A Syrian rebel group closely aligned with al Qaeda’s official central leadership has switched sides and is now supporting an ultra-violent offshoot, following the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant’s blitzkrieg attack on Iraq, according to U.S. officials and reports from the region.
A local unit of the Al Nusra Front—the official rebel group of al Qaeda in Syria—agreed to back the ISIL on Wednesday.
The merger of one portion of al Nusra with ISIL is being viewed by government intelligence analysts and others as a troubling indicator that the inner battle between the two groups may be shifting in ISIL’s favor.
Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism specialist and military theorist at the Marine Corps University, said the defection of the Nusra group to ISIL, also known as ISIS, is very significant.
"ISIS and al Nusra have fought each other in the past," Gorka said. Nusra’s swearing loyalty to ISIL "is a clear sign that ISIS is now more important than the original al Qaeda," he said.
"With this act, in theory all al Nusra territory is now under ISIS control," Gorka said. "This makes the de facto establishment of a proto-caliphate territory straddling Iraq and Syria a real possibility and underlines the absurdity of the Obama administration’s push to fund and train the rebels in Syria."
President Obama acknowledged Thursday that ISIL attacks in Iraq are one sign that, contrary to his earlier remarks, international terrorists are gaining strength.
"They’re gaining strength in some places, but we’ve also got a lot better at protecting ourselves," Obama told ABC News.
Obama campaigned for reelection in 2012 declaring al Qaeda was on the "path to defeat" and asserting the United States would end the war on terrorism launched after the 2001 attacks.
ISIL, a fanatical terrorist group led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, now controls large sections of central Iraq. The group has declared that its goal is the creation of an Islamic caliphate throughout the region.
It initially set up al Nusra but broke off ties in February. Its numbers are not known, but estimates range from 5,000 to 10,000 fighters.
The Nusra-ISIL joining took place June 25 at the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal, a central location on ISIL’s link between its forces in Syria and Iraq.
The merger also is a boost to ISIL’s efforts to gain control of eastern Syria, an area that has seen widespread fighting between the two al Qaeda-linked groups.
ISIL is continuing to move captured weapons and military vehicles from Iraq to Syria following the military operation against central Iraq that began in early June.
The ISIL, an ultra-violent Islamist group that has conducted mass executions and beheadings while imposing Islamic law, is using its newfound power to gain greater support in both Syria and Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
The group is seeking to create an Islamic state throughout the region that would impose harsh Sharia law. Al Qaeda central has sought to take a slightly less extreme stance as a way to attract more supporters. Both groups are designated foreign terrorist organizations by the State Department.
The Britain-based Syrian opposition figure Rami Abdulrahman told reporters June 25 that the Nusra group in Albu Kamal had "pledged loyalty" to ISIL.
"They are rivals, but both groups are jihadist and extremists," he said. "This move will create tension now with other rebel groups, including Islamists, in the area."
ISIL also posted a photo on one of its short-lived Twitter accounts showing the commander of the local Nusra Front group shaking hands with an ISIL leader.
Syrian airstrikes against ISIL positions along the Iraqi border were carried out this week in an effort to try and weaken the group.
Bill Roggio, a terrorism analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said there is no question that the ISIL incursion into Iraq, and its subsequent gains of both territory and equipment, have helped it gain traction among jihadists throughout the region.
However, Roggio cautioned that the gains in support made by ISIL from its lightning strikes in Iraq has not altered the fundamental divide between the group and central al Qaeda.
"The defection of Al Nusra at Albu Kamal is due to the current situation on the border," he said in an interview. "All the official branches of al Qaeda have come out in support of [Ayman] al Zawahiri and central al Qaeda. There’s been no major defections."
Pro-al Qaeda forces have criticized ISIL in recent days for the group’s collaborating with former Saddam Hussein military and political leaders in the recent incursion.
According to an ISIL fighter, Abu Bakr al Janabi, ISIL collaborated with former Saddam military personnel, including former commander Izzat al Duri and groups affiliated with the former Baathist regime in Baghdad, during the recent takeover of areas in Iraq. Janabi told Kuwait’s Al Ray newspaper that working with the Baathists was justified since both are fighting a common enemy.
In a related development, the North African al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), also reportedly pledged alignment with ISIL on June 25.
The AQIM statement was posted as a video and disseminated on Twitter. In the video, an AQIM terrorists states that "we declare to Muslims in general and all the honest mujahideen on all fronts that we saw the righteousness in the ideology of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant."
"Their ideology does not bargain over religion and does not fear anyone's criticism," it stated. "Their ideology implemented sharia as a reality and denounced all the borders set by tyrants on maps. … We believe that the most important thing the Islamic State did, after spreading monotheism, is implementing the Sharia."
The loyalty shift highlights the growing rift between al Qaeda central, currently headed by Ayman al Zawahiri, and the more radical ISIL.
Zawahiri has issued several statements in recent weeks seeking to patch the differences. However, ISIL has rejected the overtures and its bold incursion into Iraq has given it greater military and ideological strength, analysts say.
In other Iraq developments, the Iraqi government announced that its forces had taken full control over the Bayji oil refinery and that ISIL fighters at the plant had been defeated.
However, ISIL militants took over an Iraqi oilfield at Ujayl in the northwestern part of the town. Oil production was reportedly halted after ISIL took control over large sections of Tikrit.
Fighting between ISIL and Iraqi security forces continued Friday after Baghdad military forces raided the University of Tikrit and reportedly killed scores of ISIL terrorists.
Clashes were also reported between ISIL and Iraqi forces north of Baghdad northeast of Baqubah.
ISIL fighters conducted a vehicle parade through the northern Iraqi city of Al Hawija, southwest of Kirkuk, which included a reported 300 military vehicles and non-military pickup trucks bearing the ISIL banner carried by masked fighters.