The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has succeeded in imposing itself as a key player in the complex Syrian equation in a relatively short time, which some consider a record time. That would be the case had ISIS been a new organization, but in fact the only thing new about it is its name. One cannot understand how ISIS has surpassed the other armed organizations in Syria that preceded it without understanding that ISIS, under a different name, is in fact older than the other groups and older than the Syrian crisis itself.
The roots of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham
The roots of ISIS go back to Oct. 15, 2006, when what is known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was established. That groups was formed by uniting several groups, most notably al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Mujahedeen Shura Council in Iraq, and Jund al-Sahhaba [Soldiers of the Prophet’s Companions].
ISI took Baquba, Iraq, as its capital and swore allegiance to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as the group’s emir. Baghdadi’s real name is Hamed Dawood Mohammed Khalil al-Zawi; he was born in 1959. He used to work in the Iraqi security corps, then left after he embraced Salafist ideology in 1985. He was one of the most prominent promoters of Salafist ideology. He was made head of Jaish al-Taefa al-Mansoura then swore allegiance to al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which later formed, with other groups, the Mujahedeen Shura Council in Iraq.
After Zarqawi was killed, Baghdadi was appointed as that council’s emir under the name of Abu Abdullah al-Rashed al-Baghdadi. He was then made head of ISI. In 2010, the ISI’s ministry of Sharia matters announced that Baghdadi had been killed. Afterward, the Mujahedeen Shura Council swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as ISI’s emir.
ISI spreads to Syria
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi played a key role in establishing Jabhat al-Nusra. But he considered Abu Mohammed al-Golani, Nusra’s leader, to be his subordinate with a duty to obey him. So Baghdadi announced the dissolution of Jabhat al-Nusra and the integration of its members into ISI, with the new organization being called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.
Golani refused the order, but ISIS appeared on the scene with strength anyway. ISIS quickly announced its areas of operations publicly and took control of wide areas without facing much resistance, benefitting from the Jabhat al-Nusra fighters who defected to ISIS.
Some estimates suggest that about 65% of Jabhat al-Nusra elements quickly declared their allegiance to ISIS. Most of those were non-Syrian jihadists. Entire brigades joined ISIS, among them was the Mujahedeen Shura Council led by Abu al-Atheer, whom ISIS appointed emir of Aleppo, and Jaish al-Muhajireen and al-Ansar, led by Omar al-Chechani.
Those defections allowed ISIS to take Jabhat al-Nusra’s place in controlling several regions and posts, most notably in Raqqa, parts of the Aleppo countryside, and parts of Aleppo city. Jabhat al-Nusra’s latest withdrawal was from its headquarters at the Children’s Hospital toward the old transportation building in Aleppo. ISIS also seized the headquarters of other groups in Manbaj, al-Bab and Azaz. Jabhat al-Nusra’s small posts were replaced by a large ISIS headquarters.
It should be noted that until now, ISIS has not engaged in a physical confrontation with the Syrian army, but rather fought battles with the “opposition” armed factions. “Jihadist” sources attribute that to “ISIS being at the stage of establishing and strengthening itself so that the jihad against the regime happens on solid foundations.” ISIS opened the door for new members without checking the quality of the new members. ISIS started paying $200 a month for each fighter, and thousands of men in ISIS’s area of control joined the group.
The dispute between Golani and Baghdadi
A “jihadist” source told As-Safir that the reasons behind the dispute between the two men are “purely intellectual,” whereby “Baghdadi’s approach greatly differs from that of Golani’s. Baghdadi believes in the necessity of declaring the emirate, or Islamic state, immediately and declaring its emir as its leader who alone [makes decisions], and for the mujahedeen to swear allegiance to that Islamic state in the territories [it controls], be they Syrian or non-Syrian, and by not recognizing the Sharia committee judges who come from other Islamic factions. There should be no law but ISIS’s law. Also, all Islamic factions should swear allegiance to the ISIS emir or be considered outside of God’s authority. Military cooperation happens only with the battalions that declare exclusive allegiance [to ISIS]. And ISIS preachers (mosque preachers) have the right to replace the local preachers in all mosques. Moreover, all the spoils and financial resources belong to the ISIS’s treasury. The other factions, whether or not they are Islamic, have no right to that money.”
But another “jihadist” source told As-Safir, “The difference in approach is nothing more than an indirect reason. Golani and Baghdadi were in agreement on the strategies followed by Jabhat al-Nusra. Even though Baghdadi was not in full agreement with [those strategies], he agreed to temporarily adopt them because Golani held that [those strategies] would be more acceptable to the Syrian people.”
The source added, “The main cause behind the disagreement is an old personal dispute between Golani and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who was identified as the ISIS spokesman. Then there was news that Baghdadi appointed him emir for the Syrian branch of ISIS.”
On that, the source points to a number of statements made by Adnani where he “described Jabhat al-Nusra as defectors from ISIS. And he accused Golani and his group of being disobeyers who betrayed their pledge of allegiance to Baghdadi. On another occasion, [Adnani] asserted that all the reasons for a fight between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS are present.”
ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda
Loyalty to al-Qaeda may be the common denominator between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. ISIS has been under al-Qaeda’s banner since ISI was founded and inspired by the approach of Zarqawi, and from the jihadist doctrine stipulating “the loyalty of the branch is from the loyalty of the main [organization].” Therefore, ISIS’s loyalty is to al-Qaeda as long as [ISIS’s] emir Baghdadi “didn’t invalidate the allegiance” in an open manner. It should be noted that Baghdadi had refused to implement the decision of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri to dissolve ISIS while maintaining Jabhat al-Nusra and ISI intact.
On the other hand, Jabhat al-Nusra pledged allegiance to Zawahri in response to Baghdadi’s announcement about dissolving Jabhat al-Nusra. Golani denounced that decision the next day and declared that his “allegiance is only to al-Qaeda’s emir Ayman al-Zawahri as the supreme commander,” in a move that apparently was intended to use Zawahri in Jabhat al-Nusra’s dispute with Baghdadi.