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Method to the Madness: The Lessons of Iraq and the Rejection of the ISIS

ISIS presence in Aleppo district

This past Sunday al-Qaeda Central (AQC) released a statement disowning its Iraqi-Syrian affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The declaration—which spread across jihadi online forums and eventually published by the BCC—proclaimed:

“[Al-Qaeda] has no connection with the group called the ISIS, as it was not informed or consulted about its establishment. It was not pleased with it and thus ordered its suspension. Therefore, it is not affiliated with al-Qaeda and has no organizational relationship with it.”

It continued, “Al-Qaeda is not responsible for ISIS’s actions”. While AQC’s disavowal of the ISIS points to the inherent problem with al-Qaeda’s franchise strategy—nominal affiliation does not equate to direct control over the affiliate—it also shows a lack of institutional memory amongst the ISIS.

This is not the first time that AQC has had problems with its Iraqi affiliate. Under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the precursor to the ISIS, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) committed a number of heinous acts, as part of a four pronged strategy during the American occupation of Iraq. Zarqawi’s fighters directly targeted Shiite civilians, showed a blatant disregard for civilian casualties and tried to impose a radical version of Islam on the residents of Fallujah during their occupation of the city from June to December 2004. It was during this occupation, in October, that Zarqawi negotiated an agreement with Osama bin Laden, declared bay’ah (allegiance) and renamed his organization al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

Emboldened by the success of his organization and later due to frustration because of the loss of Fallujah to an American counteroffensive, Zarqawi’s insurgency increased its targeting of Shiites and Sunni “collaborators”.  The brutal tactics of AQI, including the extremely violent act of beheading hostages, led to an exchange of letters between the AQI leader and the current emir of al-Qaeda Central, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri, who at the time acted as bin Laden’s lieutenant, attempted to provide guidance to the younger Zarqawi.

Among the letters exchanged, one dated July 9, 2005 and released by the U.S. government, warns Zarqawi about the need to maintain public support:

“If we are in agreement that the victory of Islam and the establishment of a caliphate in the manner of the Prophet will not be achieved except through jihad against the apostate rulers and their removal, then this goal will not be accomplished by the mujahed movement while it is cut off from public support…”

Zawahiri’s warnings covered a range of issues, including the need to present a favorable image to the media:

…I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.”

The need for AQI to include more Iraqis within its leadership was of particular importance during the letter exchanges, given the tension among AQI and Iraqi-led insurgent groups:

“Can the assumption of leadership for the mujahedeen or a group of the mujahedeen by non-Iraqis stir up sensitivity for some people?”

Lastly, and most importantly for the current situation in Syria, Zawahiri stressed the need for Iraqis to choose their own representatives through an electoral process to guide the implementation of Sharia:

“And it doesn’t appear that the Mujahedeen, much less than al-Qaida in the Land of Two Rivers [AQI], will lay claim to governance without the Iraqi people.”

When Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. airstrike in June 7, 2006 he had failed to implement any of the suggestions in Zawahiri’s letter. Changing the AQI leaders actions seem insuperable as highlighted by the group’s triple bombing of hotels in Amman, Jordan at the end of the previous year.

By the time of his death, Zarqawi’s AQI had been subsumed under an umbrella organization, the Mujahideen Shura Council (SMC), from which he was excluded: an attempt to rebrand AQI due to its violent attacks on civilians and the Amman bombings.

This rebranding attempt largely failed, and in the cradle of AQI activity, Iraq’s western Anbar governorate, tribesmen paid and supported by the U.S. launched the Awakening (Sahwa) Movement. Frustrated by the attempts of the foreign-led AQI to impose its will on the various Sunni tribes, Sahwa militias killed an estimated 2,400 AQI members and captured 8,800 by early 2008. During this backlash AQI once again rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), though it failed to stop the campaign of retribution. ISI was forced to go underground and rely on bombing campaigns to target Shiites, the Iraqi government and its forces. In response, a succession of counterterrorism operations limited the group’s effectiveness and on April 18, 2010 killed the emir of AQI, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

The emir was quickly replaced by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who, like his predecessor, chose a nom de guerre to denote his Iraqi origins. While little is known about Baghdadi, outside of what has been part of a tailored media campaign by online jihadists, it is clear that he participated in the insurgency against U.S. forces and had been detained in Iraq’s Bucca prison. Baghdadi, an imam from Samarra, moved to replicate the tactics and overarching strategy of Zarqawi. This included attacks on prisons to free jihadist fighters, the occupation of state institutions and rebuilding a strong presence in Anbar and the neighboring governorate of Ninevah.

By the time the Syrian revolution began on March 15, 2011 Baghdadi was well on his way to transforming ISI into an organization even more egregious than under the leadership of Zarqawi, while pursuing the ambition of setting up a global caliphate.

On January 24, 2011 a video statement was released by a group calling itself Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham Min Mujahideen al-Sham fi Sahat al Jihad (Support Front for the People of Syria from the Mujahideen of Syria in the Places of Jihad) through its media outlet al-Manarah al-Bayda (The White Minaret). The group’s leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, stated that Jabhat al-Nusra was formed to avenge Syrian protestors with the goal of creating a global Islamic caliphate under the strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia.

While the video was at first dismissed as fake—a propaganda tool used by the regime of Bashar al-Assad to delegitimize the revolution—Jabhat al-Nusra was to become one of the most important groups in the Syria opposition. It is now known that Abu Mohammad al-Golani, a nom de guerre indicated that he was born in the Golan Heights and acting at the behest of Baghdadi.

According to @wikibaghdady, a supposed ISIS defector to Jabhat al-Nusra, Golani, an ISI lieutenant, was sent to Syria in charge of a non-Iraqi battalion. Fears of a mass exodus of Iraqi fighters to Syria seem to have guided Baghdadi’s decision, and in turn provided Golani with the room to operate under his own conditions.

Golani, a 39-year-old Syrian set out to assiduously avoid the mistake made by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its successor, the ISI. Whether Golani had knowledge of the Zawahiri-Zarqawi correspondence is unknown, but it is clear that he had learnt from the backlash against AQI in Anbar governorate and adopted a number of the same stances as found in Zawahiri’s letter.

As with the emir of al-Qaeda’s suggestions to Zarqawi, Golani’s initiatives and Jabhat al-Nusra’s modus operandi revolved around public opinion. Unlike those under the command of Zarqawi and Baghdadi units of Jabhat al-Nusra sought to avoid civilian targets, even ensuring civilian casualties were avoided as much as possible during the deployment of suicide bombers. In its early deployment into Syria the group even shied away from sectarian rhetoric, though as the conflict became protracted the demonization of the enemy based on confession became acceptable. On the battlefield, Jabhat al-Nusra coordinated extensively with like-minded rebel factions and proved to be decisive in a number of battles across the country.

In its relations with civilians in occupied areas Jabhat al-Nusra developed public outreach initiatives, administering schools and even clearing snow. Most importantly, the group handed out free food to starving residents in a country where the U.N. World Food Programme estimates 6.5 million are in need. By December 2012, when the U.S. designated Jabhat al-Nusra as a Foreign Terrorist Organization it had gained the respect and admiration of revolutionary groups and their constituents. In response, Friday protests across the north of Syria rallied in support of the organization, while rebel commanders signed a petition against the designation, entitled, “We Are All Jabhat al-Nusra.”

@wikibaghdady has tweeted that Baghdadi became furious with the growing celebrity of Jabhat al-Nusra and its leader, particularly after the terrorist designation and the signs of support from across Syria. The anonymous tweeter has stated that Baghdadi at this point made a number of attempts to bring Golani back under the ISI fold and publicly proclaim his allegiance to ISI and Baghdadi. Golani purportedly told Baghdadi that such a move would cost him hard won support among the Syrian people.

Rebuffed, the ISI emir publicly announced the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in an attempt to embarrass Golani and force Jabhat al-Nusra into the merger. The April 2013 was addressed head on by Golani, who implicitly referred to the hardline methods of the ISI and called on the emir of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to mediate, to whom he pledged bay’ah.

Between April and Zawahiri’s reply in June, Jabhat al-Nusra split into three entities: one which supported Golani; one which supported Baghdadi and a final group of neutral fighters. A stream of fighters under the newly minted label of ISIS crossed in from Iraq in late April to early May and began to establish themselves in areas previously liberated by Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel groups.

In June, Zawahiri effectively ruled in favor of Golani, calling on the ISIS to be dissolved and for Jabhat al-Nusra and ISI to stay within their geographical areas. The message to go back to Iraq was not received well by Baghdadi, who rejected Zawahiri’s ruling and set out to compete with Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.

While the ISIS mimicked Jabhat’s humanitarian operations in Syria—establishing sharia courts, providing public services and engaging in outreach initiatives—its oppressive nature distanced the organization from its supposed constituents. Corporal punishments, the use of Sharia-enforcement squads and the subjugation of minorities, most notably Christians, quickly brought the disdain of average citizens. The ISIS sought to impose its will on the Syrian populace under its control and bring a mini-caliphate to life. Even in the media, the ISIS showcased the execution of Alawite and other minority civilians, which Jabhat al-Nusra had shied away from.

On the battlefield, fighting groups complained about the ISIS’s unwillingness to engage in clashes against Assad’s forces and the group’s focus on consolidating power in rebel-held areas. Furthermore, the willingness of the ISIS to settle disputes with Syrian rebels through the barrel of a gun, instead of the agreed upon Shariah court system exacerbated the issue. As early as July 11 the ISIS sought to target the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, assassinating commander Kamal Hamami in the Latakia governorate. Though, it was the kidnapping and murder of Hussein al-Suleiman (Abu Rayyan), a commander in the powerful Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham, whose body was found on January 1 that led to the current backlash and al-Qaeda’s abjuration of ties to the group.

Resultant demonstrations in the city of Idlib and elsewhere were held against the ISIS. In various towns and cities across the rebel-held north and east of Syria rebel groups turned their guns on the ISIS: the infighting has left more than 2,300 dead. It is not yet clear how these rebel-on-rebel clashes will end, as Jabhat al-Nusra has been unwilling to join the fray and a recently announced ceasefire between ISIS and Suquor al-Sham (whose senior commander was recently killed by ISIS).  Though, given the staying power of the ISIS and its predecessors, including the group’s ability to wage an underground war as it did from 2007 to 2011, there will most likely be a negotiated détente: the rebels simply do not want to fight on two fronts, which would ultimately benefit Assad. What is evident is that the ISIS will not be welcomed back as a legitimate actor among the Syrian people and will at some point have to be dealt with by rebels either in a post-Assad, transitional scenario.

Attempting to act as the local mediator, Jabhat al-Nusra is now strategically positioning itself as the sole domestic interlocutor between Syrian rebel groups and the ISIS. It has been afforded this maneuverability due to its past actions and popularity among Syrian civilians and fighters alike. This admiration, while in part stemming from bravery on the battlefield, was part of well-crafted stratagem to gain the support of the Syrian people, one that mirrors or which may even have taken into consideration the Zarqawi-Zawahiri correspondence. Unlike the ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra is Syrian-led (though largely by Baghdadi’s doing); covets public support; crafts a strong media image; and has shied away from imposing its will on the Syrian people. Golani has shown that his group is willing to play the long game–to avoid the mistakes of Anbar–and implement its goal of setting up an Islamic caliphate in Syria piece by piece.



Alexander Corbeil

Alexander Corbeil is a Substantive Analyst with The SecDev Group focusing on conflict and instability in the developing world. He has written on the topics of radicalization, sectarianism and terrorism in the Levant and Iraq for a number of publications and is also a contributor to Sada: Middle East Analysis. You can follow Alexander @alex_corbeil