(Al-Akhbar): The Islamic State of Iraq, which later became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), was never really a subordinate of al-Qaeda. The groups’ relationship dates back to 2003, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi swore an oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden. The religious dispute between the two jihadi groups, however, is new, as all reconciliation attempts have so far failed.
A statement attributed to al-Qaeda, published by the Fajr Media Center, a jihadi propaganda platform, announced that al-Qaeda has no official ties to ISIS. According to the statement, al-Qaeda was never notified, consulted, or approached about the founding of ISIS. Instead, the statement continued, al-Qaeda has called for dissolving the group, stressing that ISIS “is not a branch of Qaedat al-Jihad [al-Qaeda], and has no organizational ties to it.”
The story does not start there, however. The issue is not just a dispute among jihadi emirs over who should be leading in the Syrian arena. Instead, an ideological-religious dispute is at the heart of the battles between the Islamic Front and ISIS.
Indeed, the Islamic Front has called its offensive against ISIS “the Battle of Nahrawan,” in reference to the historical battle between the fourth Caliph Ali bin Abi Talib against the historical rogue Muslim faction known as the Kharijis. For its part, ISIS has linked its battle with the Islamic Front to the Wars of Apostasy, in reference to the first caliph’s crackdown against tribes that mutinied against the Islamic caliphate following the Prophet Mohammad’s death.
A strange version of that history is repeating itself in Syria, with war raging among the “brothers in jihad.” Relentless battles are taking place among armed opposition groups, and so far, all attempts at reconciliation have failed.
These interventions, however, have only deepened the state of division. Only the initiative of Saudi Sheikh Abdullah al-Mohisni to create an Islamic court of arbitration, has been taken somewhat seriously. Most warring factions approved of the initiative, except ISIS, which thanked Mohisni but said that the fighting in Syria was not a “rift among the mujahideen, but rather a war waged by a heretical faction against the mujahideen.”
Amid the conflicting positions and the excessive issuing of fatwas of apostasy, we should return to the beginnings of this affair. Had Baghdadi pledged an oath of allegiance to Zawahiri to begin with, to justify accusations of reneging on his oath? In truth, all indications suggest that al-Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani mutinied against Baghdadi, the man who originally sent Golani to Syria.
And what, exactly, is the relationship between al-Qaeda and ISIS? The ties between the two date back to the US occupation of Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion. Back then, 16 extremist Sunni factions were fighting in Iraq, including: Jaysh Ahl al-Sunna, Ansar al-Islam, Jaysh al-Sahaba, Jaysh al-Khilafa, Jaysh Mohammad, and al-Tawhid wal Jihad, led by Jordanian national Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who swore allegiance to the leader of al-Qaeda at the time, Osama bin Laden.
In the jihadis’ understanding, this was necessary because the area under their control needed a state to manage their affairs, and this is where the crux of the matter lies: The Islamic State of Iraq was established as a “peacetime,” rather than a “wartime,” structure.
According to a Salafi cleric, “There are two types of emirates in the Salafi doctrine: a general Islamic emirate, that is, a Muslim state under the name of caliphate, as it was in the time of Prophet Mohammad; and a special Islamic emirate, which can be either for jihad and proselytizing, or for governing.” This, they say, is the source of the dispute between ISIS and the rest of the jihadi factions.
To be sure, the “governing emirate” that Baghdadi declared was meant to manage the affairs of the Muslims in the ISIS-controlled areas, the Salafi source said. The “jihadi emirate,” by contrast, “would focus on combat until the enemy is defeated, and does not concern itself with managing the affairs of the people.”
In Syria, Baghdadi aimed to expand his power, and created al-Nusra Front, tasking Golani with coordinating jihadi operations in Syria. When Golani was asked to reintegrate his group with ISIS, he refused, causing the rift that we see today.
To declare his state, Baghdadi said the areas under his control needed a governor. Therefore it was imperative, from a Sharia perspective, to convert his group from the jihadi type to the governing type. Next, a Shura council was formed, which then appointed Baghdadi as the “emir of the faithful.” Baghdadi subsequently appointed ministers, governors, and officers to collect Zakat money, and outlined domestic and foreign policy for his “state.”
As a result, all armed factions present in the ISIS-controlled areas had to either pledge allegiance to him to keep their arms, leave to fight in other areas, or lay down their arms.
With this, Baghdadi followed in the footsteps of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who had assumed the Emirate of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, that is, moved from being an emir of a group to an emir of a state, before he was toppled following the US invasion of Iraq. The same can be said about Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen, and al-Qaeda’s emirate in Mali.
Baghdadi considers himself a “ruling emir,” while Zawahiri considers him the “emir of a group.” This is while bearing in mind that Zawahiri himself is the emir of a group since he does not control any geographical areas where he can implement Sharia — though he is a global jihadi emir who commands the allegiance of many factions throughout the world.
The fighting among jihadis in Syria continues. Foreign fighters, who are known as the “muhajirin,” or emigrants, side with ISIS, while the majority of Syrian-born jihadis, known as “al-Ansar,” the partisans, side with al-Nusra. In the meantime, an undeclared battle over Saudi Arabia is intensifying: The Islamic Front is fighting ISIS at the behest of the Saudi government, while ISIS and al-Nusra both declare the latter as an infidel regime.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.