The Greatest Divorce in the Jihadi World
Al Qaeda wasn’t about to take ISIS’s defection from its ranks lying down. In Part III of an exclusive series, an Islamic State insider describes the events that led to civil war within the anti-Assad ranks.
The civil war begins
Until this point in May 2013, the rivalry between ISIS and Nusra had been more or less peaceful. Fighters from the rival groups could still travel through the areas the other controlled, and could still visit each other’s headquarters. The jihadi organizations were still trying to resolve their differences peacefully, and Abu Ahmad had known many of the commanders in the Nusra Front for over a year while fighting under the same banner — which is why he was able to meet and speak with members of the Khorasan Committee.
But as the balance of power tilted further toward ISIS, the friendship and camaraderie between both groups’ supporters was replaced by distrust. Nusra members were disgusted by what they perceived as ISIS’s moves to split and weaken the jihadi movement in Syria. ISIS members accused Nusra of becoming soft and mainstream. Many within the group did not even consider their former friends in Nusra to be Muslims any longer.
As the battle lines hardened, the Khorasan Committee finished their field investigation into Baghdadi’s plans. Zawahiri, upon receiving it, ruled in favor of Nusra and against ISIS. He called on Nusra to lead the jihad in Syria, and made clear that Baghdadi’s organization should return to Iraq.
“[Al-Baghdadi] was wrong when he announced the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham without asking permission or receiving advice from us and even without notifying us,” Zawahiri wrote in a letter published on May 23, 2013.
The ruling made clear that Baghdadi was never Zawahiri’s man and that the expansion plans were his alone. Some jihadis felt duped by this revelation and reversed course. According to Abu Ahmad, around 30 percent of the Nusra members who had switched sides returned to Nusra after al-Zawahiri’s ruling. Some factions declared themselves “neutral” in this growing conflict. Groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa hoped to stay out of this power struggle. They were fighting to kick Assad out of power, not to bicker with fellow jihadis.
Of the roughly 90 Dutch and Belgian Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (MSM) jihadis — Abu Ahmad’s fellow fighters — who had joined ISIS, around 35 returned to Nusra; the remainder stayed with ISIS. Abu Ahmad also heard that the high-ranking ISIS commander who Khorasan Committee member Shahabi had tried to convince to defect, in a meeting near the Turkish border a month before, had also left ISIS and rejoined Nusra.