BEIRUT: Al-Qaeda’s leader has tried to end squabbling between the terror network’s Syrian and Iraqi branches, ordering the two groups to remain separate after an attempted merger prompted a leadership dispute between them.
The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV reported that Al-Qaeda’s No. 1 Ayman al-Zawahri urged leaders of the Iraqi Al-Qaeda branch and the Nusra Front in Syria to end their disagreements and “stop any verbal or actual attacks against one another.”
The TV said Zawahri’s call came in a letter sent to the station and posted on its website late Sunday.
The letter’s authenticity could not be independently verified. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground in Syria, said it also acquired a copy of the letter but did not provide other details.
Zawahri’s call could also reflect a bid to carve out a more significant role for Al-Qaeda central in the Syrian civil war. The Nusra Front is the most powerful rebel force fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.
In April, Al-Qaeda in Iraq said it had joined forces with the Nusra Front, and that the two had formed a new alliance called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Hours after the announcement, Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani appeared to distance himself from the merger, saying he was not consulted. Instead, he pledged allegiance to Zawahiri.
In Sunday’s letter, Zawahri chastises the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, saying he announced the merger without consulting Al-Qaeda’s leadership. He also admonished Golani for publicly distancing himself from the merger.
“The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will be abolished,” Zawahri said, adding that the Nusra Front will remain an independent branch of Al-Qaeda.
Baghdadi and Golani are to stay on as leaders of their respective branches for another year, after which the Al-Qaeda leadership will decide whether they will keep their posts or be replaced.
Assad’s government in April seized upon the reported merger to back its assertion that it isn’t facing a true popular uprising but a foreign-backed terrorist plot.
The merger also caused friction among rebels on the battlefield because Western powers discussed funneling weapons, training and aid toward more secular rebel groups.