination to AQC, not to ISIS, and called for each branch to focus on its own arena. At the same time, he praised Baghdadi for ISIS’ contribution to the jihad and announced that a veteran fighter, Abu Khaled al-Suri, would serve as his personal emissary to oversee the relationship between the two franchises.

But Baghdadi refused to accept Zawahiri’s verdict and openly defied the leader to whom he had once pledged allegiance. This was the first time a leader of an al Qaeda franchise had publically disobeyed an AQC leader, and the episode stoked doubts within the jihadi community about Zawahiri, who succeeded bin Laden only two years ago.

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