Faced with open defiance from the leader of Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria and Iraq, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri publicly expelled the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), suspending its franchise and stripping it of its status as part of the Al-Qaeda global enterprise. The split will test the value of Al-Qaeda’s brand.
Although Al-Qaeda’s leaders have quarreled in the past over strategy, tactics and targets, an open break such as this is unprecedented and creates real risks for the leadership of both organizations. So, what’s next?
The rebellious ISIS is not likely to dissolve itself, and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – who has already rejected Zawahri’s orders, claiming that he obeys only God – seems unlikely to back down. Now that Al-Qaeda has declared ISIS a renegade, however, its leaders cannot allow ISIS to succeed in creating a rival center of power. That sets up a showdown that could turn an internal dispute into a schism that cuts across the jihadist universe.
Al-Qaeda’s leaders place great importance on maintaining unity. In their view, disunity is the cause of Islam’s weakness. It prevented a strong response to “the Crusades,” and allowed external foes to conquer and occupy Muslim territory piecemeal. Al-Qaeda’s recent expansion, combined with a diminishing central role and the ever-present danger of centrifugal forces, could dissipate the unity necessary to sustain its current global effort.
Al-Qaeda’s central leadership has a history of trouble with autonomy-minded jihadists in Iraq. The current troubles began when ISIS asserted its authority over the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. The Nusra Front rejected ISIS’ claim and was backed up by Al-Qaeda’s central leadership, which instructed ISIS to confine its operations to Iraq. ISIS ignored the order.
Around the same time, ISIS signaled its broader ambitions by changing its name from the “Islamic State of Iraq” to the “Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria,” a reference to the Levant, which historically includes Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and, of course, Israel.
A further issue of contention is ISIS’ increasingly ferocious application of unlimited violence, often against Muslim civilians. The scent of blood has attracted a number of fighters to ISIS, many of them foreign volunteers who have come to Syria solely to kill. Al-Qaeda fears that the indiscriminate slaughter of fellow Muslims will alienate supporters. Al-Qaeda’s central leadership quarreled about the same issue with Baghdadi’s predecessor in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who proudly called himself the “prince of slaughter.”
This kind of tension seems built into terrorist groups. Ideologues resort to terrorist tactics to achieve their goals, but their campaigns attract harder men for whom violence seems an end in itself. They reject any self-imposed constraints as fainthearted. If things are not going well, it is because the violence is insufficient. If things are going well, more violence will accelerate progress.
Al-Qaeda’s attempts to mediate the dispute failed. Meanwhile, growing friction between ISIS and other rebel organizations in Syria erupted into open fighting, and ISIS demonstrated its growing power in the region by seizing control of Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq.
Could this split have happened under Osama bin Laden? Zawahri, his longtime lieutenant, has managed to stay in charge of the disparate Al-Qaeda enterprise, but he did not inherit bin Laden’s moral authority, and has been viewed less as Al-Qaeda’s commander, and more as its ideological commissar. The expulsion of ISIS will test his supremacy.
Although ISIS reportedly does not depend on Al-Qaeda for its core needs, Baghdadi must worry about his own survival. Now that he is no longer Al-Qaeda’s man, his own lieutenants may feel free to challenge his leadership.
It is not clear how important Al-Qaeda’s imprimatur is to ISIS’ estimated 10,000 fighters. The foreign fighters responsible for some of the worst atrocities may not care. That said, the split will undoubtedly cause confusion among Al-Qaeda’s supporters worldwide.
Overall, divisions in Al-Qaeda’s ranks are good news for the United States. While the split will not end the jihadists’ terrorist campaigns, it will preoccupy Al-Qaeda’s leaders and create uncertainty in its ranks. It may also open up some opportunities for the United States to facilitate discord, although caution is in order. Obvious attempts to fan the flames could backfire and reunify the movement.
Brian Michael Jenkins is senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation, and is the author of “ Al-Qaeda in Its Third Decade: Irreversible Decline or Imminent Victory?” and “The Dynamics of Syria’s Civil War.” This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).