In the first week of February 2014, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the commander-in-chief of the al-Qaeda made a statement disowning the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Al-Zawahiri, who took charge following former chief Osama bin Laden’s death, announced (and jihadist websites quoted) that the ISIL “is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group [and al-Qaeda] does not have an organisational relationship with it and is not the group responsible for their actions.”
While this in-fighting and the fragmentation of the world’s most organised militant organisations is certainly good news, the split between al-Qaeda and its former Iraqi affiliate is not unprecedented.
There were tensions between the two groups and their then leaders Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi even as early as 2006. However, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current head of the ISIL, and Ayman al-Zawahiri have been sparring over conflicting views regarding their goals and the means used to achieve them, for the past several months.
Fissures appeared when the ISIL took measures to expand its scope by co-opting the al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (alternately known as the al-Nusra Front) to fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the country. As soon as the merger was announced, al-Zawahiri rejected it and recognised al-Nusra as its sole affiliated entity in Syria. Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of the al-Nusra Front too acknowledged only a relationship, and rejecting any merger with the then Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), confirmed their allegiance solely to al-Qaeda.
Since then, the ISIL and the al-Nusra have manifestly worked towards differing goals, and with different means. While the al-Nusra’s main objective is to topple the Assad regime and at the same time maintain ties with fellow militant rebel groups, the ISIL’s core focus appears to be towards territorial expansion for spreading and implementing its extremely draconian interpretations of Islamic law – and eventually establish an Islamic Caliphate in the region. The ISIL employs barbaric tactics on all, and are resented even by their fellow militant organisations. The al-Nusra Front on the other hand, although militant, tries not to alienate the civilian population with extreme brutality.
The ISIL’s methods have driven the other militant factions in Syria, including the al-Nusra Front, to rebel against them. Given the fact that the Front has the widest reach and has proven to be most ‘effective’ in Syria, the decision to disown the ISIL is in al-Qaeda’s interest. The actions of the ISIL have been garnering opposition from other rebel groups and civilians, and al-Zawahiri would not want to risk any clout that al-Qaeda and/or its affiliates enjoy in any region.
Al-Baghdadi’s resilience against al-Zawahiri’s overtures and warnings indicates the existence of a graver reality. The former’s motivation to stick to his ground originates from the fact that the ISIL has managed to break away from being solely funded by the al-Qaeda. His funding now flows in from individuals and organisations from various West Asian nations who have vested interests in Syria and Iraq. An example of this is the US Department of the Treasury designating Qatar-based Abd al-Rahman bin Umayr al-Nuaymi and Yemen-based Abd al-Wahhab Muhammad Abd al-Rahman al-Humayqani as ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorists’ for providing financial support to al-Qaeda, Asbat al-Ansar, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the al-Shabaab, in December 2013 (US Department of the Treasury, Treasury designates al-qa’ida supporters in Qatar and Yemen, 2013).
Given the statistics and mounting evidence, it is likely that al-Baghdadi had breached the walls of the terrorist funding supply chain long before 2013, when he openly started rebelling against al-Zawahiri.
This, along with the establishment of an institutionalised and organised system of revenue collection in the areas controlled by the ISIL (then the Islamic State of Iraq), cemented their existence as a formidable force in the region.
While this disavowing by the al-Qaeda is essentially its attempt to assert and proclaim its role, authority, and influence in the Syrian civil war, the implications of this move will be many and far-reaching, and much beyond the Syrian question.
The ISIL, led by al-Baghdadi, is unlikely to become ‘obedient’ as al-Zawahiri would like it. On the contrary, they will likely dig in their heels and launch a more serious and savage offensive, especially since they now have to prove their worth and efficacy devoid of any association with the terrorist world’s most organised outfit, the al-Qaeda.
Given the several vested interests West Asian nations have in the Syrian civil war, they will be dragged deeper into the complex quagmire. The Kurdish struggle for autonomy that has been palpitating for several decades and has found renewed momentum since the outbreak of the Arab Awakening will flare up, with revivified clashes between the Syrian Kurds and the ISIL.
More importantly, this will eventually lead to a power struggle between several players from within and outside Syria, with grave economic, security (regional and international), and humanitarian consequences.
In the event of the ISIL managing to stand their ground, which seems likely – given their diverse funding and revenue sources, and since they control several resource-rich areas – there will be two formidable Islamist terrorist groups in the world, and a power struggle between the two will bring nothing short of worse days to come.