For the first time, the global al-Qaeda network has disassociated itself from a member of the global terrorist network: the notoriously brutal Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL). What to make of their infighting? It helps demonstrate the changing and diversifying nature of al-Qaeda, from a centrally controlled terrorist network to a global force supporting violent Islamism — and the key opportunity Syria represents for al-Qaeda and groups like it.
There are actually two distinct al-Qaeda branches in Syria: ISIS and the al-Nusrah Front, the first an Iraq-headquartered succcessor to what was once called al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the second a group composed of Syrians and foreign fighters, which is based in the country.
Both of them have had, to the West’s dismay, substantially more military success in many parts of Syria than more moderate rebels — the Free Syrian Army and the Islamist militias — have had. In addition, though, ISIS has picked a lot of fights with Islamist groups and moderate rebels al-Nusrah has not. ISIS has also become known for an especially brutal approach to governing the cities they’ve taken and for a brand of Islam even Osama bin Laden’s successors consider too extreme for prime-time. Lastly, the group claimed in June of last year that it was going to take over al-Nusrah and become the sole al-Qaeda umbrella organization in Syria — something al-Qaeda leadership rejected, and which ISIS just wasn’t capable of doing on its own. In the last month especially, ISIS has been fighting other Islamist groups as much as it was making any meaningful military progress against the Assad regime; al-Nusrah, meanwhile, has been running a number of joint operations with some of the big Islamist militias.
A combination of these factors, along with ISIS’s foreign extraction, adds up to why core al-Qaeda — the Afghan-Arab leadership now based in Pakistan that descends from Osama bin Laden and maintains a huge amount of influence in global jihadist circles — disowned the group. (Al-Qaeda’s central leadership has made its displeasure with ISIS’s behavior known for a while.)
What does this break mean? For one, al-Qaeda takes its opportunity in Syria quite seriously. They’re not going to endorse just any deadly group with Sunni bona fides; they want a group over which they can have some control. As in Iraq, al-Qaeda — or at least, parts of the organization — are playing the long game, envisioning large swaths of territory as an Islamic state. ISIS had a pretty poor track record governing Syrian cities — it could hold them against military attack, but its extreme ideology had kept its cities restive and had Islamist militias attempting to retake the communities — and an even worse record of getting along with other insurgent groups.
Al-Qaeda central is in part rejecting ISIS and the bad PR it’s brought because PR is all that al-Qaeda central has to work with. It doesn’t seem to have any capability in its own region of influence, Afghanistan and Pakistan, let alone the ability to strike globally. But it also cares about PR because its business is diversifying: What was once a centrally controlled transnational terrorist organization devoted to hitting Western targets now provides important guidance for a number of successful franchises around the world that have different aims (all of which& involve a horrific violent brand of Islam).
This isn’t a completely new development for al-Qaeda, but it’s accelerating: The AQ branch in the no-less-fractious Yemen has avoided the PR problems and the acute infighting that we’ve seen in Syria, and it is actively trying to attack the West, but it’s also fighting an insurgency against the Yemeni government and controls territory of all its own (which means winning real allies among the people, an effort the U.S. drone war may be aiding). Al-Nusrah and ISIS are doing something similar, and al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia groups aren’t engaged in a full-scale insurgency campaign against the Libya and Tunisian governments, but they’re trying to weaken them and push the state in their fundamentalist direction, too. Fighting an insurgency is different from a campaign of global terror, and al-Qaeda’s decision to banish ISIS reflects that — ISIS certainly was good at killing, but even as far as Islamist terrorists go, it was terrible at winning hearts and minds. Ironically, ISIS’s tactic of suicide car bombings (which it’s stepped up of late) was early on considered a characteristic sign of al-Qaeda — but many of the groups associated with AQ now are more skeptical of such indiscriminate methods.
And yet without without the approval of al-Qaeda leadership (even if it did so technically under the AQ banner), ISIS has dealt a huge amount of death and destruction in Syria, and won real military victories. Their refusal to come to terms with al-Nusrah and the demands of al-Qaeda leadership could be an arrogant power grab, borne out of a desire to fight where AQ leadership didn’t want them, but it also has to be a sign that a transnational group spreading Islamist terror thinks it can compete without links to core al-Qaeda at all. In part that’s because the West has crippled al-Qaeda’s core as an operational force, which is a great accomplishment. It also means that threats are becoming more varied and diverse, and we don’t need to find al-Qaeda connections to be worried about what an Islamist group is doing. (Nor, of course, should we anxiously deny them where they exist.)
UPDATE: This YouTube video, of an Australian Islamic preacher has has joined al-Nusrah, is an informative if chilling opportunity to learn about how they view their former associates, ISIS. He is essentially a propagandist for al-Nusrah, and argues that the primary problem with ISIS is that it overstepped its authority in declaring an Islamic state.