Not a day passes without reports from Syria claiming that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a Salafi rebel group active in Syria and Iraq, is a branch of al-Qaeda, or at least affiliated with it. But it is not.
It is true that when the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was formed in October 2006, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia was the main component of its armed wing, but al-Qaeda was later completely absorbed into the ISI. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s successor as al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, swore allegiance to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the emir of the ISI. This was recognized by the central al-Qaeda leadership in 2007, when Ayman al-Zawahiri declared in an interview that the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda had ceased to exist due to its integration into the ISI. This same point was made by a former Saudi commander of al-Qaeda, Abdullah al-Qahtani, when he was interviewed by al-Arabiya in a prison in Iraq.
Yet some analysts, including in the U.S. administration, have cast doubt on the claims that al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia was dissolved, arguing that the organization founded by Osama bin Laden was in fact still in control of the Iraqi jihad. But the extension of the ISI into Syria has finally put an end to this debate.
The ISIL-Nusra Front Split
On April 9, 2013, a voice message by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—who took over as emir of the ISI after Abu Omar was killed in April 2010—announced to the world that the Nusra Front, a jihadi opposition group in Syria, was simply a cover for the activities of the ISI in Syria. In his message, Baghdadi declared that the two jihadi groups would now work under a single name: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The Nusra Front leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, did not respond favorably as he was anxious to maintain his leadership of the organization. He admitted that he had fought in Iraq under Baghdadi’s command and that the Nusra Front had benefited from funds, weapons, and fighters sent by the ISI. He also sought to preserve the jihadi identity of the Nusra Front, ending his statement with a “renewal of allegiance” to Ayman al-Zawahiri.
This was not simply a sop to the ideological hardliners in the Nusra Front. It also meant that he was designating a potential arbiter that he knew would be favorable to him. Even if the ISI and the central al-Qaeda leadership shared many ideological tenets, there were still doctrinal disagreements between the ISI leaders and Zawahiri—for example, on what attitude to take toward the masses of ordinary Shia Muslims in the Arab world.
As expected, Zawahiri took the side of Golani and urged the Islamic State to retreat from Syria. But Baghdadi retorted that the ISIL would remain in both Iraq and Syria and that he would never comply with “the borders of Sykes-Picot,” referring to the agreement between London and Paris that divided Arab lands into British and French spheres of influence after World War I.
Foreign Fighters and Tribal Support
Most Nusra Front fighters were convinced by this argument and joined the ISIL—particularly the foreign volunteers that arrived from places like Libya, Tunisia, and the Gulf countries.
In early May 2013, the majority of the Muhajirin wa-Ansar Army, a group largely composed of fighters from the Caucasus and Central Asia, also merged with the ISIL. Its emir, Omar al-Shishani, swore allegiance to Baghdadi and was made wali (governor) of the Aleppo, Idlib, and Latakia areas. An ethnic Chechen born in Georgia’s Pankisi Valley, his real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili and he previously served in the Georgian army. Now one of the most famous figures in the Syrian rebellion, he directed the capture of the Menagh airport close to Aleppo in August 2013 and was seen inspecting the captured Sixty-Sixth Brigade base in the Hama region in September. He has also led a joint force of the ISIL, the Nusra Front, and the Salafis of Ahrar al-Sham against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, militias aligned with Turkey’s separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
In addition to foreign fighters, the ISIL has been strengthened by Syrian tribes pledging allegiance to Baghdadi, particularly in the northern Aleppo and Raqqa regions. As the Syrian regime is weakened and public authority dissipates, certain tribes seeking stability have turned toward the jihadi groups, sometimes with little concern for their ideology—some without even passing first through the rebel Free Syrian Army or moderate Islamist groups. The Afadila tribe, which is not known for religiosity and was formerly affiliated with the Syrian regime, has sworn allegiance to ISIL, while the pious and conservative Walda tribe has taken the Nusra Front’s side.
In Deir ez-Zor, the Nusra Front, which has many commanders from the area, has gained the support of tribes that are eager to protect their incomes from the oil wells. Oil profits have enriched both the tribes and the Nusra Front, which, for now, does not seem to be seeking anything other than military authority in the areas under its control.
Building the State in Raqqa
The ISIL, by contrast, now has all the institutions and trappings of a real state, and it is turning Raqqa into a sort of experimental capital. Thanks to its considerable financial means, the ISIL has managed to assume responsibility for transportation, public services (through the Islamic Administration of Public Services), and social services (by the distribution of zakat, a charitable donation considered a religious obligation by many Muslims), as well as the production and distribution of bread.
With the population slowly growing dependent on the ISIL, its state is—whether we want it or not—gradually becoming a reality in northeastern Syria, and the world born out of the Sykes-Picot accord is slowly being erased.
In the view of the ISIL’s jihadi activists, this constitutes a new stage in the history of the contemporary Muslim world—and a step beyond al-Qaeda, which after decades has established neither a real political project nor functioning institutions.
Different Political-Military Agendas
Ever since Osama bin Laden’s 1998 announcement of the Islamic World Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, al-Qaeda has fought the West in general and the United States in particular, perceiving Western nations as the protectors of Arab dictators and the inalienable allies of Israel. But for the ISIL, since the 2011 departure of American troops from Iraq the priority has been combatting the enemies of the day, not those of yesterday. That means resisting a perceived Iranian expansionism and Iran’s Shia allies in the Arab world—“the Safavid project,” in jihadi terms—instead of a weakened United States, which is in retreat on the international scene.
Structurally, strategically, and politically, the ISIL is substantially different from the Nusra Front. Yet paradoxically, both Western observers and some liberal Syrian activists tend to regard the ISIL as the more radical group. It is even more surprising to see certain moderate Islamists frightened by the ISIL’s advances, announcing their preference for the Nusra Front, when in fact this group is today the official branch of al-Qaeda in the Levant.
Romain Caillet (@romaincaillet) is a Beirut-based researcher and consultant specialized in contemporary Salafism.