Center for Strategic Communication


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.