Dissent in the Ranks

Al Qaeda leader urges Syrian rebel splinter group to return to Iraq and official affiliate to halt infighting

ISIS fighters in Iraq / AP
May 6, 2014

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri issued a public appeal recently urging an ultra-violent splinter faction of the terrorist group to return to Iraq and cease fighting rebels of the al Nusra Front, the official al Qaeda franchise in Syria.

In an audio statement posted to a jihadist online forum May 2, Zawahiri called for ending the "bloodshed among mujahedeen" in Syria, where rebels have been battling each other over who controls the opposition forces battling Syrian forces of the Bashar al Assad government.

The split between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al Qaeda central is viewed by analysts as a result of the central leadership seeking to develop a broader appeal in seeking recruits.

The ISIL, on the other hand, has taken an ultra-fanatical approach to jihad. The group has filmed gruesome executions and beheadings of its opponents in Syria. In some cases, ISIL rebels were shown eating the organs of recently killed Syrian soldiers.

The infighting between the ISIL and the al Nusra Front for the past year appears to have achieved something that more than a decade of U.S. and allied military counterterrorism operations has been unable to do: splitting the al Qaeda terrorist group and weakening its ideological and militant appeal.

In Syria, fierce battles among the al Qaeda rebels have resulted in killings of scores of jihadists and the assassination of several of its leaders.

The Obama administration, by refusing to conduct military operations against al Qaeda in Syria, has made the embattled Middle Eastern state an al Qaeda safe haven, according to observers.

In the statement, Zawahiri called on ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to stop fighting in Syria and return to Iraq and described Baghdadi as "al Qaeda’s rebellious solider" who has caused bloodshed among the jihadist rebels in Syria.

Zawahiri, in the 24-minute message, also called on the official affiliate, al Nusra Front, to halt fighting against the ISIL rebels.

Referring to the ISIL rebels as engaging in "sedition," Zawahiri explained that al Qaeda initially sanctioned the ISIL temporarily but sought to keep al Qaeda’s presence in Syria a secret. That was violated when the group went public with its formation in 2013.

Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden, said the ISIL was set up in 2013 without permission of the central al Qaeda leadership.

Baghdadi was considered loyal to Zawahiri and central al Qaeda until April 2013, when Baghdadi issued a statement opposing al Nusra Front and its leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani, calling Jawlani a traitor, Zawahiri said.

"The declaration of the ISIL was in clear violation of the orders by al Qaeda's command to its soldiers in Iraq and the Levant, not to declare any official presence of al Qaeda in the Levant," he said.

"The declaration by the ISIL has caused a political catastrophe for the people of the Levant, as after the masses had taken to the streets to demonstrate in support of al-Nusra Front following its designation as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, they began deploring this declaration presented by ISIL's command to [Bashar] al Assad on a golden platter."

"The declaration also provoked the remainder of the jihadist groups, which considered that the ISIL is attempting to impose itself without consent or consultation."

Infighting has continued among al Qaeda affiliated rebels whose numbers are estimated to range from several thousand to 10,000, including many from North America and Europe.

"The bloodbath still flows in the Levant. If the ISIL had accepted the decision to resolve the problem, it would have stopped the bloodshed among the mujahedeen, and prevented the anticipated sedition, and would have dedicated itself to Iraq, which requires double the efforts," Zawahiri said.

Zawahiri said all jihadists with the group should stop fighting and instead fight the enemies of Islam.

"I also call on everyone to stop exchanging accusations, name-calling, and igniting sedition among the mujahedeen in the media and social media, and to be the keys for all that is good and the locks to all that is evil," he said.

Zawahiri told Baghdadi and all ISIL rebels to "dedicate yourself to the wounded Iraq."

According to U.S. officials, the Zawahiri message appears to have confused some ISIL jihadists, with many viewing it as positive and others viewing it as contradicting earlier comments by Zawahiri on the jihadist split.

Online jihadist supporters of al Qaeda central voiced statements indicating that the original ISIL group, Islamic State of Iraq, was a formal chapter and thus he had left open the ISIL’s return to the central fold.

Zawahiri also used soothing language in describing Baghdadi with Muslim honorifics that was interpreted as part of efforts to heal the jihadist rift.

News reports from the region this week stated that fierce infighting between the al Qaeda rebels has been underway since Wednesday in the eastern part of the country.

The fighting has triggered an exodus of some 60,000 Syrians from three nearby towns, the Beirut Daily Star newspaper reported Sunday.