February 11, 2014

On January 27th, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri demanded Islamist rebel groups inside Syria reunify their ranks after three weeks of terrifically violent intra-rebel violence across northern Syria. Al-Zawahiri’s message, a last-ditch effort to bring the Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham back into the fold, appears to have had little effect.

“ISIS does not follow al-Qaeda,” an ISIS spokesperson told Syria Direct, less than 24 hours after Zawahiri issued his directive.

The next day, ISIS rejected a proposal, called the Umma Initiative, to curtail the violence. It had drawn support from Jabhat a-Nusra, the Islamic Front, Jaish al-Mujahideen and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front: four of the most powerful groups it was in the midst of confronting across north and east Syria.

On Tuesday, February 3rd, al-Qaeda officially cut ties to the group, condemning ISIS as “a catastrophe for the jihad in Syria.”

Since the statement, violence pitting ISIS against other rebel groups has shown no signs of abating. On Monday, ISIS withdrew from the eastern province of Deir e-Zor amidst heavy clashes, with Reuters reporting the intra-rebel violence has killed 2,300 combatants in 2014.

A Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Oxford University, Aymenn J. al-Tamimi has focused upon the increasing influence of Islamist groups in northern Syria and Iraq. In the first of a two-part interview, he spoke with Syria Direct’s Elizabeth Parker-Magyar about ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s relationship with al-Qaeda, Jabhat a-Nusra’s relative pragmatism and why ISIS has successfully recruited so many foreign fighters to its cause.

Has ISIS ever made a statement actually suggesting they were al-Qaeda affiliated? How have ISIS members moved away from that affiliation? Has ISIS ever made a formal statement that they’re al-Qaeda-affiliated, or have they just moved away from their affiliation?

ISIS’ current leader was part of the original al-Qaeda in Iraq network, and I think Zawahiri had reason to assume that it was still a part of his network. I think the rejection of that order, and the subsequent distance that ISIS and its members have engaged in, the distancing from al-Qaeda, confirms to me that ISIS is not really a branch anymore. It is really post al-Qaeda.

The strongest inference I’ve had of that is when people of ISIS pledge baya, they pledge it to Baghdadi. I don’t see them pledging allegiance to Zawahiri or al-Qaeda central.

So are we witnessing a splinter cell with a megalomaniacal, self-centered but effective leader? Is Baghdadi such an effective leader that he is able to bring in hundreds or thousands of foreign fighters without even al-Qaeda’s resources or network?

That’s a good question – why is it that his group has attracted all these foreign fighters? The answer, in my mind, is because ISIS, more than any of these jihadi groups, advertises most openly its ultimate goal: global expansion, ‘conquering the whole world.’ 

British_Mujahideen.jpgTwo British ISIS combatants after receiving their weapons. Photo courtesy of Aymenn Al-Tamimi.

You see it in the media, this emphasis on establishing the caliphate, whereas if you look at what Jolani says, being part of al-Qaeda means that he supports the caliphate, but he doesn’t emphasize that. He emphasizes that he wants to establish sharia for the people of Syria. People are saying he’s given up on the idea of a caliphate, of a transnational project. He doesn’t emphasize it.

If you look at an official video of people within Jabhat a Nusra who talk about going beyond the border of Syria, as a transnational project, it tends to be the foreigners within Jabhat a-Nusra. They talk about expanding, the jihadist tone – we have to expand, in the most immediate goal of course is conquering al-Quds, Jerusalem. That is the discourse you see among foreigners in Jabhat a-Nusra.

In ISIS, they’re just way, way more open about it. For starters, they have videos by their official media outlets where they call for establishing a global Islamic state. It’s not just about Syria. I think this is why ISIS tends to attract more foreign fighters than Jabhat a-Nusra, for example.

And, to an extent, he [Baghdadi] has been effective. He has attracted the ideologues from across the world who want a global Islamic state and who want Syria and Iraq as the starting point.

In terms of the wider strategy, in the long run it would have been better if he had decided not to break off from al-Qaeda, and just let Jabhat a-Nusra be. To a certain extent, Jabhat a-Nusra was quite successful in its goals, and moreover just generally they had always tended to have and still do have good working relations with other rebel groups.

When the Islamic Front was formed, it was perceived to be as Islamist as you could get without including Jabhat a-Nusra or ISIS. Recently, the IF seems to be working very closely with Jabhat a-Nusra. Is that a newer trend?

I think that’s more of a continuation. Right after Jolani renewed his pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri and al-Qaeda in April, I looked into whether Jabhat [a-Nusra] had been less cooperative with other rebel groups because of this al-Qaeda connection. And the trend pointed in the other direction, that the trend was still cooperation. That cooperation has not only continued, it’s also increased.

People see Jabhat a-Nusra, generally, as a legitimate organization. That’s not only the al-Qaeda connection but also for people outside the Islamic Front. It just seems that Jolani is very, very pragmatic about cooperation.

I think that’s maybe even more so that Zawahiri would have as an ideal. Zawahiri has said that mujahideen should not cooperate with seculars, but whom does Jabhat a-Nusra cooperate with in Daraa? A lot of groups they coordinate with there, where they sort of lead the fighting, don’t seem to have any ideology at all, or are otherwise secular.

In that respect Jabhat a-Nusra’s policies in Daraa have been even more liberal than Zawahiri would allow.

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