- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He has studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated in 2010 with degrees in English and International Relations from the University of California, Davis. Before coming to FP, his work appeared in the Atlantic and the National Interest, among other publications.
For more than a decade, al Qaeda has been aggressively extending its reach through a sort of franchising strategy, signing up an ally here and a subsidiary there to fight its global jihad.
But on radical Islam’s most prominent battlefield, al Qaeda appears to be having second thoughts about that approach. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s replacement as the emir of al Qaeda, just announced he’s cutting ties with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams, a group often known by the acronym ISIS.
"Al Qaeda has no connection with the group called the ISIS, as it was not informed or consulted about its establishment," the group’s central leadership wrote in a statement circulating in jihadist forums and published by the BBC. "It was not pleased with it and thus ordered its suspension. Therefore, it is not affiliated with al Qaeda and has no organizational relationship with it." The terror group, the statement adds, "is not responsible for ISIS’s actions."
The development represents a major challenge for ISIS, which began as an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq, a militant group which carried out some of the bloodiest attacks of the Iraq War. Shortly after the death of the organization’s founder in 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, it changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq. In 2012, when the group began to play a leading role in Syria’s civil war, it once more changed its name to include al-Shams, the Arabic name for the greater Syria region.
The current conflict between al Qaeda’s central leadership and ISIS stems from the latter’s insistence on battling other jihadist groups in Syria for territory and resources. Zawahiri wants the group to focus on fighting forces loyal to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, but ISIS commanders have refused to heed his orders. Those tensions first emerged last year, when Zawahiri warned ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi not to overextend his group in Syria and claim control over Jabhat al-Nusra, another Qaeda-affiliated group operating there. "I have to choose between the rule of God and the rule of Zawahiri, and I choose the rule of God," Baghdadi responded. In recent weeks, the schism has turned violent, with Nusra and ISIS fighters turning their weapons on one another.
"The relationship has been troubled since the Zarqawi days," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Foreign Policy. "Even so, ISIS’s recent actions placed it in far more open defiance of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership than it was under Zarqawi."
Al Qaeda’s decision to sever its ties with ISIS is a frightening commentary on Syria’s intensifying civil war, a conflict that has already claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people and forced more than 2 million Syrians to flee their homes. ISIS, al Qaeda has apparently decided, has grown too violent even by its own bloody standards. "Zawahiri chose to cut Baghdadi loose because the emir publicly disobeyed him and because ISIS is conducting its jihad more brutally than Zawahiri would like," Will McCants, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told FP.
Zawahiri had other options, including trying to put a new militant at the helm of ISIS, but McCants said Zawahiri instead chose to "wash his hands of the most extreme of the jihadi groups fighting in Syria."
The move carries risks for al Qaeda, which has now dropped its most active and high profile affiliate. An independent ISIS could come to rival Zawahiri’s organization, weakened by an unrelenting series of American drone strikes, in the competition for funding and new recruits. "If ISIS succeeds without al Qaeda, it will attract funding," Gartenstein-Ross said. "And there is already a dynamic on jihadist forums where some members are siding with ISIS and against the recognized al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. This could channel both resources and also supporters to another center of jihadist power, and away from [al Qaeda]."
Bin Laden may be dead and the core of al Qaeda may be significantly weakened, but the terror group’s network of imitators continues to grow. Even more alarmingly, those groups may spin off new franchises of their own.