Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts In Syria, an al Qaeda group falls victim to other Islamists and jihadists

In Syria, an al Qaeda group falls victim to other Islamists and jihadists

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (a.k.a. ISIS) for many months dominated the jihadi landscape in Syria.  Originally known as al Qaeda in Iraq and then the Islamic State of Iraq, ISIS led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi undertook an aggressive rebranding in April 2013 seeking to expand its influence from Western Iraq into Syria, capturing a share of the voluminous foreign fighter migration to Syria.  Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, ISIS also became the first al Qaeda affiliate to publicly rebuff al Qaeda’s global leader Ayman al-Zawahiri demonstrating that al Qaeda affiliates around the world have varying levels of commitment to the organization and its leadership.  ISIS expanded its control on the ground through a brutal campaign of violence and institution of a harsh version of Sharia law, which quickly alienated local communities. As noted in this BBC interview anecdote from a man named Mohammed who fled ISIS controlled Raqqa, Syria:

Mohammed also says a heating oil merchant, Abu Wael, was tortured after refusing to sell any at a discounted rate to members of ISIS. He apparently told them that he had agreed a price with their emir, but they demanded it be halved.

At its zenith last week, ISIS occupied and controlled several major cities in Iraq and large swaths of Syria. By this weekend, in the east, the Iraqi army undertook a campaign to retake Fallujah from ISIS control likely inflicting a good number of casualties on the group as they have fled the city.  In Syria, ISIS advances have been aggressively countered, not by the Asad regime, but instead by the Syrian Islamic Front, a compilation of Islamist and Salafist groups.  As seen in this map from Cedric Labousse at the Arab Chronicle, ISIS gains have been challenged by several groups collectively referred to as “The Rebels” in this map.


The inevitable push back of ISIS in Syria (west) and their checking by the Iraqi military (east) will hurt the group’s foreign fighter flow and may push them into remission.  However, ISIS has suffered setbacks before.  During the U.S. surge of 2007 – 2009, U.S. Special Operations forces decimated the then Islamic State of Iraq (aka ISI, al Qaeda in Iraq).  With time, space and insufficient governance, ISI regenerated and built a significant jihadist threat to the world.  ISIS’s fall raises several points and questions about the future direction of jihadist groups. 

  • ISIS foreign fighters were killed by other Muslims including jihadists – For the second time in less than a year, al Qaeda members have been killed by other Muslims; likely including other al Qaeda members.  Last year, internal fractures in al Shabaab in Somalia saw jihadists (al Qaeda members) killing each other (see here and here).  This week, Islamists, Salafists and Jihadists took to killing each other in Syria.   Foreign fighters enmeshed in these groups thought they were arriving in Syria to pursue a jihad fighting Asad.  Instead they are killing fellow foreign fighters that may have come from their old neighborhoods. As I’ve noted in the past, jihadists are more likely to be killed by a fellow jihadist than the West.

  • Temporary but important curb on foreign fighter flow to Syria – Social media discussion already signals that this infighting will have a negative effect on future foreign fighters.  Foreign fighter recruits gaze on these recent events and wonder what group they should join or whether to go to Syria at all.  I imagine foreign fighter flow to Syria might temporarily slow in the near-term which may undermine influence of jihadist groups in Syria.  However, should the fight against Asad continue indefinitely and order emerges amongst Islamist & Jihadist groups, foreign fighter flow will likely resume again over the longer-term.  As long as there is global demand to participate in the Syrian jihad, some group in Syria will ultimately help facilitate newcomers.   

  • Another stain on al Qaeda’s global brand, but does it matter? – News stories and opinion pieces about al Qaeda pave a winding, dramatic track.  Al Qaeda is either near defeat or at its greatest height.  Debates hinge on what different prognosticators define as “al Qaeda” with some seeing every Sunni militant group as part of an all-encompassing organization.  Others pursue a more nuanced approach examining each group independently with al Qaeda connections representing one element of their analysis rather than the dominating factor.

For Ayman al-Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central based in Pakistan and co-led by Nasi al-Wuhayshi, leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, Syria’s infighting and the attacks on ISIS should signify another dark chapter in al Qaeda’s history.  In the West, ISIS losses will likely be perceived as a pseudo victory against al Qaeda.  But, Syria is complex and al Qaeda is no longer one thing.  Off the top of my head, I can count almost a dozen different groups either named or connected to al Qaeda each sporting their own degree of loyalty to the brand.  So will the current ISIS rebuffing truly impact “al Qaeda” globally? I would assume yes, but the effects will unevenly be felt by al Qaeda affiliates and “linked” groups.  Today, jihadists groups have niche audiences and popular support based on country of origin, diaspora connections and relative success.  A stain on “al Qaeda” won’t necessarily transcend negatively to an affiliate or regionally linked group. 

  • As ISIS wanes, focus on al Nusra – ISIS warnings have filled the headlines recently.  However, as seen by this past weekend’s battles, I’ve always thought that ISIS would bring about its own demise through its sectarianism and extreme violence.  In my opinion, the West should be focusing on Jabhat al-Nusra.  Led by Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, al-Nusra represents the smarter and stronger connected al Qaeda affiliate in Syria – a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” – open to a coalition and governance in the near-term, but likely set on dominating the country and instituting Sharia governance in the long-term. If Ayman al-Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central have any influence in Syria, its with al-Nusra.  Nusra and ISIS fought each other on occasion in Syria and the ISIS push into Syria from Iraq sapped Nusra’s foreign fighter supplies.  With ISIS in retreat, Nusra has pushed forward seizing ISIS strongpoints and reclaiming foreign fighters.  The Daily Star reports:

Another activist, Abdallah al-Sheikh, said that some Syrian ISIS fighters had stayed in place but switched allegiance to the Nusra Front. Nusra’s commanders are mostly Syrian rather than foreign and it coordinates with the Islamic Front, but both ISIS and Nusra have their roots in Al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

The West should focus now on non-military levers to undermine Nusra such as working vigorously to cutoff Persian Gulf donations to these groups and using information campaigns to communicate that Nusra and ISIS are both al Qaeda groups sharing the same vision for the future. 

  • Could this strengthen al Qaeda Central and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s hand in Syria? – Presumably, ISIS members being killed by other Muslim groups represents a net loss for al Qaeda Central globally.  But ISIS leader al-Baghdadi publicly rebuked Zawahiri and seemed to follow his own agenda in Iraq and Syria forcing Zawahiri to openly disseminate his guidance and attempt to regain his influence amongst jihadists in Syria.  With ISIS in retreat and Nusra, a likely more loyal affiliate, gaining ground and personnel, could recent events actually increase al Qaeda Central’s influence within Syria?  This ISIS setback also comes after accusations of al Qaeda Central influence in Ahrar al Sham.  The Long War Journal reports

“A senior al Qaeda operative known as Abu Khalid al Suri is a leading figure in Ahrar al Sham….One official noted that while Bahaiah is not the emir or overall head of Ahrar al Sham, he is considered a central figure within in its ranks and plays a significant role in guiding the group…US officials say that he is part of a secretive al Qaeda cadre that has sought to influence or co-opt parts of the Syrian insurgency that are not official al Qaeda branches.”

In aggregate, while ISIS losses look bad, they may have been a necessary evil for al Qaeda Central if they seek to keep their influence in what may become the largest jihadist fight in history.