The jihadist scene in the region in general, and in Syria in particular, is becoming more complex. Despite the decline in military battles between jihadist factions, the repercussions of the “divergence” between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) are ongoing. There are defections here and there and some are switching loyalties. This is happening amid an unprecedented polarization, in which there are mutual media attack campaigns to compensate for the temporary absence of the sound of bullets.
As might be expected, a few days after ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri spoke to al-Sahab institution, to which both asserted that there is a systematic disagreement between the two organizations, the repercussions of this divergence started to appear in Afghanistan and in the Levant.
In Afghanistan, the leader Abu al-Huda al-Sudani announced his defection from the global al-Qaeda organization and pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, accusing Zawahri of “deviating,” and that al-Qaeda’s approach is today represented by ISIS.
Sudani is a veteran of Khorasan, where he spent nearly 30 years doing jihad. A few weeks ago he released an audio recording endorsing the orientations of ISIS but without pledging allegiance.
Another leader, Abu Jarir al-Shamali, released an audio recording supporting ISIS. Although such defections and pledges of allegiance may not have an impact on the ground, unless their pace accelerates, they do represent a significant moral boost for ISIS supporters, who are increasingly isolated because most Syrian factions are uniting to fight ISIS and get rid of it.
In the Levant, the most important event was the publication of a video clip of a Jordanian armed group from Maan, which has been witnessing clashes for a week. In the video, the Jordanian group declared allegiance to Baghdadi and called itself the Maan Martyrs Battalion. Although the pledge of allegiance is not complete without the consent of ISIS leadership, the mere issuance of the pledge indicates that this group has adopted the approach of ISIS.
In an interview with As-Safir, a source that follows jihadist matters in Jordan said this group is still unknown and that “there is no truth to reports that [the group] is affiliated with Abu Sayyaf or his son.” The source said that Abu Sayyaf (Mohammed al-Shalabi) “has lost his presence in the jihadist street in Jordan since he was released from prison and reconciled with the Jordanian government.”
The source pointed out that the pledge of allegiance was not surprising because the Jordanian street is divided among supporters of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. But the source said, “Most Jordanian jihadists in fact belong to Nusra.” It should be noted that Abu Sayyaf, despite what the source said, is considered one of the leading suppliers of Jordanian jihadists to Jabhat al-Nusra.
In contrast, some observers expressed their concern regarding the video clip and didn’t rule out that it could be the product of Jordanian intelligence services, which want to deter the street from supporting groups that provoked the chaos in Maan, according the observers.
But there’s a third explanation, which is that ISIS’s leadership made the video to send a message to Jordanian Salafist leaders that any support they provide to Jabhat al-Nusra to help the latter form a branch in Iraq will be subject to retaliation in Jordan.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk that Nusra is determined to establish a branch in Iraq. This talk became serious after a tweet by the “general legitimate official of Nusra” Abu Maria al-Qahtani — who not only supported the idea but said that it is going to happen soon — pointing out that the leader of the branch will be an experienced jihadist. Such a move could exacerbate the dispute and cross the red lines between the two parties.
In an earlier report, As-Safir revealed a secret visit by Qahtani — the “grand mufti of Jabhat al-Nusra” — to Iraq in October, where he met with the leaders of Jaish al-Islam, Ansar al-Islam and some tribal elders to persuade them to swear allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra and join its ranks.
In the same context, Tunisian preacher Bilal al-Shawashi announced his defection from Jabhat al-Nusra and formed an independent battalion named al-Oqab [the punishment]. Although Shawashi defended the viewpoint of ISIS, he didn’t swear allegiance to ISIS, prompting some ISIS supporters to criticize his vague position.
There have also been reports that the leader of al-Qaaqaa battalion, Mahmoud Matar, has withdrawn his allegiance from ISIS. He had declared his allegiance when ISIS attacked Abu Kamal. Meantime, Nusra was embarrassed after being forced to release an ISIS emir in the city of Mayadin in Deir el-Zour, Abu Dhir al-Iraqi, as part of an exchange deal between the two sides that included dozens of prisoners.
Nusra was embarrassed because, several weeks ago, it published a video clip of Iraqi announcing his defection from ISIS, leaving doubts even among its supporters regarding confessions, which Nusra has been publishing, showing ISIS members admitting they are committing anti-Nusra attacks.
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