Al-Qaida in Syria: Surface Divisions, But a Common Thread

On Thursday, six of the strongest Syrian rebel groups issued a joint statement demanding that al-Qaida branch the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) withdraw from the northern town of Azaz, which borders Turkey.

Written by Tarek Aziza Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

It’s the latest public outcry against ISIS, which has come under increased scrutiny from all corners in recent weeks after deadly clashes with other rebel groups.

Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra – another active extremist group that is also loyal to al-Qaida– is still held in relatively high regard by citizens on the ground, even attracting secular fighters and ISIS members to its ranks.

The Birth of Jabhat al-Nusra

Nusra’s creation was announced by its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani in January 2012. Since its inception, it has been viewed as an affiliate of al-Qaida that has adopted its jihadist agenda.

Videos documenting al-Nusra’s operations showed the similarities between it and ISIS. Both use explosives, car bombs and suicide bombers. The style of documentation used by each group is similar, with Quranic verses and religious chants as the background audio.

The al-Nusra founding charter mentioned it was formed as “one of the fronts of jihad.”

On April 9, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq, said it was “time to announce to the people of Syria and the whole world that Jabhat al-Nusra is but an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq.”

He declared that ISIS and al-Nusra would now merge under the ISIS banner.

Golani, Nusra’s chief, refused the merger and insisted his men would continue to fight under the al-Nusra banner.

ISIS and al-Nusra at Odds

Al-Qaida leaders and preachers were divided, leading Zawahiri to intervene. He disbanded ISIS, keeping the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Nusra as separate entities, though al-Nusra would continue to take orders from al-Qaida general command.

He demanded both groups stop “attacking the other party both verbally and physically.”

But Zawahiri’s decision did not put an end to the dispute.

It resulted in the division of al-Nusra. Many of its foreign fighters left to join ISIS, while Syrian fighters remained loyal to al-Nusra. Others left altogether and joined other Islamic brigades. Nusra leader Baghdadi carried on, ignoring ISIS and issuing statements in the name of al-Nusra, which still operates on the ground, coordinating with other jihadist groups and the Free Syrian Army.

Baghdadi’s official spokesperson, Adnani, said in August that while Nusra once represented the Islamic state, it had grown too close to the secular FSA.

He said the creation of an Islamic state was hindered by the creation of a moderate Islamic state. “This project has an Islamic shell, but it is a nation-state that bows to the tyrants of the West … Its goal is to derail the path of jihad,” his statement read. He cautioned that many factions were being derailed from the “righteous” path, accepting concessions in the name of politics and diplomacy.

Many ISIS members describe the al-Nusra fighters who have jumped ship as apostates. ISIS views the FSA as a Syrian version of the Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq, while al-Nusra fighters are seen as “jihadists who need a little bit of care and guidance to become missionaries of Islamic rule.”

This article was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri. 

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