Al-Qaeda’s Internal Divide Grows In Syria

Disagreements regarding the rumored merger of the Islamic state of Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria have highlighted internal disagreements plaguing al-Qaeda.

Topics covered

syria, al-qaeda, aqim

Aug 19, 2013

On July 20, a video clip was posted on YouTube showing six men standing in a square in Aleppo, facing each other, three against three. The referee of the tug-of-war game declares that the first team is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and that the second is Jabhat al-Nusra. The two teams start pulling the rope amid the cheers of children. The first man holding the rope in the ISIS team was obviously keen to loosen the rope when the Jabhat al-Nusra team approaches defeat and to pull it when it approaches victory. Following a one-minute bout of excitement, the game ends in a tie. Jihadist forums posted the video on their pages, along with the expression: “Thank God it ended with a tie and neither of them won.”

This was one of the media messages aimed at concealing the division within the ranks of the mujahedeen in Syria between Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIS. Yet, these days the disagreement between the two teams is at its peak on two levels. On the first level, each party relies on the interpretation of messages issued by “Sharia guides” favoring either to this or that party, while the other level is the field level. On the latter level, the conflict revolves around the fact that many jihadists from Jabhat al-Nusra have joined the ranks of the ISIS, and ensuing complications regarding rights to the regions that used to be controlled by jihadists on behalf of Jabhat al-Nusra, before their subtle dissent.

The aspects of divergence are deep and they set the foundation for an inevitable stage of division that may only be avoided in cases we will deal with after examining the differences. It may seem surprising that the emir of the ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is seen as a self-made emir and his followers are even more loyal to him than al-Qaeda followers are to their leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

War of interpretation and statements

On July 17, the Al-Furqan Media Foundation, which is close to the ISIS, posted a warning on its Facebook page threatening to expel any visitor who writes a comment against Baghdadi or [Jabhat al-Nusra leader]  Abu Mohammed al-Joulani. This warning was not addressed to those who do not recognize the leadership of both men, but rather to the popular base supporting al-Qaeda’s jihad. It is worth mentioning that a large portion of this popular base parted ways, and thus was divided into two teams and two leaderships. This portion was not known for having descended to the level of verbal bickering, rather it has always criticized “material politicians” for doing that. However, Baghdadi’s media machine is urging jihadists to turn against Jabhat al-Nusra through fabricated video clips in which Baghdadi requests Joulani to follow him. The most recent video was posted on July 17 and was titled “A warning to those failing to pledge allegiance to the emir of the organization.” In this video, Baghdadi recalls that the mujahedeen’s Shura Council in Iraq dissolved itself in favor of the former emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, on Oct. 15, 2006, which means that Joulani must follow its example.

The dispute is only spread to the jihadist ranks since it is fueled at the leadership level, where one would be surprised by the audacity of the attack by ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani against Zawahiri. In a letter dated June 20, he describes the interpretation of Zawahiri — objecting to the merger [between the Islamic State of Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra] — and says that it is wrong and leads to sedition. Jihadist forums only tackled this letter on a small scale, limited to those following the path of Baghdadi in addition to the latter’s official forum, Al-I'tissam Media Foundation, as well as the ISIS section on the Jihadist Media Forum. Furthermore, the advocates and followers of al-Qaeda’s jihad are not accustomed to the partisan trend. In a letter titled “Leave Them and Their Lies,” Adnani accused Zawahiri of having decided something leading to sin, by dividing the same group. He also accused Zawahiri of consecrating Sykes-Picot borders. Beyond that, those keeping their pledge of loyalty to Joulani from among Jabhat al-Nusra are deemed disobedient defectors from the leadership taken away from Baghdadi. Throughout the 21-minute audio message, Adnani directs doctrinal messages at Zawahiri and, just like a student, was reminded of Quranic verses with a high and superior tone. This is a new language of speech making its way to jihadist literature, and which may be understood as if Baghdadi [through Adnani] was telling Zawahiri “do not cross your limits.”

Before this serious dispute, jihadist media forums were a reflection of the status of al-Qaeda and its affiliates: one family dominated by internal routine habits and full admission of the pyramidal hierarchy of command between the center and branches. The issue of leadership was never a problem that required jihad advocates to spend time and efforts to settle it. Although there were disagreements, these were only publicly revealed when US intelligence released documents it said it found in the location where Osama bin Laden was killed (in Abbottabad) in Pakistan. These documents included a letter by Adam Yahiye Gadahn — known as Azzam the American — calling on bin Laden to cut his organizational ties with the “imaginary” Islamic State of Iraq. In the letter, Gadahn reminded bin Laden that the relationship practically ended a year ago, and that the declaration was made without consulting al-Qaeda. This rare disclosure of dispute was denied immediately following its release in May 2012, but Baghdadi’s supporters are likely to exploit it later on.

Theorists’ positions

The dispute did not lead senior jihad advocates to line up with Baghdadi, rather to the contrary, Joulani earned support from important parties having made prestigious contributions on the scene. The result is that the global jihad movement following the lead of al-Qaeda is witnessing a partition between its three sections: emirs, soldiers and the followers and advocates. It is worth mentioning that the unitary discourse promoting a status quo — i.e., the mutual recognition between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamist State, to avoid the greater damage of the clash between the two parties — is not based on any ground in Sharia law and jihadist doctrinal evidence.

Among the most important messages supporting Joulani is that of the preacher Abu Abdul Rahman Fawzi al-Athari, posted online on April 24, 2013, and composed of 20 pages. It is titled “The Emir Ordered and the Soldier Disobeyed.” This speech included doctrinal interpretations based on the comparison between damage and benefit. Athari said that Baghdadi’s decision is misguided and could destroy all that has been built. Moreover, he severely reprimanded some of Baghdadi’s supporters, indicating that Jabhat al-Nusra recognizes the Sykes-Picot borders (by making the Levant region independent from Iraq). He pointed out that those stressing the necessity of obedience to the emir have fallen into a trap. He also provided examples of cases in which the soldier may rightfully refuse to obey the wrongful orders of his emir. This was the case of Al-Muhajereen and Al-Ansar, the army of the Prophet Muhammad’s companion Khalid bin Waleed, who refused to implement his order to kill the prisoners in the raid against Banu Jadhimah.

Other jihad advocates followed the same path as Athari, including Abdel Moneim Halima (also known as Abu Basir Tartusi), who posted a video online on April 10 confirming that Baghdadi’s declaration is null and void according to logical and legacy interpretations. This was also the opinion of Iyad Qunaibi, who added that there is no Sharia obligation to swear allegiance to a state (referring to Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) that is unstable. Moreover, preacher Abu al-Walid al-Ansari called on Baghdadi to reconsider the declaration of the Islamic State for the sake of Muslims. As for the official media forum of Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Manara Al-Baydaa for Mujahideen al-Sham, it doubted that Joulani would have sworn allegiance to Baghdadi in the first place.

Zawahiri’s contradiction

The view of the jihad advocates is not in support of Zawahiri, since the doctrine and the jurisprudence they relied upon may also be invoked against Zawahiri himself, based on a similar incident. Moreover, it was said that the position of Zawahiri is similar to that of Baghdadi in terms of inadmissibility of disobedience by a soldier of the orders of his emir. A letter, dated Oct. 3, 2012, was sent from the leadership of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of al-Qaeda in northern Mali — nicknamed Baloaour — who was killed in March 2013. In this message, the former rejected Belmokhtar's request to secede from AQIM under the name "the Desert Emirate," including a legal and political explanation. According to reports by jihadist websites, Zawahiri had refused to respond to Belmokhtar's numerous requests for independence from AQIM. Explaining the contradictory position taken by Zawahiri in these two cases, a commenter on the "I am a Muslim" jihadist forum argued that the message published by Al Jazeera nullifying the merger between al-Qaeda's branches in Iraq and Syria, came from the director of the (jihadist) Sihab Institute for Media Production, "Azzam the American." The latter did not publish the letter on his site, which gives support — albeit fragile — to the idea supported by pro-Baghdadi jihadist forums that Zawahari's message is open to doubt.

The conflict of flags

Yet, what brings about pro-Joulani calls and interpretations is not the bias for Jabhat al-Nusra — while allowing the "Islamic State" to remain active in Syria — but rather the reintegration of all parties under Joulani. If this is achieved, it would be a precedent in modern international jihadist history. Even if it was the right of the soldier (Joulani) to rebel against the emir (Baghdadi), the emir for the latter is Zawahiri (according to the chain of command), and it is his right to go back on his agreements and declare the independence of the "Islamic State" from al-Qaeda, if he felt that the integration could cause harm.

What prevents Zawahiri from allowing Baghdadi to include "Syria" in his hypothetical "state" is that it would transform him — Zawahiri — into a merely symbolic leader with no weight on the ground. Meanwhile, the actual power would be focused in the hands of Baghdadi, if he achieved exclusive rights, something that would be easy for him in Syria. Moreover, among jihadists, Syria is a priority for waging jihad, more so than other regions that jihadists are directed toward throughout the world. These jihadists want to avoid turning Palestine into a "land of jihad," because the liberation of Palestine must be preceded by the establishment of Islamic rule in the Levant, according to the sequential order laid out in the treatise titled Ahadith of the End Times. Moreover, the Levant is also a rallying point for the mujahedeen to actively respond to the Western invasion, according to the same treatise.  

Something that makes Zawahiri more cautious regarding his current position, in the event that the Levant falls out of his hands and under the control of Baghdadi, is that those volunteering to fight in the ranks of the two wings of al-Qaeda give special value and emotional meaning to the Levant. This is because a saying of the Prophet Muhammad mentions the Levant, saying "the Levant is land blessed by the Prophet." In another statement, the Prophet says that the Islamic nation should follow the army of the Levant, "because it is among God's best army on Earth." Yemen falls in second place, yet the saying attributed to the prophet — listed in "Sinin Abu Dawood" — does not call for the Iraqi army to join in if jihad is occurring in the Levant. It's worth noting that the director of the US National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, acknowledged that Syria has already become the largest arena for jihad in the world.

Ahadith of the End Times includes another point in favor of the Levant, when it says that all accounts agree that the Levant is the location of the great battle that is associated with the appearance of the Mahdi. According to Islamic tradition, this will be preceded by the appearance of the Sufyani, al-Yamani and al-Abqaa. Abi Mohammed al-Adnani, a Syrian jihadist leader, even said in an audio recording from July 30 that they would not abandon jihad until they had surrendered the flag to Issa bin Mariam [Jesus], who will, according to their belief, appear in eastern Damascus. It is no coincidence that the official media site for Jabhat al-Nusra is named "the White Minaret." This refers to the minaret located between the Eastern Gate in the old city of Damascus and the Ummayid mosque, which — according to Sunni prophecies, and to a less extent Shiite ones — is the location where Jesus will reappear.

All of these epic narratives play a part in the current differences within al-Qaeda, even if they are not apparent. For Zawahari, ensuring that Baghdadi is distanced from the Levant ensures his control as a local leader. It also means that Zawahari attains the loyalty of Joulani. This is despite the fact that there is no guarantee that he would resist Baghdadi, who enjoys the support of the majority of jihadists in Syria, and is not concerned with breaking Zawahiri's word.

In addition, Zawahiri is based in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and has no area of influence there independent of the Taliban. So it is not surprising that [controlling] the Levant is a dream of his, for all the scenarios associated with the end of times [in Islamic tradition] are focused on the Levant. The latter is where the White Minaret is located, and it is the land where Sunni and Shiite narratives both come together and diverge. Furthermore, those driving the events are keen to follow religious prophecies — whether they agree with the views of some or not — and work toward achieving what these prophecies say about the Levant.

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