Two Houses Divided: How Conflict in Syria Shaped the Future of Jihadism.

Author:Hassan, Hassan

In recent years, the global jihadi movement has been in a state of flux. When the Islamic State declared a caliphate in 2014, took over large parts of Syria and Iraq, and thereby energized Islamist extremists worldwide, some predicted it would forever eclipse al-Qa 'ida. But by provoking conflict with much of the rest of the world, the Islamic State rallied a powerful coalition against it. As a result, by mid-2016, the Islamic State's territorial decline had become vast and visible, and counter-terrorism analysts began to wonder if al-Qa 'ida could gain back its position as the standard bearer of the global jihadi movement. Prior to that, the military gains of the Islamic State and the caliphate that it had established had cast doubt over the viability of al-Qa 'ida's more patient strategy.

In May 2016, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State's then spokesman, conceded that his group could be expelled out of its major strongholds in Sirte, Raqqa, and Mosul, (1) while Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qa 'ida's leader, mocked the deteriorating fortunes of the Islamic State. (2) The Islamic State's steady decline now seemed to hold the promise of vindicating al-Zawahiri's strategy and seemed it could lead to disillusioned fighters and other jihadis joining al-Qa 'ida's ranks.

In this context, multiple theories emerged about the possible trajectories of the jihadi organizations in the coming years. These could be grouped into three potential scenarios. The first was that al-Qa 'ida would boost its ranks with defeated Islamic State members either by reclaiming the mantle of global jihad (3) or pushing its own ideology closer to that of the Islamic State. (a) The second was that the Islamic State would fracture into smaller groups. The third was a merger between the two rivals by settling differences amongst leaders and finding ideological and doctrinal common ground. (4)

By the fall of 2018, none of these scenarios--an al-Qa 'ida take-over of the Islamic State, a fracturing of the Islamic State into smaller groups, or a merger between the global jihadi powerhouses--has materialized. Both groups continue to operate as rival and distinct entities and engage in a war of words. For example, in a speech released on September 11, 2018, al-Zawahiri railed against a "deviant" group containing "innovative extremists who declare takfir on us and deem our blood permissible, and against whom we may be forced to fight." (5) Rather than ideological differences between the groups softening, the passage of time is hardening differences in approach and doctrine, creating the conditions for sustained competition and acrimony between the groups and a long-term schism between two different schools of jihad.

The History of a Rivalry

The modern jihadi movement has, from its inception half a century ago, seen large divides between different groups and approaches. The bifurcation of global jihad into two streams has complex causes that stretch back decades. But, as it has been oft observed, some of the roots date back to differences in approach and doctrine apparent in Afghanistan before 9/11 between al-Qa 'ida's senior leadership and the relatively more extreme Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who maintained a significant degree of autonomy and would later lead al-Qa 'ida in Iraq, the group that eventually turned into the Islamic State. (b) These differences became much more apparent during the Iraq insurgency. While professing loyalty, al-Zarqawi ignored the objections of al-Qa 'ida top brass to pursue a campaign of sectarian bloodletting in Iraq. His successors, the leaders of the rebranded Islamic State of Iraq, maintained the group's affiliation with al-Qa 'ida, but only paid lip service to notion of juniority to al-Qa 'ida's high command.

The jihadi expansion in the region came in the wake of the popular uprisings of 2011, the killing of Usama bin Ladin, and the transition of al-Qa 'ida into the leadership of al-Zawahiri. It also came at a time of strained relations between the Islamic State of Iraq and the top brass of al-Qa 'ida. For years, the Islamic State of Iraq had taken a more extreme approach to jihad than al-Qa 'ida, despite the latter group's strong privately communicated protestations. (6) The Iraqi affiliate's attacks on Shi 'a civilians and mosques and other aspects of its approach caused al-Qa 'ida 'Central' discomfort. But al-Qa 'ida leaders could console themselves that the Iraqi branch continued to revolve in al-Qa 'ida's orbit, communicate with its leaders, and refer to them as its emirs. (7) This made the new Islamic State in Iraq venture in Syria nominally an al-Qa 'ida enterprise. Jihadis in Syria considered themselves part of al-Qa 'ida "through the circle of the Islamic State of Iraq." (8)

In other words, despite tension with a more proactive branch in Iraq, al-Qa 'ida's overall leadership of the global jihad was not publicly in question. Jihadis loyal to bin Ladin's legacy sought to organize across the region in the context of popular uprisings against dictatorships, under different monikers but all ultimately under the banner of al-Qa 'ida. As peaceful protests turned into violent conflicts in the region, al-Qa 'ida's presence increased to unprecedented levels, and the organization became larger and more widespread than at any time before, especially in restive countries like Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

During that time, al-Qa 'ida had to compete primarily for influence with movements and ideas with which it shared little, rather than like-minded violent groups. Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood sought to gain power through the ballot box, while jihadi militants like the Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq revolved around the same orbit and did not attempt to outshine al-Qa 'ida globally. To ride the popular wave, al-Qa 'ida and local jihadis had a de facto division of labor, whereby al-Qa 'ida provided an essential source of legitimacy, vision, and continuity, while local groups did the work on the ground to infiltrate and dominate. Seen through this prism, jihadis in Iraq initiated the establishment of a jihadi group in Syria that would later polarize the jihadi community worldwide like never before.

The proximate cause of the current schism within jihadism can be traced back to the summer of 2011 in Syria, when half a dozen members of the Islamic State of Iraq (a group then at least nominally part of the al-Qa 'ida fold) were dispatched to the neighboring country to establish a jihadi franchise. As will be outlined below, in the years that followed, the group that was formed, Jabhat al-Nusra, would play a pivotal role in widening the wedge between al-Qa 'ida and its Iraqi branch. And when its leadership eventually chose to follow the leadership of al-Zawahiri rather than Abu Bakr al-Bagh-dadi, the group would arguably become al-Qa 'ida most successful branch. (9)

Al Qa 'ida's Crown Jewel (2011-2012)

Jabhat al-Nusra began from extremely humble circumstances. It was established by five to seven vanguard fighters who had traveled from Iraq four months after the first protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad erupted. (10) According to its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the idea of a franchise in Syria was discussed within the Islamic State of Iraq, and the decision to establish it was made by the Iraqi leadership, which allocated half of its resources to Jabhat al-Nusra. (11) Although the idea had been proposed and approved in Iraq several weeks earlier, the jihadis traveled to Syria in July 2011, the same month as a growing number of Syrian army defectors established a separate armed group they named the Free Syrian Army, which would become the nucleus of the armed rebellion against the regime with an initially stated aim of protecting peaceful protests from regime raids. (c)

Despite the organizational links, Jabhat al-Nusra maintained a jihadi character independent from both al-Qa 'ida and the Islamic State of Iraq. It reported directly to the Islamic State of Iraq, rather than al-Qa 'ida, but was heavily influenced by the ideas of the Syrian jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri, (12) rather than by the aggressive tactics of its Iraqi patron. Jabhat al-Nusra later explained how it was able to chart a path of its own away from its Iraqi parent organization's tactics, despite the Islamic State of Iraq's notoriously rigid views toward other factions, especially those espousing nationalist ideals. (13)

When al-Julani proposed the idea of expanding into Syria to his superiors, he included in the proposal an explanation of why the group needed to operate differently. Firstly, the insurgency in Iraq was a response to a foreign invasion, while the Syrian rebellion was a popular "revolution." Secondly, Iraqi tribes were better socially organized and coherent than tribes in Syria. Thirdly, the Muslim Brotherhood had a weaker presence in Syria than in Iraq. Fourthly, Alawites were a small minority in Syria, unlike the Shi'a in Iraq. For these reasons, al-Julani proposed to have more autonomy in running the Syria branch. Echoing the teachings of Abu Musab al-Suri, (14) al-Julani summed up his approach: "It is necessary to benefit from the Iraq experience, and the mistakes that were made, and that we should continue from the 100 at which the jihad there reached, rather than start from the zero at which Sheikh Zarqawi started." (15)

During the early months of its existence, the group largely focused on underground tactics, attacking what its leader at the time described as the regime's three pillars--namely the security forces, the army, and government officials. The strategy enabled the group to strike throughout the country, creating the impression that it was larger than it actually was. The initial stage of its operation, according to its leader, involved small numbers to maximize mobility and minimize errors, and the group did not seek the recruitment of large numbers. (16)

As the situation in Syria morphed...

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