By Radwan Mortada
Al-Akhbar: The differences between al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) remain unresolved. ISIS’s strength is growing by the day, while al-Nusra’s continues to shrink. Yet the quarrel between the two al-Qaeda affiliates has not spread to afflict their neighboring counterparts, with Lebanese jihadis maintaining their distance pending a consolidation of the Syrian-based ranks.
“ISIS or al-Nusra? Which of the two groups should we follow?” This is a question jihadis in Syria have had difficulty answering, resulting in between supporters of al-Nusra Front and ISIS.
Nevertheless, there has been an exodus of fighters from al-Nusra wanting to join ISIS, for a variety of reasons. This has had clear effects on the ground, with al-Nusra weakened on the battlefield in parallel to the rise of ISIS, which has proven itself strong in combat. Most foreign jihadis also fight under the banner of ISIS.
In light of this, the leaders of radical Islamic groups in Lebanon aligned with al-Qaeda have taken a middle ground. For instance, Sheikh Osama al-Shihabi, the leader of Fatah al-Islam, has called for unity and for rising above disputes, calling for “reducing differences among the muwahiddin [strict adherents to monotheism, self-proclaimed name of Wahhabis/Salafi jihadists], because harmony is the rule and dispute is the exception.”
Shihabi, according to sources close to Lebanese jihadis, has made a proposal to the commanders of the two radical groups, namely, to punish any member of ISIS who slanders al-Nusra with imprisonment, and vice versa.
Meanwhile, sources told Al-Akhbar that radical Islamic leaders in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp are unsure what to do about the split between ISIS and al-Nusra, as many of them have recently been cozying up to the latter: Five of their leaders (Osama Shihabi, Mohammad al-Arefi, Haitham al-Shaabi, Naeem Abbas and Ziad Abu al-Naaj) left to engage in jihad in Syria in May 2012, pledging allegiance to the commander of al-Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, before subsequently returning to Lebanon.
The sources cite this pledge of allegiance as the reason for their current embarrassment, and argue that self-dissociation – that is, neutrality – has proven to be the best possible option. Concerning reports claiming that ISIS was strict in enforcing Sharia compared to the “leniency” shown by al-Nusra, some seem to support ISIS’s strictness, but say that based on what they call the “fiqh (jurisprudence) of exigency,” “enforcing Sharia in superficial matters may not be well-timed, if the goal is to consolidate efforts to fight an unjust regime.”
Even so, security sources told Al-Akhbar that the remnants of the Jund al-Sham and Fatah al-Islam have not yet decided whom to align with. These sources point out out that some of the two groups’ members have declared their allegiance to the Syrian branch of Jund al-Sham, established by Sheikh Khaled al-Mahmoud, aka Abu Suleiman al-Muhajir.
According to the same sources, the same applies to the followers of Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Lebanon. It seems these radicals are also maintaining neutrality and biding their time until things become clearer, bearing in mind that the group, according to a June 2012 audio recording of Sheikh Majed bin Mohammad al-Majed, the commander of Abdullah Azzam Brigades in the Levant, has distanced itself from al-Nusra Front.
Though both al-Nusra and ISIS follow the same Salafi jihadi ideology, their followers are torn over which side to be loyal to. Interestingly, most of those who defected from al-Nusra joined ISIS because they see the latter as a bigger organization than the former, which they believe is nothing more than a militia.
Furthermore, in the Salafi jihadi ideology, a field commander has a lower rank than the so-called Emir of an organization – al-Nusra doesn’t have an Emir currently, only a field commander. This is not to mention that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Emir of ISIS, allegedly has Qureshi lineage [a descendant of the tribes of Mecca who were contemporaries of the Prophet Mohammad], giving him precedence and seniority.
It is also worth noting that ISIS is financially superior to al-Nusra. For instance, ISIS controls oil wells in both Iraq and Syria, including in the Raqqa governorate, and is also engaged in fierce battles in the countryside of Deir al-Zour, home to a large number of oil fields.
All this means that ISIS can meet the needs of the jihadis who join its ranks. In addition to supplying its fighters with cutting-edge weaponry, ISIS sometimes also pays for accommodation for the families of combatants, whether in Lebanon, Turkey, or elsewhere.
Recently, reports have surfaced alleging that ISIS sent delegates to Lebanon to obtain pledges of allegiance from like-minded individuals. These reports indicate that the delegates came out with a roadmap for establishing groups that answer directly to ISIS. However, this information has come from informants, and has yet to be confirmed by the jihadi groups themselves.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.