The present conflict between Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaida central, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, began in April last year when the latter announced, of his own volition, the establishment of ISIS as an organization unifying the Islamic State of Iraq with the Al-Nusra Front in Syria, without coordinating this move with Zawahiri or al-Julani, leader of the Syrian organization.
The leader of the Al-Nusra Front defied the announcement of the unification and simultaneously pledged allegiance to Zawahiri as his supreme leader. This was an act of protest by Julani against al-Baghdadi, who was the one who had sent him to establish the branch in Syria.
Zawahiri, who is in the process of consolidating his leadership in the global jihadi movement, tried to reconcile between the two and preserve the movement’s unity. Eventually he sided with al-Julani, and declared that each organization should operate in its land of origin, Baghdadi in Iraq and Julani in Syria. He even sent a special envoy to Syria to mediate between the two sides.
In response, Baghdadi took practical steps to stand up to his declaration and to operate in both countries, and since the second half of last year, the profile of ISIS in Syria has risen, as has happened also in Iraq, especially in Anbar province.
ISIS has become the most active and dominant organization in the battle in Syria, and its forces have taken control of several towns in the north of Syria, which has led to clashes between its combatants and other opposition elements in the field. These conflicts were reflected by military clashes and reciprocal assassinations between ISIS fighters, combatants of several organizations from the Islamic Front, and the Free Syrian Army.
Moreover, recently, there have been several violent confrontations between ISIS fighters and the Al-Nusra Front fighters. Much of the criticism against ISIS fighters touches on their brutal behavior toward the local population and their efforts to forcefully impose strict Sharia law on the local population. These include harsh punishment for those who digress, in their opinion, from Islamic commandments.
Following numerous cases of extreme violence by ISIS against locals and the Syrian opposition, the leader of Al-Nusra Front earlier this year publicized sharp criticism against the organization, its leaders and its actions. In response, Baghdadi was forced to issue a statement accusing those who oppose his way of in fact digressing from the Prophet’s ways, and aiding the enemies of Islam, led by Shi’ites.
Despite Zawahiri’s banishment of Baghdadi, it does not seem like the Iraqi leader is willing to give up by submitting to his dictates and is continuing on his own path.
The growing internal rifts within the global jihad movement surely serve Assad’s regime, but may also benefit western states, including Israel, who are watching the increasing stream of global jihad operatives flowing into Syria and basing themselves there. The widening crack in the images of global jihad leaders as people begin to see them as power-hungry, extremist and at odds with each other over personal honor and prestige, should help intelligence services recruit disenchanted operatives from their ranks, in order to help prevent terror operations which are expected to migrate from Syria to other countries in the world.
Yoram Schweitzer is the head of the terror research program at the Institute of National Security Studies, and Elior al-Bachari is an intern at the program.