A divorce years in the making: Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)

The tendency in international affairs after a dramatic event is to hastily address the question of “what does it mean?”—as if the event represents a pivotal turning point that bends an otherwise steady trend line. Such is the case after Al Qaeda’s central command in Afghanistan/Pakistan posted a message online last week disentangling itself from its affiliation with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Syria/Levant), now popularly known as ISIS. The key line of the damning statement reads: “ISIS is not a branch of the al Qaeda group, we have no organizational relationship with it, and the group is not responsible for its actions.”

The instinct for many analysts has been to characterize Al Qaeda’s decree as either a boon or body blow for ISIS. However, considering the tenuous history of Al Qaeda’s relationship with the Iraqi jihad, the divorce is perhaps better seen as the next data point in a steady pattern, rather than an inflection point.

Continuation, not deviation

Al Qaeda’s apprehension about its Iraqi outfit dates back effectively to AQI’s inception in 2004, when the group’s increasing brutality caught the attention of Osama bin Laden and the senior leadership. In a 2005 letter to AQI’s infamous founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deputy emir Ayman al-Zawahiri (now Al Qaeda’s leader) criticized Zarqawi’s excessive brutality toward the local population. Yet Zarqawi continued to flout the judgment of Al Qaeda’s leadership, eventually provoking a largely sectarian civil war that all but extinguished AQI’s popular support.

AQI, rebranded as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006, recovered after the departure of U.S. troops in 2001, yet Zawahiri’s relationship with current emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appears outright acerbic. ISI-turned-ISIS’s escalating violence in Syria and Iraq in many ways mirrors the Zarqawi days. Having observed the evaporation of public support for AQI in 2006-07, Zawahiri seemed determined in May 2013 not to make the same mistake again: in a letter to budding rivals ISIS and Syria-based Jabhat al-Nusra, Zawahiri commanded ISIS to return to Iraq. Nonetheless, Baghdadi rebuffed Zawahiri’s overtures, retorting in June that ISIS will remain in Syria “as long as we have a pulse or an eye that blinks.” Fast forward to February of this year—after an escalation of ISIS belligerence toward both fellow jihadists and the Syrian population writ large—and Zawahiri has decided he had enough.

Very rough approximation of ISIS' territorial control in Iraq and Syria By NordNordWest, Spesh531 [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Very rough approximation of ISIS’ territorial control in Iraq and Syria, as of January 2014
By NordNordWest, Spesh531 [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Where is ISIS heading?

Jihadist fighters, donors, and other Al Qaeda sympathizers undoubtedly paid keen attention to ISIS’ expulsion. A number of influential pro-Al Qaeda ideologues have since scolded ISIS and even called on members to defect to other jihadist outfits. Moreover, ISIS’ retreat from some areas of Syria this week may be attributed in part to Jabhat al-Nusra’s (a de facto Al Qaeda affiliate supported by Zawahiri) newfound resolve to fight ISIS after a recent peace initiative failed. As Barak Mendelsohn argues in Foreign Affairs, “now that ISIS is disowned, its own reputation is in peril, with potentially devastating consequences.”

On the other hand, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross suggested to me that if ISIS can now demonstrate that it is possible to survive as a powerful jihadi front sans Al Qaeda’s blessing, Baghdadi’s organization could attract additional donors and prestige. As Will McCants has quipped, “Nothing says ‘hard-core’ like being cast out by Al Qaeda.”

Despite compelling narratives for both sides, I am of the view that Zawahiri’s disavowal will be neither a boon nor a death blow for ISIS. If one accepts that the writing was on the wall since Baghdadi’s objection last year, or even since AQI’s emergence in 2004, the separation’s direct impact may have less impact than analysts suggest. ISIS’ donors will more or less keep donating, while ISIS’ critics will more or less comprise the same opponents as before (e.g., the same influential clerics who criticized ISIS after the split also cajoled ISIS prior to the split).

This is not to say ISIS will simply stagnate—neither gaining nor losing territory, standing, or donors in the future. I hope instead to capture the idea that exogenous factors are likely to have more bearing on ISIS’ trajectory than whether the group has organizational links with Al Qaeda—the independent variable implicitly being addressed.

What other factors influence ISIS’ trajectory?

The most apparent exogenous factor is escalating brutality (which, notably, was not the reason Zawahiri cited for expelling ISIS). As both Mendelsohn and Aaron Zelin have suggested, ISIS—widely considered the most terrifying jihadist group in the neighborhood—risks repeating the same mistakes of Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group (GIA) of the 1990s. According to the most common narrative, GIA’s downfall in the Algerian Civil War in 1998 was due in large part to excessive violence. So too with Zarqawi’s hyper-aggression toward both Iraq’s Shi’a and fellow Sunnis in 2005-2006, and Gamaat al-Islamiya’s extremism in Egypt in the mid-1990s.

While disregard for civilian casualties certainly contributed to both GIA’s and Gamaat al-Islamiya’s strains with Al Qaeda, it was the loss of local support that spelled their undoing. ISIS may very well commit the same error, or, alternatively, scale back its malicious modus operandi to win more local influence—regardless of its Al Qaeda affiliation. Additionally, other exogenous factors that might have bearing on ISIS include: the group’s level of internal cohesion, a shift in strategy in Syria and/or Iraq, new alliance-building, and/or a change in the external environment.


Supported by a history of tensions between ISIS and Al Qaeda’s leadership, it is not unreasonable to assert that last week’s divorce simply formalized a long-time de facto split between the two organizations. Initial indications from U.S. intelligence officials seem to corroborate this view.

Of course, in a murky environment where reliable reporting on ISIS is sparse, there is unlikely to be a “smoking gun” that either confirms or dispels this proposition. And considering the novelty of the situation—Zelin points out that this marks the first time that the Al Qaeda core has disavowed an affiliate that has used its name—there is little obvious precedent.

Nonetheless, Al Qaeda’s divorce with perhaps its most powerful affiliate offers an opportunity to revisit our assumptions about the global jihadi enterprise. Was Al Qaeda in Iraq ever truly on the same page as the “core” in Afghanistan/Pakistan?  Furthermore, do jihadist groups need Zawahiri’s blessing to be successful? What factors are important for jihadists to make progress toward their ends? A clearer understanding of these questions, of course, is helpful for thinking about how to contain and counter Islamic extremism in the Middle East and beyond.

One could conversely look at the split from the perspective of Al Qaeda’s core, but for now let me defer to others who have wrestled with this issue:

Further reading:

This entry was posted in Al Qaeda, Iraq, Middle East and North Africa, Syria, terrorism and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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