On February 3, 2014, the al-Qaeda leadership officially announced online that it disavowed its longtime ally in Iraq and Syria – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – over its recent confrontations with other rebel groups operating in Syria. Experts may see this move as an effort by al-Qaeda to consolidate its influence on militant groups in Syria aimed at toppling the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad, particularly and especially al-Qaeda’s influence on the jihadist group al-Nusra Front. Recent clashes between rebel groups – both moderate and extremist – have apparently disunited and destabilized the Syrian opposition, particularly the Islamist opposition, in its efforts to oust President Assad and the government. Meanwhile, the Syrian government forces started regaining control of areas in the north of the country that have long been under opposition control in what is now a conflict that has lasted for almost three years.
On the one hand, this could suggest that al-Qaeda is falling apart. ISIL has been among al-Qaeda’s most pivotal allies along with al-Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP), and among the most extremist terrorist organizations in the Middle East. ISIL also shares al-Qaeda’s ideology and goals that include spreading jihad and imposing strict interpretation of Sharia law in the region, and such a disavowal has the potential of sabotaging these efforts in the region.
Instability comes not just within al-Qaeda, it is also intensified by the U.S.’s effective campaign to kill its leadership. The killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011 was followed by a number of other high-ranking officials’ murders within its leadership including Ilyas Kashmiri on June 3, 2011 who had for a long time been rumored to succeed bin Laden after the latter was killed, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman on August 22, 2011 who had been designated as al-Qaeda’s second in command after bin Laden’s death, and al-Qaeda’s Chief of Pakistani Operations Abu Hafs al-Shahri, who was killed on September 11, 2011, to name a few. Therefore, it seems like al-Qaeda – allegedly considered the most threatening to the security of the United States – is starting to collapse.
On the other hand, its structure has been speculated to be decentralized over the years after 9/11, and plenty of its allies, including ISIL, started operating on their own in their respective regions – contrary to the unity that bin Laden had wished, and hoped, for in waging jihad. A further split seems unlikely to make any difference to al-Qaeda’s overall health.
However, its decentralized and divided nature hardly explains why ISIL tried to merge with the al-Nusra Front in April, 2013, but was denied by al-Qaeda. If the latter is in fact decentralized, it should not be against the merger, unless it fears that a larger and united terrorist group – the combination of the al-Nusra Front and ISIL – will at some point try to take over what was started by al-Qaeda and discredit it, an undesired scenario for any initiator.
Al-Qaeda’s disavowal of ISIL, as well as its denial of a merger between the al-Nusra Front and ISIL, could suggest that al-Qaeda is making efforts to retain its leadership in its campaign to spread jihad. However, it also suggests instabilities within the organization that make it more vulnerable, and may eventually lead to its collapse into small radical terrorist groups that will subject themselves to sequences of fights against each other followed by truces and unity, and then back to internal fights.