The ongoing war in Syria has crystallized divisions within the opposition jihadi camp, a development that will have a tremendous effect on the future of global jihad.
Despite the horrendous humanitarian catastrophe that is ongoing in Syria, the division between the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, could be good news for their opponents in Israel and the West, as the infighting makes attacks on Western targets less probable.
A report published on the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis website by Jean-Pierre Filiu, professor of Middle East studies at Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs and a long-time French diplomat who served in Arab countries, makes the bold argument that al-Qaida is no longer “the core of a global jihadi movement.”
“The former Iraqi branch of al-Qaida [ISIL] has now superseded [Osama] bin Laden’s network to become the more important driving force behind the global jihad,” he said.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over al-Qaida after bin Laden’s death in May 2011, has been leading what “typically has been seen as a complex of overlapping ‘franchises’ that together make up the core of a global jihadi movement.”
But it is ISIL’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and not Zawahiri, who is the leader of global jihad today, argued Filiu.
Filiu, who is a former adviser to the prime minister and minister of defense, explains that after the US invasion of Afghanistan, when all the attention was on the hunt for bin Laden, it was the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was building his own organization in Iraqi Kurdistan, which was called al-Tawhid wal-Jihad.
Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi grew his organization throughout the country, reversing bin Laden’s priorities, seeking to first “consolidate a solid local insurgent capacity before exporting his jihad abroad.”
Filiu goes on to show how Zarqawi influenced the leadership of al-Qaida: “It took a long time for bin Laden and his deputy, Zawahiri, to grasp the importance of Zarqawi’s game changer. Bin Laden was obsessed with the campaign that his al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula had just launched in Saudi Arabia. But the ‘Saudi jihad’ proved to be a failure, forcing bin Laden to appoint Zarqawi as commander of al-Qaida in Iraq, as al-Tawhid wal-Jihad was rebranded in late 2004.”
The al-Qaida leadership worried that Zarqawi’s mass killings against Shi’ite civilians would cause a backlash, but at the same time did not want to lose the group that was leading the Iraqi insurgency, argued Filiu.
After Zarqawi’s death in 2006, and that of the following appointed leaders, the Iraqi Baghdadi took over the Islamic State in Iraq and refused to pledge allegiance to Zawahiri after bin Laden’s death.
The uprising in Syria gave Baghdadi the opportunity to use the networks that brought fighters from Syria and to instead turn it around, and send jihadis to fight Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Then, in 2013, he renamed his organization ISIL, but the Nusra Front rejected the takeover of the Syrian front.
“Their objectives were quite different, even contradictory. The ISIL was fairly comfortable with Assad staying in power for the time being, as it was more interested in building its own base, while the Nusra Front was adamantly resolved to topple the dictator,” asserted Filiu.
Filiu told The Jerusalem Post that he believes the struggle between the two groups has nothing to do with pragmatism but – like Zarqawi of yesterday and Baghdadi of today – is about the quest for absolute control on the ground.
“While bin Laden of yesterday and Zawahiri of today accepted the ‘protection’ of Taliban patrons to develop their global networks,” it is the ISIL that actually has a growing territorial hold, he said.
The al-Qaida senior leadership’s power is dwindling, “which is why the future of al-Qaida is with ISIL, emancipated from the illusions of bin Laden’s virtual base, which did not survive him.”
Filiu said the distinction between “global jihad” and “national jihad,” which sticks to state borders, was already clear in Iraq between the “global” outlook of Zarqawi and the “national” insurgency that included jihad propaganda and foreign volunteers.
When the Nusra Front was confronted by ISIL’s attempt at a hostile takeover in April last year, the group responded by pledging allegiance to Zawahiri, hoping to remove the pressure from ISIL.
The Nusra Front however, discovered that the al-Qaida leadership’s power was virtual, since it did not alleviate the pressure, explained Filiu.
“The Nusra Front did not pledge allegiance to Zawahiri before because there was no point in it,” he said, adding that the group “is basically a ‘national’ jihadi organization, sticking to Syria and to the end of Bashar Assad, contrary to ISIL.”
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, told the Post that he disagrees with Filiu’s conclusion that ISIL fighters’ outreach is growing regionally as groups switch their allegiance from al-Qaida to ISIL.
“The only real example he cites is Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis [based in Sinai], but in fact he could have noted Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia as well,” argued Tamimi, adding that his own assessment is “that overall, the global jihad movement is very divided and the ‘trend’ does not point one way or the other.”
“None of al-Qaida’s official affiliates in Somalia, the Maghreb or Yemen are planning to switch allegiance as Filiu seems to imply,” though “there are of course pro-ISIL elements within al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula, al-Shabaab, etc., but they do not control these organizations,” he continued.
“All that said, the level of foreign jihadi support for ISIL is sufficient to ensure the group’s existence for the foreseeable future,” he said, and any hope that Zawahiri has of marginalizing the ISIL, as happened to the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria during the 1990s, is unlikely to pan out.