Tonight, a statement was released by the Qaedat al-Jihad Group, or al-Qaeda for short. It came straight from the top leadership—the General Command, which is headed by Osama bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri. And it opened with brutal clarity:
The Qaedat al-Jihad Group announces that it is in no way connected to the group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL]. We were not informed of its creation. It did neither await our orders, nor were we consulted. We were not happy with this; rather, we ordered [the ISIL] to stop working. Therefore, [the ISIL] is not a branch of the Qaedat al-Jihad Group and there is no organizational link connecting them, and the group is not responsible for its actions.
It has been clear for some time now that Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda leadership is exasperated with the ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It has been equally clear that the ISIL doesn’t function as a part of the al-Qaeda network, despite its roots in the Iraqi group known as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
What Happened to al-Qaeda in Iraq?
Some scholars—like Romain Caillet, on this site—have argued that the split between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi jihadis was formalized already in 2006, when the Iraqi al-Qaeda wing merged into an alliance of Islamist Iraqi insurgent groups called the Mujahideen Shura Council. It then passed through another short-lived alliance, called Hilf al-Mutayyebin, before being finally be subsumed into the new Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
Maybe that is what happened, that the groups completely severed their organizational ties in 2006. But if so, this split was kept ambiguous for years. Even most jihadis seem to have assumed that the ISI was an al-Qaeda branch, and neither group did anything to correct this perception. By contrast, letters and assistance seem to have been exchanged routinely, and leaders from both groups were publicly supportive of each other.
It is possible that even the al-Qaeda and ISI leaders themselves were unsure about how much independence the Iraqi group had from al-Qaeda, if put to the test. On the one hand, the ISI rank and file venerated Osama bin Laden. On the other hand, the top-ranking ISI leaders didn’t seem to pay him that much attention. It might have been that both sides simply avoided pressing the issue lest they find something out that they didn’t like.
When asked about the jihadi chain of command in 2008, al-Qaeda’s then deputy leader Zawahiri clarified that he saw the ISI as well as Mullah Omar’s Taliban government in Afghanistan and the jihadi emirate in the Caucasus as “individual Islamic emirates that do not yield to a single ruler.” He said nothing about bin Laden controlling the ISI. Rather, bin Laden had himself pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar.
Zawahiri seemed to view these emirates, or states, as governing bodies existing above and beyond a mere organization like al-Qaeda—albeit confined to a certain geographic region, which al-Qaeda was not. But that would all sort itself out. In the future, Zawahiri said, a global caliphate would be created to assume leadership of the entire Islamic world.
Al-Qaeda’s Skepticism About the ISI
Despite Zawahiri’s public praise for the Iraqi jihadis, the ISI’s flamboyant extremism—the bombings of Shia civilians, and the videotaped decapitation of hostages—made some otherwise-hardline jihadis uneasy on religious grounds and even more worried about their public image. That included many of al-Qaeda’s top leaders.
For example, Zawahiri wrote the Iraqi al-Qaeda wing back in 2005 (when it was still called al-Qaeda), questioning some of its tactics, including the mass killings of Shia Muslims and the sadistic way in which it murdered its hostages.
In a January 2011 letter (found here in Arabic and English), American al-Qaeda member Adam Gadahn wrote that he feared the ISI’s actions—like randomly killing Iraqi Christians—were ruining al-Qaeda’s reputation. He said that bin Laden’s al-Qaeda leadership should distance itself from the ISI as soon as possible, especially since the organizational links between the two groups had already been gone for “a number of years.”
For whatever reason, bin Laden didn’t take Gadahn’s advice, and neither did Zawahiri when he succeeded bin Laden in 2011. The ISI was therefore almost universally perceived as an al-Qaeda branch well into 2013, when a conflict triggered by the Syrian war began to change that.
Al-Qaeda and the ISIL-Nusra Split
In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that the ISI would become the ISIL by extending its activity into Syria and taking full possession of the Syria-based jihadi faction known as the Nusra Front, which Baghdadi had helped create in August 2011.
All this happened without Zawahiri being informed, to his great dismay. When he complained and attempted to assert authority over the ISI(L), ordering Baghdadi to dissolve the new cross-border entity and head back to Iraq, Baghdadi simply refused to comply. From his hideout, which is probably in Pakistan, there was little Zawahiri could do about it.
But the al-Qaeda leader didn’t leave the Syrian dispute empty-handed: he gained or regained the allegiance of the Nusra Front, whose leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, publicly declared his allegiance to Zawahiri in an attempt to avoid being gobbled up by the ISIL. Since then, the Nusra Front has functioned as a de facto al-Qaeda branch, even though it isn’t yet publicly declared as such.
This split between the ISIL and the Nusra Front, which took place in April 2013, set in motion the process that now, after almost a year, has resulted in brutal infighting in northern Syria, with the ISIL and the Nusra Front on different sides. But it also forced al-Qaeda to finally come clean about what may have been the reality for quite a while: it no longer seems to have an Iraqi wing.