WASHINGTON — Al-Qaida’s central command publicly has disowned its Iraqi affiliate over that group’s brutal activities in Syria in an unprecedented break that analysts say may weaken the Syrian insurgency and impact al-Qaida’s operations across the Middle East.
Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a statement posted on jihadist forums late Sunday, formally declared the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, not an al-Qaida affiliate over its defiance of his order last year to limit its operations to Iraq and to leave operations in Syria to the official al-Qaida affiliate there, the Nusra Front.
“ISIS is not a branch of al-Qaida and we have no organizational relationship with it,” al-Zawahiri’s statement said. As a result, it added, al-Qaida is no longer responsible for the “actions and behaviors” of ISIS, which has been fighting a bloody campaign against other rebel groups in Syria while imposing strict Islamic law on the parts of Syria it controls, often executing people it finds to be insufficiently pious.
Experts on al-Qaida offered a variety of interpretations on the importance of al-Zawahiri’s statement. Some said it was likely to be closely watched by al-Qaida affiliates in other parts of the world; if ISIS survives the expulsion and continues to hold onto its positions inside Syria, it likely will mean that central al-Qaida’s ability to command their operations will have collapsed.
“If ISIS succeeds without being part of al-Qaida, it could create a competing center of jihadist power,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow who studies al-Qaida for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It’s possible that it will dim al-Qaida’s brand as well as al-Qaida’s fundraising.”
The break with ISIS could also work out to be a boon for U.S. counterterrorism efforts by opening up “the possibility of the most serious internal fighting — I mean violent fighting — al-Qaida has faced,” said Seth Jones, an associate director of RAND Corp.’s International Security and Defense Policy Center who’s worked closely with U.S. Special Forces Command.
“The good news angle is that this is essentially fratricide,” he said. “It’s al-Qaida fighting itself now, and there’s no better way to fight an organization than for it to begin fighting within itself.”
But other analysts were more cautious, warning that ISIS pushed from Syria could turn its wrath on that country’s neighbors, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The group already has claimed deadly bombings in Lebanon and Turkey.
The State Department also saw little upside to an ISIS defeat if it served only to strengthen the Nusra Front, which the United States declared a terrorist organization in December 2012.
“The fact to remember here is that both ISIS and al-Nusra are designated terrorist organizations,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday. “Yes, they’ve been fighting each other for months, but that doesn’t change our view of both of those groups.”
ISIS declared its existence last April, saying it was a merger of the Nusra Front and an Iraqi group, the Islamic State of Iraq. But the leader of the Nusra Front objected to the merger and appealed to al-Zawahiri to intervene, which the al-Qaida leader did in June, telling ISIS to leave Syria to Nusra.
Nevertheless, ISIS became an integral part of rebel military actions against Syrian government positions and was even praised by U.S.-allied rebel forces for its role in seizures of Syrian military bases.
But it also angered local Syrian communities as its members pressed to enforce radical notions of Islamic law, including summary executions, at the same time it began kidnapping and killing the leaders of other rebel groups, including Nusra.
On Jan. 3, other rebel groups revolted against ISIS, expelling it in bloody fighting from parts of northern Syria. In the month since, hundreds of rebels have been killed in the internecine conflict as ISIS fought to hold onto areas it controlled and to recapture the areas it had lost.
In his statement, al-Zawahiri called that internal fighting a “catastrophe” and called on “all those who have religion” to put an end to the fighting.
The Iraq branch of al-Qaida has been problematic for the central command for years. Its founder, Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006, also was reprimanded by al-Qaida leaders for his group’s killing of civilians and Shiite Muslims, tactics that were costing the group support among Iraqis.
Back then, however, the disagreement was handled quietly through private correspondence; the matter only became public when documents were leaked or intercepted. And al-Zarqawi’s disobedience never reached the point of a formal split, unlike that of the current ISIS chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“They don’t respond to direction well. Like Zarqawi, there’s a lot of disagreement over tactic and strategy,” said Christopher Swift, an adjunct professor of national security studies at Georgetown University who advises U.S. officials on counterterrorism strategy. Swift will testify before U.S. lawmakers this week on national security implications of al-Qaida’s transformation.
Swift said that since al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. raid in Pakistan in 2011, al-Zawahiri has tried to remake the organization from one that focused on dramatic high-profile attacks to one that, learning from the missteps in Iraq, is more grassroots and attuned to local sensibilities. That’s why al-Zawahiri “didn’t want to touch ISIS” after it had earned a reputation for attacking and undermining fellow rebels on the Syrian battlefield.
“The whole movement has said, ‘We’re going to rebrand global jihad through local insurgencies, and we need to have better relations with the people we’re fighting next to,’ ” Swift said.
Al-Zawahiri made reference to that rebranding in his statement, referring to previous al-Qaida publications that called for its adherents “to get rid of behaviors that will harm the jihad” and “distancing from any behavior that will result in oppressing a mujahed or a Muslim or a non-Muslim.”
The al-Zawahiri statement made clear that al-Qaida still considers the Nusra Front to be its ideological representative in Syria. Nusra was founded by Syrian veterans of al-Qaida’s campaign against the United States presence in Iraq.
How Nusra will view al-Zawahiri’s rejection of ISIS also will be a key factor. The two groups had worked together closely on military issues, and even though ISIS in recent months had killed Nusra commanders, Nusra negotiated cease-fires in the most recent fighting that allowed ISIS units to withdraw with their weapons.
And ISIS remains a potent force in Syria. While it’s been pushed from most of its bases in Idlib province by other rebel groups, it remains active in Aleppo province and continues to control the province of Raqaa, in the far-eastern desert with convenient supply lines to Iraq.
It also has begun to target other rebel factions with relentless suicide attacks, including at least 20 in January alone.
On Saturday, a suicide bomber killed a top commander and 25 others from Tawid al-Jihad, a rival rebel group, and on Sunday a suicide bomber assassinated a top official and 15 of his men from Ahrar al-Sham, a conservative rebel group, some of whose top officials are members of al-Qaida.
Meanwhile, ISIS gunmen in the city of Homs reportedly assassinated an official from yet another militia, Suqor al-Sham, on Sunday.
(Allam reported from Washington. Special correspondent Prothero reported from Beirut.)