Why the ISIS-al-Qaeda Conflict Isn’t All Good News

Photo by Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons

By Jeff Burdette |

On February 24, an Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) suicide bomber infiltrated an Ahrar al-Sham base in the city of Aleppo in northwestern Syria and detonated a powerful bomb that killed seven fighters. Though only the latest attack in a long and brutal war, the event was notable because it signaled a major escalation in the growing conflict between ISIS and al-Qaeda (AQ). The bomber’s target was Abu Khalid al-Suri, an influential senior member of Ahrar al-Sham with close links to al-Qaeda. Before helping found Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful Syrian rebel faction with close ties to Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), Suri was a confidant of Ayman al-Zawahiri.[1] He was reportedly dispatched to Syria by Zawahiri last summer with instructions to resolve the then-growing dispute between ISIS and JN.[2] His death at the hands of an ISIS assassin represents a particularly brazen attack on AQ.

Analysts have predicted that AQ’s formal denunciation of ISIS would cause a fight between ISIS and AQ for control of the jihadist movement.[3] Tensions emerged even before AQ formally split with ISIS, but further deteriorated thereafter. In one recent interview, a former ISIS fighter described heavy internecine fighting in Syria.[4] Moreover, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced earlier this month that several days of heavy fighting between ISIS and JN led to twenty-three deaths.[5] And on March 7, ISIS announced its intention to fight back against what it sees as an existential threat and issued a formal declaration of war against JN, calling them “the front of betrayal and treason.”[6]

Certainly the United States can find some satisfaction in the internecine fighting that has engulfed the jihadist groups. After all, clashes between ISIS and AQ weaken each group and risk alienating prospective recruits or funders uninterested in aiding attacks against former allies. On the other hand, as ISIS and AQ each attempt to stake claim to leadership of the jihadist movement, it is likely that each will seek to prove their bona fides by increasing attacks against external enemies such as Hizballah, Israel, and the United States.

While fissures are likely to weaken terrorist groups in the long run, the immediate effect is often an escalation of violence not just between the two warring groups, but directed outward as well. Scholars of terrorism have dubbed this ‘outbidding,’ a phenomenon in which two competing groups attempt to win over unaligned potential supporters through spectacular acts of violence against their traditional enemies.[7] The classic example is Fatah’s embrace of suicide bombing (through the newly established al-Aqsa Martyrs brigade) in the early 2000s.[8] Beyond whatever benefits this sudden shift in tactics may have had for the fight against Israel, it was seen primarily as a response to the challenge posed by Hamas, which had siphoned significant support from Fatah’s base by escalating the violence of its attacks. In other words, sometimes terrorist violence is driven less by military strategy than by organizational needs.

Ominously, the current clash between ISIS and AQ is ripe for a similar logic to take hold. The constituency coveted by both organizations, Salafi Jihadists, remains up for grabs, but many groups are already taking sides. In one recent example, the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, a Gaza-based group with links to al-Qaeda, denounced “an unfair view toward ISIS and its emir, the Prince of Believers Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”[9] The debate has also carried over to the Internet where the major al-Qaeda linked web forums have split. Al-Shamukh has aligned itself with ISIS[10] while al-Fidaa squarely backs JN and now even refuses to post official ISIS statements.[11]

As ISIS and AQ battle for influence, men, and money, the most resonant way for each group to distinguish itself is through acts of violence against prominent enemies. Hizballah, because it is the easiest to target, is the most obvious option. Both ISIS and AQ have already claimed credit for several operations inside Lebanon. While there are obvious tactical and ideological motivations for expanding operations to Hizballah’s stronghold, the organizational benefits of high profile attacks against a prominent and hated enemy are likely not lost on either party.[12]

Israel’s defenses are far superior to Hizballah’s, but given its shared border with Syria it presents another tempting target. The symbolism of an attack against Israel would be particularly significant because AQ has thus far been unable to execute a high-profile attack there. Recent weeks have seen Israel announce an al-Qaeda plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and ISIS claim responsibility for an attack on an Israeli Defense Forces patrol.[13]

Similarly, the United States and other Western countries are major prizes in this competition for extremist hearts and minds. In recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen warned that Syria has “become the preeminent location for independent or al-Qa‘ida-aligned groups to recruit, train, and equip a growing number of extremists, some of whom we assess may seek to conduct external attacks.”[14]

Of course, the threat should not be overstated; organizing large terrorist attacks in well-defended Western countries is rare because it is so difficult. Indeed, ISIS and AQ will invariably find it much easier to let their competition play out against softer targets on local battlefields in Syria and Iraq with occasional symbolically meaningful regional attacks against Hizballah in Lebanon. Nevertheless, the combination of opportunity—the groups have territorial freedom in Syria and access to thousands of foreign fighters with Western passports—and added motivation—competition between the two groups—may increase the risk of large-scale ISIS and AQ attacks.

Western analysts may naturally react to fighting between ISIS and AQ with schadenfreude, but the United States must beware of the potentially increased likelihood of attacks against both it and its allies.

Jeff Burdette is a Master’s candidate in Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. His research interests include jihadist terrorism and Middle East and North African security issues.

[1] “Syria rebel leader Abu Khaled al-Suri killed in Aleppo,” BBC, February 24, 2014. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26318646.

[2] Aryn Baker, “Al Qaeda’s Top Envoy Killed in Syria by Rival Rebel Group,” Time, February 24, 2014. Available at: http://time.com/9555/al-qaeda-al-suri-syria-isis/.

[3] Jeff Burdette, “It’s Not You It’s Me: Key Questions on the al-Qaeda-ISIS Breakup,” Global Security Studies Review Forum, February 25, 2014. Available at: http://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/2014/02/25/its-not-you-its-me-key-questions-on-the-al-qaeda-isis-breakup/.

[4] Sami-Joe Abboud, “Former ISIS Fighter: Islamists fighting each other in Syria,” Al-Hayat, March 7, 2014. Available at: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2014/03/former-isis-fighter-saudi-islamists-syria-infighting.html.

[5] “Hasakah clashes kill 23 fighters,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, March 8, 2014. Available at:  http://syriahr.com/en/index.php?option=com_news&nid=1858&Itemid=2&task=displaynews#.Ux-tWvldWSo.

[6] “ISIL says it faces war with Nusra in Syria,” Al Jazeera, March 8, 2014. Available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/03/isil-says-it-faces-war-with-nusra-syria-20143719484991740.html.

[7] Andrew H. Kydd and Barbara F. Walter, “The Strategies of Terrorism,” International Security, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Summer 2006). Available at: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/is3101_pp049-080_kydd_walter.pdf.

[8] The competition between Fatah and Hamas is perhaps the most commonly cited example of outbidding, but numerous examples abound. Another classic example is the various iterations of the Irish Republican Army. The history of the movement has seen several IRA factions split off to form a new, more violent branch in the event of real or perceived demobilization or equivocation on the part of the mother organization.

[9] Asmaa al-Ghoul, trans. Kamal Fayad, “Gaza Salafists pledge allegiance to ISIS,” Al Monitor, February 27, 2014. Available at: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/02/isis-gaza-salafist-jihadist-qaeda-hamas.html#.

[10] The Iraqi Witness, Twitter.com, March 10, 2014. Available at: https://twitter.com/IraqiWitness/status/443190690886221824.

[11] The Iraqi Witness, Twitter.com, March 10, 2014. Available at: https://twitter.com/IraqiWitness/status/443190852752781312.

[12] For a recent ISIS attack in Lebanon see Mohammed Tawfeeq and Laura Smith-Spark, “Islamist group ISIS claims deadly Lebanon blast, promises more violence,” CNN, January 4, 2014. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/04/world/meast/lebanon-unrest/. For a JN attack in Lebanon, see “Jabhat al-Nusra claims deadly Lebanon bombing,” Al Jazeera, February 2, 2014. Available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/02/al-nusra-front-claims-deadly-lebanon-bombing-201421221112955650.html.

[13] For an example of an AQ attack in Israel see Ian Deitch, “Israel says it foiled al-Qaida plot on U.S. Embassy,” Associated Press, January 22, 2014. Available at: http://news.yahoo.com/israel-says-foiled-al-qaida-plot-us-embassy-212356519.html. For an example of an ISIS attack on Israel see “Al-Qaeda-linked group claims border attack on IDF,” Times of Israel, March 14, 2014. Available at: http://www.timesofisrael.com/al-qaeda-linked-group-takes-credit-for-border-attack/.

[14] See Matthew G. Olsen, “Testimony before Committee on Foreign Relations Hearing on ‘Syria Spillover: The Growing Threat of Terrorism and Sectarianism in the Middle East,” Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, March 6, 2014. Available at: http://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/030614AM_Testimony%20-%20Matthew%20Olsen.pdf. See also William J. Burns, “Testimony before Committee on Foreign Relations Hearing on ‘Syria Spillover: The Growing Threat of Terrorism and Sectarianism in the Middle East,” Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, March 6, 2014. Available at: http://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/030614AM_Testimony%20-%20Burns.pdf.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.