In March 2013, the demonstrations in Anbar and the Sunni areas took a new turn with the sudden appearance of al-Qaeda’s traditional flags in some protest sites, their disappearance and their intermittent reappearance in Fallujah with the outbreak of clashes in Anbar at the beginning of 2014.
Those flags created a controversy about the demonstrations. The flags were considered evidence of the existence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) elements in the sit-ins, something the protesters denied at the time.
Aside from the repercussions and the developments for a whole year after that incident, it revealed for the first time that there are al-Qaeda elements who are not ISIS in Iraq. That aspect was ignored even after the two groups openly quarreled in Syria.
The traditional al-Qaeda flag has a black rectangular background with the words “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God” written in the Thuluth Islamic script. On the other hand, the ISIS flag is the same as that of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) flag of 2006 and consists of a black rectangular background with the words “There is no god but God” written in Kufic Arabic script, and the words “Muhammad is the messenger of God” below it in the form of a seal. There are disagreements about the history of the symbol, with some claiming that it emulates the seal of the Prophet Muhammad.
Both flags try to emulate flags carried by early Muslims to enshrine the notion of “jihad” according to the al-Qaeda interpretation.
In 2006, ISI abandoned the al-Qaeda flag and chose a new one. ISI wanted to distinguish itself from the international al-Qaeda organization, and that clearly appeared with ISI’s gradual disengagement from al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and in searching for separate funding sources. Then, in mid-2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and rebelled against the orders of Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of the international al-Qaeda organization. Zawahri wanted ISI to be only active in Iraq and have Jabhat al-Nusra be al-Qaeda’s representative in Syria.
After this split, Jabhat al-Nusra abandoned the ISI flag, which it raised for two years in Syria and adopted the original al-Qaeda flag, with the addition of the words “Jabhat al-Nusra in the Levant.”
The flag dispute between ISIS and al-Qaeda points to two things:
First, the leaders of the international al-Qaeda organization never raised the ISI flag, even in the early phases, when the two organizations were considered one. Osama bin Laden appeared in speeches, messages and photos with the original al-Qaeda flag in the background. No pictures were found showing Zawahri with any flag. For background, he uses a white cloth or a bookshelf.
The above confirms that the adoption of ISI by al-Qaeda was only for media purposes, not an actual organizational step. In fact, there have been mutual objections, splits and threats, resulting in internal wars. By staying connected to al-Qaeda, ISI was benefiting, and ISI used that connection to get suicide bombers and money from the funding lines of the mother al-Qaeda organization.
Second, ISI, which turned into ISIS, never raised the original al-Qaeda flag at any occasion, despite the fact that ISI agreed with the media’s description of it as al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch. In fact, ISI statements and publications clearly avoided showing the old flag — so much so that when the flag appeared in March 2013 in Anbar’s square, elders and notables said it symbolized Islamic civilization and the era of Muhammad’s companions, and that it was not al-Qaeda’s flag.
It is interesting that this rare appearance of al-Qaeda’s flag was before Baghdadi announced the formation of ISIS and before the public split with Zawahri.
Information confirms that “all that was left of Zawahri’s al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2013 were a few dozen [members]. And they continued on the grounds that their leader is Osama bin Laden and later Zawahri, [and that] Baghdadi is nothing more than the commander of the al-Qaeda branch in Iraq, and that giving him allegiance [bai’a] is only for war, not an allegiance for the leadership [khilafa].”
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Ibrahim Awad al-Samarrai) and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (Hamid al-Zawi) before him called themselves “emir of the faithful” to signal that the center of the imara [area of control] has moved from Afghanistan to Iraq and that the caliphate and the imara of bin Laden and Zawahri have moved to Baghdadi. That raised objections in the internal organization about whether Baghdadi can rightfully call himself the “emir of the faithful” instead of the emir of ISI, at a time when there was a declared allegiance [bai’a] to bin Laden.
These arguments and objections were put down by force inside ISI and any sign of an imara outside that of Baghdadi was suppressed, including the imara of Zawahri himself. Extending ISI into Syria was given its Sharia promotion under the banner of “emir of the faithful,” not the banner of “emir of ISI.”
Some facts indicate that elements from Zawahri’s al-Qaeda rebelled against Baghdadi’s authority in December 2010. The rebellion was led by a figure linked to the traditional al-Qaeda organization and named Abdul Karim al-Jubouri, nicknamed Kareem al-Shora, in Mosul. The rebellion turned into a battle that ended with Shora quitting Mosul’s imara. He was later killed at the hands of Iraqi forces.
Some al-Qaeda elements have been liquidated by Baghdadi elements in the past few years because the former stayed associated in one form or another with the original al-Qaeda organization. Among those killed were the former prefect [wali] of Mosul, Jamal al-Hamdani Abu Nouh. And many al-Qaeda elements ran away and stayed out of sight, including a figure named Ammar al-Jubouri, who might be in Iran now. He still uses Internet forums to express his opposition to Baghdadi’s authority and he has close ties with Zawahri. The same applied to the former commander of Jaish Omar, nicknamed Abu Aisha.
It can be said that Baghdadi liquidated many al-Qaeda elements who stayed loyal to Zawahri, and that these killings are still occurring in some parts of Anbar, where some witnesses said that a “Sharia court” set up by Baghdadi elements in the military neighborhood of Ramadi has handed down death sentences to a number of al-Qaeda elements. Other witnesses said that Baghdadi was able to kill other opponents in a number of cities by snitching about them to the US and Iraqi forces by way of a network linked to him and that, over the past years, he supplied misleading information about ISIS, its structure, mechanisms of work, leadership and internal conflicts.
One cannot say that the differences between al-Qaeda and ISIS today are ideological or about different Sharia interpretations. Rather, the differences are political. The internal and external power balances that underlie ISIS differ from those underlying al-Qaeda, whether in terms of calculations or interests. The mother al-Qaeda organization has overlapping and intertwined interests, from Russia to the western Maghreb and from Europe to Southeast Asia.
Is Zawahri planning to overthrow Baghdadi in Iraq after he supported overthrowing him in Syria?
There is no solid information to support this hypothesis, at least today. The two groups are not equally strong in Iraq. Except for a limited appearance of Zawahri’s banner in Fallujah, Baghdadi seems better able to convince the gunmen and the suicide bombers to fight under his banner.
Killing or capturing Baghdadi could collapse ISIS to a greater extent than Zarqawi’s death (and the deaths of Hamid al-Zawi and Abu Hamza al-Masri after him) did to his organization, because of the extreme centralization imposed by Baghdadi on his organization, compared with the decentralized al-Qaeda under Zawahri.
But suicide bombings under the multiple and conflicting al-Qaeda banners don’t seem to be receding. Those who wish to become suicide bombers can always find banners that legitimize killing.
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