Split within Al Qaeda Over Syrian Rebels Grows

Ultra-hardline splinter group gains jihadist backing

ISIS fighters in Syria / AP
February 19, 2014

Sharp divisions among al Qaeda terrorists in the Middle East are continuing despite a recent appeal by the group’s top leader to heal the rift between two warring factions.

While the split within the terrorist group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington is real, so far it has not diminished the threat of attack against Americans, according to officials and counterterrorism analysts.

The divisions pit the remnants of al Qaeda’s central organization and its supporters in the Middle East and North Africa against a splinter group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The internal conflict has resulted in fierce online debates, killings, and bombings on the ground in Syria, where ISIL has attacked both fighters and facilities belonging to the al Nusra Front, the official al Qaeda rebel group in the Syrian conflict.

ISIL continues to gain widespread jihadist support both in the region for insurgents in Syria and Iraq as well as from supporters worldwide.

That support came despite a speech last month by al Qaeda central leader Ayman al Zawahiri, successor to Osama bin Laden, and a statement earlier this month by the group’s "general command" that declared the ultra-hardline ISIL was not part of the global al Qaeda network.

"The al Qaeda of jihad group announces that it has no connection with the group called the [ISIL], as it was not informed or consulted about its establishment. It was not pleased with it and thus ordered its suspension," said the Feb. 3 statement distributed on Twitter.

The statement said ISIL was guilty of "sedition" and was formed without consulting senior al Qaeda leaders. It also violated al Qaeda’s rules for waging Islamic holy war.

Zawahiri sought to end infighting among jihadists in Syria by declaring that Syrian rebels must end what he termed "partisan fanaticism" last month. Zawahiri had called for the abolition of the ISIL months earlier.

"Your unity and the unity of your ranks are more important for us than the organizational belonging and partisan fanaticism," he said in a Jan. 23 recorded message.

U.S. officials said the appeals to terrorist group unity have not materialized and jihadists from Libya to Afghanistan are continuing to support ISIL.

Some jihadists recently defected from al Nusra Front to ISIL and denounced the official al Qaeda rebel group.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said the formal announcement by the al Qaeda core of the break with ISIL was unprecedented and a culmination of a long-standing dispute.

"ISIL’s insubordination — especially since it started operating in Syria last year — left Zawahiri with little choice but to announce a rupture that, for all intents and purposes, had already taken place," the official said.

"Although the al Qaeda brand still carries weight among Jihadists worldwide, ISIL has never been dependent on al Qaeda core for resources or direction, so the tangible impact of the decision may not be that significant."

The official-sanctioned al Nusra Front is expected to play up its standing "but it is unclear if the Front can stem the loss of fighters to ISIL with a new PR campaign," the official said.

Former CIA official Bruce Riedel, a counterterrorism expert, said the split "reflects the growing decentralization and diffusion of al Qaeda."

"But it does not make the terrorists any less dangerous," he said in an email. "Multiple competing al Qaeda groups will also compete for support by attacking American targets that will enhance their claims to be the ‘true’ heirs of Osama bin Laden."

According to counterterrorism officials and analysts, the disavowal of ISIL, rather than bringing unity, prompted an outpouring of support.

Jihadists online in recent weeks described the core al Qaeda appeals as officially sanctioning the split between "good," centrally-endorsed groups against a "bad" ISIL, formed several years ago out of the al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq and transplanted into Syria.

Some ISIL supporters also have asserted that Zawahiri was duped into opposing ISIL as part of a U.S. plot, backed by the intelligence services in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The reported objective is to drive a wedge between the two groups under the strategic rubric of divide and conquer.

Other less strident jihadists have backed ISIL without attacking senior al Qaeda leaders.

Ideologically, the division emerged several years ago and was given voice by clerics and other jihadist writers online. The differences center on whether al Qaeda should adopt more moderate policies as a more practical way of advancing global jihad and gaining large support from groups like the less violent Muslim Brotherhood.

ISIL, set up in June 2013, favors ultra-radical policies that have been on display in Syria with suicide bombings, executions, beheadings, and other scorched-earth terror tactics against both Syrian government forces and other Islamist rebels.

The split began before the Syria conflict or the Arab Spring and was evident on social media and other online forums in 2012, fueling major internal debates.

The rift has now become a battle over who will become the most effective force to advance Islamist efforts to achieve the ultimate objective of establishing a hardline Sharia-law driven empire in the region.

Sebastian Gorka, a professor of irregular warfare at the National Defense University, said the split is less important than the outcome of jihadists’ fight to take over Syria.

"Al Qaeda Central is no longer relevant as an operational hub," Gorka told the Free Beacon, adding that the group is now more of an "ideological brand" than centrally-directed group.

"Whoever out of the patchwork of jihadi groups captures Syria will be seen as having won the key territory for rebuilding the caliphate"—a vast Islamist state under Sharia law, Gorka said.

Fighting in recent months between ISIL and other Syrian Islamists has been fierce in Syria, complicating international efforts to reach a resolution of the conflict against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus.

Earlier this month a photo was posted on Twitter showing an ISIL car bombing of the al Nusra Front headquarters, killing dozens. Frequent reports are posted online about operations by ISIL against al Nusra Front and that group’s attacks on ISIL.

Outside Syria, jihadists linked to ISIL have called for resuming terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia, after Riyadh was viewed as seeking to undermine ISIL.

Saudi Arabia issued a royal decree on Feb. 3 aimed at seeking to limit the flow of Saudis to join Islamist rebels in Syria. The decree said that anyone joining hostilities outside the country would face a prison term of between three and 20 years.

An analysis of the split published last month in the Saudi economic news outlet Al Eqtisadiah Online, said that the divisions pose "a real crisis" for Zawahiri in seeking to maintain control of the group.

The article said that documents obtained by U.S. special operations forces during the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden revealed earlier divisions.

According to reports of the documents, some in al Qaeda favor moderation and asserted that al Qaeda’s terrorism had distorted the image of Islam and produced a widespread impression that all Muslims are potential terrorists.

That prompted arguments for more moderate policies.

Instead, al Qaeda’s third generation of terrorists is emerging from two earlier cohorts—those who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and post-Sept. 11, 2001, fighters.

The latest group is viewed as al Qaeda’s "Internet generation" that recruits suicide bombers and others online and that are among those who currently staff the affiliates in Yemen, North Africa, and more recently in Syria and Iraq.

The Saudi report said a key factor in the split was the 2012 U.S. drone strike that killed Abu Yahya al-Libi in Pakistan.

"He was the link between the central organization and the regional and local organizations through his control of the accredited media machine of al Qaeda," the report said. "With al-Libi’s absence the important connecting link in al Qaeda’s network was lost."

Al-Libi is among the many senior al Qaeda leaders that were killed in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Thomas Joscelyn, a counterterrorism expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said central al Qaeda disavowal of ISIL is very significant but not well understood.

Jihadists and others are backing ISIL but the leading thinkers within al Qaeda and the broader jihadist movement are backing the decision to eject ISIL.

"ISIL was never al Qaeda's preferred play inside Syria," Jocelyn said. "Instead, senior al Qaeda operatives were embedded within Ahrar al Sham, another extremist group that is not even formally recognized as a branch of al Qaeda."

The main al Qaeda central representative in Syria is a senior member of Ahrar al Sham, highlighting its importance to senior leaders outside the country.

"In addition, al Qaeda's senior leadership helped spawn [al Nusra Front] and agreed that it should remain separate from ISIL," he said. Both the front and Ahrar al Sham are the kind of groups al Qaeda is backing in Syria, because "they are more capable of winning a broader base of popular support than ISIL, which is clumsy, heavy-handed, and ruled by an egomaniac," Joscelyn said.