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Why Did al-Qaida Disavow ISIS in Syria?

On Feb. 2, [al-Qaida disavowed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant][1]. In May 2013, al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered ISIS to leave Syria and return to Iraq, and said that Jabhat al-Nusra, which is more popular with both civilians and other rebel fighting groups, was its [official branch in the country.[2].

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

“Al-Qaida announces it is not linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, as it was not informed of its creation … [and] did not accept it,” said a statement posted to jihadist websites. ISIS “is not a branch of al-Qaida, has no links to it, and the [al-Qaida] group is not responsible for its acts.”

We asked jihad experts Aron Lund and Aaron Zelin to weigh in on why al-Qaida chose to cut ties, and what the disavowing will mean for ISIS going forward. 

Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis:

If you look at the relations between ISIS and al-Qaida, the relationship between al-Qaida central and the Iraqi wing of the movement was slightly tense going back to 2004 or 2005, because the Iraqi arm didn’t come from the central core of al-Qaida. The Iraqi al-Qaida was originally an older independent group co-opted into the movement after the Iraq war started, so there was always tension there.

Then in 2006, the Iraqi al-Qaida wing transformed itself into the Islamic State of Iraq, ISI, and from that point it’s not really clear what their relationship was. It just merged into this Islamic State and it was seen as a different thing than the original al-Qaida movement: that was an organization, and ISI was a state. The public line about it from Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was then the deputy al-Qaida leader, was that “we don’t have an al-Qaida in Iraq anymore, the fighters in Iraq have all started working for the state.” He said that ISI was sovereign in Iraq, but they didn’t make it very clear whether that meant that the central al-Qaida leadership of Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri would have no influence anymore.

In 2011, ISI helped set up Jabhat al-Nusra, which was seen as the ISI and al-Qaida affiliate in Syria. But when Jabhat al-Nusra had such enormous success and the Syrian war grew, the ISI leaders wanted in. Perhaps they also feared losing control over Jabhat al-Nusra. The ISI extended their activities into Syria in April 2013, and they then took on the new name: the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, ISIS. Doing so, they tried to swallow up Jabhat al-Nusra, which they said had always been their proxy group in Syria, and they ordered its members to join ISIS instead.

At that point, this ambiguous al-Qaida and ISIS relationship was put to the test. Ayman al-Zawahiri tried to oppose this; he said Jabhat al-Nusra should remain the organization in Syria and ISIS should go back to being ISI again, in Iraq only. The Jabhat al-Nusra leader and those members of his group that didn’t want to become part of ISIS publicly swore allegiance to Zawahiri, showing that they wouldn’t submit to the ISIS leaders and preferred to be a separate group loyal to al-Qaida.

The question has been, were some or all of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra officials loyal to Zawahiri before this? Or were they not formally committed to al-Qaida after 2006? Did Zawahiri try to exert leadership he didn’t have? Either way, the Iraqi leader of ISIS didn’t obey. He got the ISI plus a big chunk of Jabhat al-Nusra to join him in ISIS. Zawahiri could do nothing about it, but he now had the public allegiance of Jabhat al-Nusra.

Then the conflicts began to grow between ISIS and other groups, not primarily Jabhat al-Nusra, for a number of reasons. This has been brewing since April 2013, when ISIS began to set itself up as a state in northern Syria. All the other fighting groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, were fine with having mediation and cooperative arrangement through Sharia courts and tribunals, except ISIS, which said, We’re a state, we have our own courts and our members will be tried only there if they’ve done something wrong. And that exploded into the rebel infighting you saw in January.

Now Zawahiri has finally decided it is time to be clear that ISIS is not part of al-Qaida. ISIS has by now alienated everyone else, even the salafis and Islamists who tried to appease it and work with it. The relations between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are also really bad now, and in some areas the groups are fighting openly, even though both seem to realize that’s a dangerous thing for them since they are so closely related.

On the one hand, the al-Qaida decision is damage control. They don’t want to be associated with this group because it’s alienating everyone. If Zawahiri doesn’t control ISIS, then why would he want to be burdened with responsibility for their actions? And now ISIS is very unpopular. It’s becoming a pariah even among Islamists because of the fighting that started in January, so it’s something he needs to act on.

Since the infighting there’s been mediation efforts, but ISIS has been losing popularity within the jihadi community, both in Syria and globally. The timing of this al-Qaida statement is directly related to the fighting that erupted in January; they have to say something. It all seems to be part of this trend of the older generation of jihadists and the al-Qaida establishment distancing itself from ISIS: they can’t work with it, it doesn’t play by the same rules as everyone else. All the other rebel groups including Jabhat al-Nusra want to work inside the larger Syrian uprising and influence it from within, while ISIS wants to be the uprising. And they’re all exasperated with ISIS and essentially abandoning a sinking ship. So now ISIS is just going to be more isolated.

Aaron Zelin, Richard Borow fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: 

It’s a complicated question, but if we look through the lens of what we’ve been seeing in the last month in terms of fighting against ISIS, I suspect it won’t change too much on the ground because they’re already ostracized and isolated from other rebel groups, and they have their own stream of funding and getting weapons. It could open up fighting between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. The larger question is, What does this mean for actual individuals on the ground who are fighting as members of ISIS? Does it make them rethink whether they should be in the organization or does it solidify their commitment? I suspect those who are still with ISIS after January’s rebel infighting, al-Qaida’s [abandonment] and top jihadi clerics disavowing them are probably not leaving them now.

In the short term, I don’t think it changes anything regarding ISIS’s position within Syria, because they’re so disliked by everyone at this point. It has relevancy in terms of al-Qaida central and its network in general, although it means al-Qaida no longer has an affiliate inside Iraq. It’s the first time al-Qaida has ever kicked an organization out of its global network.

The last straw for al-Qaida was probably the anti-ISIS rebel infighting. The statement is dated from Jan. 22 and just came out last night because it takes time for their couriers to safely put out releases. The infighting started Jan. 3, so it’s only two and a half weeks later, and I imagine that al-Qaida central itself was gathering information first from clerics, getting opinions. The thing to remember too is that when ISIS first announced itself, al-Qaida’s chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, put out a statement providing advice to ISIS saying, Nusra is our designated group in Syria, and you guys should go back to Iraq and fight there. So there were tensions going back eight months, and this is the conclusion: al-Qaida says, we’re cutting our losses.

Al-Qaida still has al-Nusra in Syria, which doesn’t have issues with any other groups. I think al-Qaida does see this [disavowing] as a smart move. It was worried that people would think twice about al-Nusra if they associated it with ISIS.

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