Al Qaeda’s general command disowns the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham


Al Qaeda’s senior leadership has disowned the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) in a statement released online. ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, have repeatedly refused to obey orders issued by Ayman al Zawahiri and his subordinates. As a result, al Qaeda’s general command — commonly referred to as al Qaeda’s senior leadership (AQSL) in the West — has cut off the group.

Al Qaeda’s senior leaders now say they have “no connection” with ISIS, which is “not an affiliate with the al Qaeda group and has no organizational relation with it.” Furthermore, al Qaeda’s general command is “not responsible” for ISIS’ actions.

“The branches of al Qaeda are the ones that the General Command of the group announces and recognizes,” the statement reads, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. “We emphasize our loyalty, love, and support for every mujahid. We are keen on the fellowship among Muslims and mujahideen.”

The statement is clearly intended to distance al Qaeda’s leaders from ISIS’ approach to the Syrian war. ISIS has made exclusionary claims on power and refused to recognize the legitimacy of other jihadist groups.

Background on dispute

The dispute between ISIS and AQSL became public in the middle of last year. On April 8, 2013, Baghdadi tried to subsume control over the Al Nusrah Front, which is led by one of Baghdadi’s former lieutenants, Abu Muhammad al Julani. Baghdadi claimed that Al Nusrah would be folded into the Islamic State of Iraq’s operations and the new combined entity would be called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS).

Baghdadi’s plan did not come to fruition. Shortly after Baghdadi’s announcement, Julani issued his own message rejecting it. Julani conceded that Baghdadi and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) had helped establish the Al Nusrah Front, but he reaffirmed his allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri directly. Julani said his group would continue to fight under its own banner and not answer to Baghdadi.

The public spat forced Zawahiri to step in. On April 11, 2013, Zawahiri wrote letters to both Baghdadi and Julani, demanding that they report to him on the dispute. After consulting with al Qaeda’s shura (advisory) council, Zawahiri issued a ruling on May 23. Zawahiri dissolved Baghdadi’s ISIS and said its operations should be confined to Iraq. He also chastised Julani for publicly announcing his allegiance to al Qaeda’s emir.

On June 14, 2013, Baghdadi rejected Zawahiri’s order in an audio message released online.

Mediation efforts failed

Since Baghdadi openly defied Zawahiri’s order, there have been various efforts to mend the relationship.

As part of his ruling, Zawahiri named a senior al Qaeda operative known as Abu Khalid al Suri as his mediator in the dispute between ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front. At the time, it was not publicly known what role al Suri played inside Syria. But as The Long War Journal reported late last year, al Suri is actually a founding member and senior leader in Ahrar al Sham, an extremist rebel group that has fought alongside ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front. Ahrar al Sham leadership holds key positions within the Islamic Front, a rebel coalition formed late last year.

Al Suri’s mediation efforts failed. The infighting between ISIS and other jihadist groups, including Ahrar al Sham and the Al Nusrah Front, has become increasingly intense since the middle of last year. In a statement released on Jan. 16, al Suri blasted ISIS and blamed the group for the infighting.

Al Suri explained in his letter that he has long known senior jihadists such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri and they should not be blamed for ISIS’ actions.

“So my words to you are the words of one who spent his life with those prominent men and knew them well, for they are innocent of what is being attributed to them, like the innocence of the wolf from the blood of the son of Jacob,” al Suri wrote, according to a translation prepared by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Al Suri’s statement was clearly a harbinger of the decision by al Qaeda’s general command to cut off ISIS. Just as al Suri said that al Qaeda’s senior leaders are “innocent” of ISIS’ actions, al Qaeda’s general command now says it is not “responsible” for the group.

Another mediation effort was spearheaded by a popular Saudi cleric named Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini. That initiative garnered widespread support from jihadist groups throughout Syria, including the Islamic Front and the Al Nusrah Front, but was ultimately rejected by ISIS.

When Muhaysini released his proposal on Jan. 23, he specifically said that a message from Zawahiri distributed online just hours earlier influenced his thinking. In his own message, Zawahiri urged the jihadist groups in Syria to unite. And even though Zawahiri did not specifically name any rebel group, his message was clearly aimed at ISIS, as he harshly criticized the organization’s practices.

In the end, ISIS could not be persuaded to set aside its claim to the throne. Baghdadi envisions himself as the rightful ruler over a vast Islamic state stretching from Iraq through the Levant.

Baghdadi’s self-serving goals are not, however, part of the plan al Qaeda’s general command has for the Syrian war.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Demetrius Minneapolis says:

    With this latest news, does it mean that al qaeda is now in the counter-terrorism business in Syria?

  • Tony says:

    This is additional evidence of Al Qaeda’s dysfunctional mutation and organizational direction and confirms bin Laden’s complaints about his “affiliates” in the Abbottabad correspondence.
    The profusion of Jihadi groups in Syria is driven by sectarian agendas that Zawahiri rejected in the past but now belatedly adopts in a futile quest for relevance
    Each jihadi leader believes he is a divine representative sent by Allah to cleanse apostasy and restore pure Islamic rule
    His control over the Syrian jihad is aspirational and divisions among jihadist groups promise further failure
    Assad’s forces continue to gain ground in the wake of outside support and jihadi fracturing similar to Algeria in the 1990’s

  • ECH says:

    Same dispute with the same organization (under a different name then) between al-Qaeda’s so called core leadership and Zarqawi’s organization.
    Zarqawi broke away from al-Qaeda around 1998 and formed his own group Monotheism and Jihad. Ever since the group has had an independent flare and been more brutal and openly genocidal then al-Qaeda central.
    Bin Laden saw the need to attach the Iraq struggle to al-Qaeda and made nice with Zarqawi in 2004 hence the creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but relations between the two groups have never been good.
    To be blunt the organization Zarqawi created makes al-Qaeda look really bad among the eyes of the Sunni masses. But, its militarily effective and the U.S. took its boot off them in 2011 so its regrown so the organization will continue on for a long time to come.

  • Joseph says:

    “Al Suri’s statement was clearly a harbinger of the decision by al Qaeda’s general command to cut off ISIS. Just as al Suri said that al Qaeda’s senior leaders are “innocent” of ISIS’ actions, al Qaeda’s general command now says it is not “responsible” for the group.”
    Sounds like plausible deniability. Maybe ISIS have acquired some nasty weapons and AQSL doesn’t want to be associated with the fallout.

  • Martin says:

    before establishing ISI..there is a Al Qaida affiliated group called AQ in the land of two river (Mesopotamia)…them Mujahideen Council was established and AQ Mesopotamia automatically including new establishing council..then Islamic State of Iraq is declared by council..then head of state automatically become Amirul Muminin..then his biat to Usame bin Laden caceled because of Islamic entity it has..So Usame bin Laden, Anwar Al Avlaki, Yahya Abu Laith also Ayman Zawahiri all of them made some supporting speech for new Islamic State of Iraq..It mean for a long time there is no official associate between ISI and AQ leadership..their relation just because of they are Muslim and fight for the same lets come to seem that after discord was turned out between ISIL and Nusra Front..they charge AQ intermediate to help solving problem..this man is Abu Khalid Suri sent issue to AQ Amir Ayman Zavahiri..and Zawahiri made a decision but ISIL leadership do not see the desicion accoording to Qur’an and Sunnah..and not to accepted because they claim there is lack of evidence for that decision..and they make Icthiad (Islamic term if you do not have clear proof on something you can make your own assesment as case it can not violate Sunna and Qur’an..and we came this moment..

  • Mr T says:

    They are both still murderous gangs.

  • Stuart says:

    In essence, this statement reveals that Al Qaeda, whatever it may have been in the past, is now largely a disintegrating and collapsing franchise without direction, purpose, or long-term relevance for the future of Islamic jihadist movements. Al Qaeda died in AF-Pak and is being buried in Syria. The seeds for the present and future of jihadist movements beyond Al Qaeda were laid in Iraq with Zarqawi. By disowning ISIS, Al Qaeda’s central command just submitted their obituary notice. Now, is where things will start to get interesting. Hang on tight!


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