Information Date: February 6, 2014
Event Date: February 3, 2014
Information Item: Al-Qaeda announces it has no connection to ISIS
Information Platform: Osint
Source Reliability: Reliable
Spring: As-Sahab Media
Spring Reliability: Reliable
Relevant Information: Al-Qaeda announced that it has no relationship with the Militant Islamic organization known as The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a group also known in Arabic by the initials DA’ESH. Isis has heretofore been identified as Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq. The announcement was published in Al-Qaeda’s main media platform known as As-Sahab (The Cloud).
Evaluation: Reading in-between the lines hints that the reason for this announcement has to do with the growing discontent of Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership – The Supreme Council (Shura) – with ISIS’ independent (even disobedient) policy and activity in a few areas:
a) According to one source, in spite of the Al-Qaeda Supreme Council’s objection, ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, intends to expand ISIS by including groups from Sinai, Somalia, Libya and Tunisia under a new name – “The Islamic State Caliphate.”
b) Over the past year ISIS has expanded its influence and has taken over villages and towns in Syria – including an area inside the city of Aleppo (in western Syria) where it has created local governmental systems based on its extreme version of Sha’ria.
Their encroachment into Syria has put ISIS on a collision course with the major Syrian rebel groups – including Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, as well as the Kurdish Militias.
A few months ago, Isis’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced that Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria) had become a part of ISIS under al-Baghdadi’s leadership. Yet, Mohammed Al-Joulani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, refused al-Baghdadi’s demand and, instead, announced his obedience to Al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The Al-Qaeda Supreme Council, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, backed al-Joulani, and ruled that Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria, would operate independently and not become a part of ISIS.
According to one source, ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, defied al-Zawahiri’s decision and authorized assassination attempts of senior commanders of Jabhat Al-Nusra, thus resulting in lethal clashes between the two groups in Syria.
c) While Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, fights the Iran-Assad axis, ISIS’ involvement in both the recent clashes in Iraq, as well as in Syria, plays into the hands of the Iran-Assad axis, thus undermining Al-Qaeda’s interests in Syria in two ways:
First, it supports Assad’s argument that he is facing terror groups – and not a popular Syrian uprising.
Second, by fighting other rebel groups in Syria, ISIS provides the Iran-Assad axis with a valuable service – it keeps the rebels engaged in the fighting against ISIS, thus weakening the rebels’ military capacity. In that context it should be mentioned that according to a source evaluated as reliable, more than 1,000 militants have been killed in these skirmishes, among them more than 250 ISIS militants. Furthermore, in that context, it should also be mentioned that a distinguished Saudi clergy put forth an agreement aimed to stop the clashes between ISIS and the Syrian rebels groups. While the Syrian groups – including Jabhat Al-Nusra – announced they accept the suggestion, ISIS turned it down.
d) ISIS’ policy does not only damage Al-Qaeda’s interests in Syria; it also jeopardizes Al-Qaeda’s interest in Iraq. Since late December 2013 ISIS has been engaged in clashes in the district of Al-Anbar in western Iraq. These clashes put ISIS on a collision track with both the Iraqi army as well as the powerful major Sunni tribes. Exposing itself to increasing military pressure, ISIS jeopardizes the sustainability of Al-Qaeda’s stronghold in western Iraq.
e) ISIS’s savagery also causes Al-Qaeda serious PR damage and image issues. Documented evidence reveals ISIS’ brutal and barbaric cruelty. The atrocities ISIS militants perpetrate in Syria against innocent civilians, as well as against other militants, prove that many of ISIS’ militants are psychopathic killers. The heinous images have been met with a deep sense of horror, shock and revulsion in the Arab world thus strengthening sentiments of resentment and hatred in the Muslim world towards Al-Qaeda who is already perceived as murderous organization, dangerous mostly to Muslims and Arabs. ISIS’ extreme and sadistic brutality is even too much for Al-Qaeda.
It is likely to assume that the announcement was not made in haste. After all, ISIS’ achievements in Iraq serve Al-Qaeda’s vision and mission. Also, the ramifications of the announcement on Al-Qaeda itself are yet unknown. It may back fire on Al-Qaeda. Yet, the fact Al-Qaeda took such a dramatic step indicates that Al-Qaeda’s Supreme Council is not compromising its position as the ultimate authority in the Al-Qaeda.
The Assessment: The ramifications and impact of Al-Qaeda’s announcement on ISIS is yet unclear. On the one hand, ISIS’ control over the economic activities and income sources like extortion fees, taxation of goods, gas stations, oil fields, etc., in some regions of Iraq provide ISIS with the ability to maintain independent, regardless of Al-Qaeda’s announcement.
On other hand, it is not clear what the impact of the announcement will be on ISIS’ military manpower, which, other than Iraqis – is based to a large extent on militants from different places including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Europe and so on. Will ISIS face difficulties recruiting new militants? Will ISIS see defections within its ranks? Will it generate a change within the ISIS leadership?
One way or another, the announcement comes at a bad time for ISIS. The organization is simultaneously fighting on two fronts and has sustained heavy losses on the ground – including the death of senior commanders. It is questionable how long ISIS will be able to keep its hold on the cities it controls – or partially controls – in Iraq and in Syria. Under continuing military pressure it is unlikely that the organization will be able to hold on to its strongholds for a long time.
That being said, it should be mentioned that ISIS has proved its ability to weather difficulties and to adjust itself. One should not expect ISIS to disappear.