Ever since its nightmarish inception into the American nightmare, al-Qaeda has baffled its hunters, its students, and those who wish to profit from its activities. Attempts have been made to simplify its potency, its threat, and then, its apparent demise. Like a pest, the inspector is happy to tell his clients that the problem has been dealt with, or at the very least, checked.
Much of this stems from the blinkered view of international relations: states and even non-state entities must behave like monoliths, agree on common ground simply because they have roughly similar objectives. The ideology dictates the consensus (worker’s paradise, theocratic state). Because of that, they must break bread together and have convivial Sunday walks in deep discussion.
To that end, the language of inflation and presence has been used – al-Qaeda are on the move everywhere, creeping with menace towards their goal of a global caliphate. But such fears replicate those of the Cold War – communism on the march everywhere, with a single goal in mind. For those analysts, the motor of that drive was in Moscow, ignoring the fact that the vehicle in question was fitted with numerous spare parts – Maoists, Titoists, and various indigenous communist groups. The nonsense of President Eisenhower’s domino effect is reincarnated as the modern fantasy of a uniform, al-Qaeda force wresting control from world leaders.
The very idea of seeing al-Qaeda like a compact, ideological entity was fraught with problems from the start. The organisation is part enterprise, part tactics, one that attracts what the suits of middle management might call “stake holders”. These do have an international stretch, but they are dangerously fractious, often to themselves. On January 3, the rebel front in Syria showed signs of implosion with savage infighting between various groups, much of this the inspiration of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
ISIS, Syria’s radical interloper, sees enemies everywhere, and Bashar al-Assad is but one of them. Its leader is the formidably stubborn Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has proven to be no shrinking violent in the context of jihadi pursuits. His grouping’s fame for violence makes it the suitable choice for various foreign fighter seeking an ideological home in the Syrian conflict.
Nothing illustrates the vicious inner challenges of the jihadi movement than the February 3 statement by al-Qaeda, purportedly authored by Ayman al-Zawahiri. It openly repudiates ISIS, seeking to cut it from its coattails. Evidently, efforts to get the jihadist factions on the same revolutionary page had come to naught. In fact, Zawahiri’s latest effort on that score came only two weeks ago, when he suggested that all jihadi groups fighting Assad were brothers who could never be accused “of apostasy”. The February 3 statement clearly abandons that line.
“Firstly,” it suggests, “Qae’dat al-Jihad (AQ) declares that it has no links to the ISIS group. We were not informed about it’s creation, nor counselled.” Furthermore, al-Qaeda, no doubt fearing a rather crowded front in Syria, ordered that the grouping stop. Too many jihadists were spoiling the revolution. “ISIS is not a branch of AQ and we have no organizational relationship with it.”
Much of this is occasioned by a change in tactics. Different visions are proliferating, as they have done for some years, about how best to exert revolutionary pull in the Islamic world. In the aftermath of the now stalled Arab Spring, this has become particularly relevant. Zawahiri will no doubt be aware that the resume of ISIS makes for poor, and bloody reading. Vast swathes of the Iraqi population have been alienated by their measures. If one is to win converts, and the broader populace over, the tune of conviction must change.
In October, Zawahiri made a pointed statement urging groups to be more discriminate in their revolutionary violence. It was as if a public relations agency had gotten hold of his message. Avoid targeting Hindus, Christians and Shia Muslims. The West and its affiliates should be the true focus. “We are not the ones who will start a confrontation, since we are busy fighting the head of international infidelity” (Financial Times, Feb 3).
ISIS, on the other hand, has shown itself, not merely practitioners of spectacular violence, but tactical deal making. Suggestions abound that the group is collaborating, at least at points, with the Assad regime.
The statement disowning ISIS has already spurred some clerics to encourage defections. Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al-Muhaysini, an important figure attempting to mediate between the rebel groups, approved. He has encouraged supporters via his much followed Twitter account to put their faith in the al-Nusrah front, al-Qaeda’s official representative in Syria. Other ideologues such as the imprisoned Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, have shown support for the anti-ISIS stance (Long War Journal, Feb 3).
The Assad regime will be thrilled at the latest developments, feeling no doubt similarly to the German occupation forces in the Balkans during the Second World War. Their enemies are enemies of themselves. Those outside Syria who are having various punts on who will win this brutal conflict will see the odds of an Assad defeat lengthen considerably. The revolution is consuming itself, and Assad need merely place a ring around it.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org