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February 3, 2014 5:07 pm
Al-Qaeda has formally disowned the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis), in a testament to just how brutal the writ and rule of Syria’s most notorious Islamist rebel group has become.
Isis “is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group”, said a statement issued by al-Qaeda’s Pakistan-based central command and posted on several jihadist websites late on Sunday.
“[We] do not have an organisational relationship with it, and [we are] not the group responsible for their actions.”
The disavowal follows months of tension between al-Qaeda’s core command, under Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the increasingly virulent Isis, whose territorial influence traces a line along the Euphrates river from Fallujah in Iraq – barely 60km from Baghdad – across to Raqqa in Northern Syria.
“The symbolic implications of this statement will probably prove very significant,” said Charles Lister, fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre in a note. “The outbreak of fighting between Isis and other Syrian rebel groups on 3 January made it inevitable that Zawahiri and [al-Qaeda] would have to issue a decisive ruling with permanent consequences – and this is it.”
The schism is one of the clearest indications of a growing tension in almost all of the al-Qaeda-linked groups that have proliferated across the Middle East and north Africa in the wake of the Arab spring: the need to win the hearts and minds of local peoples versus the need to wage jihad and demand unwavering submission to a literalist interpretation of Islam.
Isis has earned a reputation for particular savagery in Syria; it attacks other Muslim groups it accuses of apostasy as well as fighting against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The rare, explicit disavowal of the group by al-Qaeda may reflect the jostling for influence between personalities vying for leadership of the jihadist world. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi leader of Isis, has emerged as a figure in his own right, challenging Mr Zawahiri’s leadership. Isis has repeatedly ignored Mr Zawahiri’s attempts at asserting control.
The statement also reflects Mr Zawahiri’s increasing discomfort with Isis’s willingness to inflict casualties against civilians, invoke harsh sectarian rhetoric and target minority religious groups. In October, Mr Zawahiri issued a statement urging like-minded groups to avoid targeting Christians, Shia and Hindus and instead focus on attacking westerners and their allies.
“We are not the ones who will start a confrontation, since we are busy fighting the head of international infidelity,” he was quoted as saying.
Mr Zawahiri may also see an opportunity to bolster al-Qaeda’s popularity by disassociating it from a group growing increasingly unpopular in Syria. Not only is Isis regularly connected with reports of extreme violence against civilians, many within the Syrian uprising accuse it of either covertly or tacitly co-operating with the Assad regime.
Though Isis’s rapid territorial expansion in northern and western Syria has been checked this year, it maintains a presence on territories around the hinterlands of Iraq’s Anbar province.
Mr Zawahiri and other key al-Qaeda lieutenants have repeatedly called on Isis to rein in its excesses and scale back its ambitions in the country – not least because they already recognise another group, Jabhat al-Nusra, as their designated affiliate.
Barely two weeks ago, Mr Zawahiri issued a call for unity between jihadist factions. All jihadist groups fighting the Assad regime were “brothers”, Mr Zawahiri said, “whom we refuse to accuse of apostasy.”
But Isis has repeatedly ignored Mr Zawahiri’s attempts at asserting control. The group has been able to do so not least thanks to its prowess as one of the most militarily capable groups fighting the Assad regime.
Its ultraradical ideology and distinctive branding – easily recognisable in online photos, videos and tweets – mean it has also become the group of choice for many foreign fighters travelling to Syria to wage jihad.
With al-Qaeda’s command having now apparently designated Isis an official rogue group, the question now remains as to whether it will turn on Jabhat al-Nusra – or even use the split to try and claim moral authority over al-Qaeda’s global network for itself.
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