Origins of the hostility and the split between Al Qa’ida and ISIS

Date:

ISIS control of Syria & Iraq as of Sept 2014 from WikipediaGeo-strategically the Al Qa’ida leadership (Azzam, bin Laden, Zawahiri) are products of the Cold War, specifically the Afghan Mujahidin war against the USSR. Rather like their American neo-con previous employers, Al Qa’ida view the end of the Cold War as a victory over the USSR by their own side. The Al Qa’ida perspective is that, having “defeated” one superpower, the global jihad now needs to turn its offensive against the remaining superpower.  Al Qa’ida worry that the Zarqawists of ISIS may be restricting the struggle to a parochial Mesopotamian sectarian struggle that could fail to engage Muslim jihadists around the world, outside the MENA region, say in West Africa or Indonesia and the Philippines  where the US is a more credible #1 enemy than Iran.

The text has its origins in a talk to the Dublin WSM branch on the topic of Isis, Jihadism and Imperialism.  You can listen to that talk or better yet watch the video which includes the slides mentioned.  After the talk Paul, the speaker, wrote; There was a question about the origins of the hostility and the split between Al Qa’ida and ISIS that I began to answer but did not complete adequately. I’ll try to do that here, because it’s an interesting and potentially crucial question.

We initally circulated this text to those at the meeting and our International Solidarity contacts.  Following strong positive feedback we decided to make it publically available when we published the recording of the talk.

 

ISIS Jihadism and Imperialism in the post Arab Spring period- an anarchist analysis from WSM by Workers Solidarity on Mixcloud

On the surface the origin of the split was Al Baghdadi’s refusal to submit to the leader of Al Qa’ida, Ayman al-Zawahiri’s order to stop muscling in on Jabhat al-Nusra in April 2013.

Al-Nusra were the Syrian elements of the Islamic State in Iraq (as then was) that al-Baghdadi originally sent into Syria to support the uprising against the Assad regime. Al-Nusra allied with the rebel militias on a fairly non-sectarian basis and, as the most discplined. motivated and experience fighters, played an important role in initial rebel victories against the regime. Even to the extent of being accepted as the rebel “Special Forces” or shock troops. Yet in that rebel support role they were fighting within the (nationalist) framework of liberating Syria from Assad. With their discipline, military elite status, well-funded status, and with the prestige of the “official”  Al Qa’ida franchise in the struggle, they attracted the vital support of the Chechens and the “International Brigade” of ideologically motivated, foreign volunteers.

Then in April 2013 al-Baghdadi decided to take over the operation. He announced that the Islamic State in Iraq was now the Islamic State in Iraq and ash-Shams (Syria/Levant) and that Al Nusra had been taken over, subsumed into ISIS. And that ISIS was not fighting with the rebels for the liberation of Syria, but for the establishment of a transnational caliphate that recognised neither Syria or Iraq, or national borders, generally (and specifically not the Sykes-Picot line that divides the two). Al Nusra were not happy with this turn of events and appealed to Zawahiri, who in turned urged moderation on both sides, before eventually siding with Al Nusra’s right to continued independent existence. However Nusra was significantly weakened by the defection, en masse, of the Chechen commanders and military cadre (the most experienced and dangerous military heads in the whole conflict, thanks to Russia) and their international brigade green but enthusiastic and martyrdom-happy foreign volunteers. In the resulting confusion, many of Nusra’s Syrian fighters jumped ship to other Syrian salafist brigades. ISIS then went on to kill a number of Nusra commanders and take their territory. ISIS also attacked other rebel groups for territory, kidnapped and tortured to death several of their most respected leaders and generally made themselves highly unpopular amongst the rebels, both islamist and nationalist alike.

In fact the formation of the mostly salafist Syrian Islamic Front coalition, was in light of the pressure on the constituent brigades from ISIS, as well as the more public intent of sinking the proposed Geneva 2 talks. Since then the Islamic Front (IF) and ISIS have been effectively at war, with elements of Al Nusra either siding with the IF or trying to maintain some kind of studied neutrality, concentrating on anti-Assad fighting, depending on local circumstances.

In September last year, ISIS took Azaz in North West Aleppo province, threatening the vital supply crossing (Bab al-Hawa) to Reyhanli, where the Military Operations Command control and training and support bases are located. In January an IF counter-attack succeeded in driving ISIS out of Azaz and most of the territory they had captured in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. In revenge ISIS attacked the HQ of Liwa al-Tahwid, a key salafist militia of the IF, killing its commander and HQ staff. Al Qa’ida publically distanced itself from this and other ISIS actions in Syria. A week later Al Nusra attacked ISIS in Deir-ez Zor, initially driving them from the city and province. By April Zawahiri was issuing appeals to ISIS and Nusra to stop fighting, to no avail. ISIS have since overcome their initial reverses and are now strongly on the counter-offensive in Northern Aleppo, once more threatening to cut off the supply lines to the IF and other rebel forces. The front-line currently is stalled at Marea. If ISIS manage to cut off the supply lines across the North, re-taking Azaz, then the rebels in Aleppo itself, already surrounded on three sides by Assad forces, will be completely cut off and, inevitably, extinguished.

So much for the military shenanigans, which as you can see are enough to leave deep residues of mutual bitterness, not to mention sincere hatred.

Politically the IF and rest of the rebel forces have accused ISIS of exclusively attacking rebel forces and avoiding conflict with Assad - the conspiracy theory (it’s the Middle East, there has to be a conspiracy theory)  being that ISIS were a false flag operation basically in league with Assad. Since taking Mosul, ISIS have effectively scotched that rumour by confronting regime forces directly - albeit only in their own pecuniary interest of seizing the gas fields of [fact], rather than any strategic objective that would aid the rebel cause of overthrowing the regime.

Ideologically, the problems that Al Qa’ida have with ISIS are perhaps best summed up by their accusation of them being “Zarqawists”. In prison, the leading Jordanian salafist jihadi mujtahid Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi, previously a mentor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, broke with the latter over Al Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) policy of indiscriminate slaughter of Shias in Iraq and takfiri declarations against them - at the expense, according to Maqdisi of the struggle against the American occupiers. This problem of being “too takfirist” may seem odd for Al Qa’ida affiliates who are known for their sectarianism. However it has a more recent parallel in Maqdisi issuing a warning to salafist jihadis not to sign up with the forces fighting against the Houthis in Yemen. This, according to Maqdisi because, even though the Houthis are (Zaydi) Shias, the Yemen government trying to crush them, as well as the Saudi forces on their side of the border, are both US backed regimes. In other words, the geopolitical situation of being in a jihadist resistance to US proxies must take precedence over “kill all Shia kufr” as an immediate political priority.

There is also the suggestion that Zarqawi personally saw Iran as the main immediate enemy and the “safavids” or “safawis”, as ISIS (and some other local jihadis) refer to Shias in the region - not just Iranians, but Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese (e.g. Hezbollah), etc - as part of one undifferentiated mass Other. Again, from a more traditional Al Qa’ida perspective, that may be seen as distracting from the main enemy - the USA. Particularly as Iran is not currently in the US camp. Although the shock appearance of the IS caliphate in Iraq is currently pushing the US to reconsider its policy of enmity towards Iran, at least in the matter of cooperation in combatting IS in Iraq (if not necessarily Syria - an objective US-Hezbollah collaboration there, even if ‘passive’ would cause paroxysms in the defence establishment, not to mention Israel & Saudi). Which would be a very bad development from the Al Qa’ida perspective.

Geo-strategically the AQ leadership (Azzam, bin Laden, Zawahiri) are products of the Cold War, specifically the Afghan Mujahidin war against the USSR. Rather like their American neo-con previous employers, AQ view the end of the Cold War as a victory over the USSR by their own side. The AQ perspective is that, having “defeated” one superpower, the global jihad now needs to turn its offensive against the remaining superpower, in order to rouse the Umma in revolt against the Jahilliyya global order, to re-establish the caliphate. By substituting a more local enemy - Iran - for the global hegemon, AQ worry that the Zarqawists may be restricting the struggle to a parochial Mesopotamian sectarian struggle that could fail to engage Muslim jihadists around the world, outside the MENA region, say in West Africa or Indonesia and the Philippines  where the US is a more credible #1 enemy than Iran.

Secondly, from the AQ perspective, the premature establishment of a salafist-jihadi state in the Levant and Mesopotamia runs the risk of being entangled in the complex local power-struggles. To an extent this has already happened. Assad’s regime and al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate are now effectively mutually dependent - the best of enemies. The fall of one would endanger the continued existence of the other. If Assad fell the US would have no choice but to initiate an invasion of Syria to stop ISIS taking over, and if ISIS fell, it would be game over for any chance of overthrowing the Baathist regime, and a victory for the Iran, Syria, Hezbollah “Shia Crescent”. Both options are worse than the status quo and “containment” from the US perspective.

Finally, the premature establishment of a caliphate goes against the classical Maoist stages of guerrilla warfare that AQ strategy is based on (thanks, again, to the Western educations of founders like bin Laden and that CIA Afghan training). A premature move to the stage of founding a “liberated zone” exposes the guerrilla to the danger of being crushed by the still superior force of the enemy. Whether this will in fact turn out to be the case, only time will tell.

refs:
re IF & Nusra vs ISIS fighting
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inter-rebel_conflict_during_the_Syrian_Civ...

re Maqdisi/Zarqawi
from 2009, - CSM: Jihadi dispute points to deeper radicalism among youths http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2009/0327/p04s02-wome.html

from 2013, Daily Beast - Zarqawism Lives: Iraq’s al Qaeda Nightmare Is Back
http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/08/12/zarqawism-lives-iraq-s-...

re general AQ strategy
Boston Globe: What Al Qaeda learned from Mao
http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/09/21/what-qaeda-learned-from-mao/...

mentioned in the talk:
Guardian: Isis jihadis aren’t medieval – they are shaped by modern western philosophy
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/09/isis-jihadi-shaped-...

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