By Daniel Nisman and Ron Gilran
June 24, 2014
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham's lightning campaign to conquer Iraq has renewed a jihadist drama between Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda's central leadership, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the secretive leader of ISIS. During the past year, these two arch-terrorists have been at loggerheads over al-Baghdadi's refusal to limit his operations to Iraq, leading to intense clashes between Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Zawahiri's sanctioned al Qaeda branch in Syria, and ISIS.
Many observers have read al-Baghdadi's successes in Iraq and his defiance of al-Zawahiri as reason to herald a coup within the al Qaeda network. That's still premature. But unless the international community succeeds in pressuring Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to abandon its Iranian-influenced sectarian tactics, al-Baghdadi could very well take the helm of a reinvigorated global jihadist movement.
For the time being, al-Baghdadi's impressive gains in Iraq have done little to sway the allegiance of al Qaeda's key regional branches, which remain broadly loyal to al-Zawahiri. Even after ISIS stormed Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, earlier this month—possibly the greatest jihadist achievement since 9/11—statements of support from prominent jihadists in the region have been few and far between.
Abu Ayad al-Tunisi, the leader of Tunisia's Ansar al-Shariah network, issued a statement blessing the ISIS gains but stressing the importance of reconciliation between al-Baghdadi and al-Zawahiri. Tunisi's message is particularly notable as he was previously known for his outspoken support of al-Baghdadi. The pan-Persian Gulf Salafist Ummah movement issued a statement hailing the ISIS gains in Iraq but also calling for unity among jihadist groups. Jaish al-Islam, or Army of Islam, another prominent jihadist group fighting the Shiite-led government in Iraq, refused to mention its partner ISIS by name in its blessing of the current campaign.
Other prominent jihadist leaders—including those of al-Shabaab in East Africa, Ansar al-Shariah in Libya, AQIM and AQAP (al Qaeda franchises in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, respectively), along with the Taliban networks in Central Asia—have all refrained so far from any outburst of support that for al-Baghdadi's achievements.
Despite his rapid rise, al-Baghdadi has crossed several red lines, and his peers have reproached him. Zawahiri—even amid mounting criticism of his own poor leadership and lack of initiative following the death of Osama bin Laden —remains widely respected across radical networks as the one and only head of al Qaeda, which itself is perceived as the sole umbrella network of global jihad.
For the past year al-Baghdadi's defiance of al-Zawahiri, in straying over the Iraqi border into Syria, has resulted in considerable criticism from jihadist leaders across the region, many of whom fought with bin Laden and al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan. These critics include Jordanian jihadists Abu Qatada al-Filistini and Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi; Ansar al-Shariah in Libya leader Mohammed al-Zahawi ; and even Mokhtar Belmokhtar, himself a sometimes-renegade al Qaeda commander who orchestrated the 2013 hostage crisis-turned-massacre at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria. These men's ultimate allegiance to al-Zawahiri enables al Qaeda's central leadership to continue ordering attacks across Africa, the Middle East and Asia via covert messages and propaganda videos.
While al-Baghdadi may be viewed with suspicion by the old generation of jihadists, he is rapidly gaining favor among the younger generation, which is struggling to find a sufficiently extremist voice among traditional al Qaeda branches in the region and beyond. From Belgium to Australia, ISIS fans are using the Twitter TWTR -2.63%hashtag #AllEyesOnISIS to post messages of support for al-Baghdadi's efforts.
Several upstart jihadist militias and Salafist movements in eastern Libya, Jordan, Gaza and Yemen have also unilaterally declared allegiance to al-Baghdadi, in some cases claiming to have established ISIS branches in their home countries. They've seen al-Baghdadi's ability to bring real results in Iraq, while al-Zawahiri hides in Pakistan's tribal territories. Young Islamists view Zawahiri's 2013 combat doctrine as too restrictive, since the orders call for restraint in attacks against civilians and non-Muslims.
Within Yemen's jihadist circles, meanwhile, the Jabhat al-Nusra network aligned with al-Zawahiri is increasingly mistrusted for its ties to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government is currently supporting the Yemeni government in its crackdown against AQAP, which is based in Yemen.
The course of battle in Iraq threatens to compromise the global al Qaeda network's delicate cohesiveness, potentially leading to a violent wave of attacks by the competing factions. The longer al-Zawahiri and al-Baghdadi fail to reconcile, the more their supporters in the region will be tempted to take sides and stage attacks in an effort to outdo each other's influence. Baghdadi's newfound wealth, obtained after ISIS reportedly robbed $429 million from the Iraqi central bank in Mosul earlier this month, may prompt up-and-coming radicals to compete for his backing in the same manner.
Under the guidance of Iran, Mr. Maliki is beginning to mimic the Assad regime's strategy in Syria, placing zealous Shiite jihadists at the tip of his strategy against the ISIS-led Sunni campaign. These developments make al-Baghdadi the de facto Sunni leader in what increasingly looks like an existential conflict for sectarian survival. Without any political or military backing from the West, moderate Sunni populations and their leaders in Iraq and across the region who oppose the Iranian axis will be more inclined to fall in line behind al-Baghdadi and ISIS—even if they despise the group's brutal religious governance.
This is a scenario that any Western government should consider before backing the Maliki government's counteroffensive against Iraq's Sunni opposition. Support should be conditioned on the Maliki government abandoning its sectarian strategy and reconciling with moderate Sunnis. Otherwise, any foreign intervention in Iraq threatens to propel the influence of one of the world's most vicious jihadist outfits to dangerous new heights.
Mr. Nisman is president of the Levantine Group, a geopolitical risk and research consulting firm. Mr. Gilran is vice president of intelligence at the Levantine Group.