February 4, 2014 in Nation/World

Al-Qaida leader disavows jihad group in Syria, Iraq

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ISIS declared its existence last April, saying it was a merger of the Nusra Front and an Iraqi group, the Islamic State of Iraq. But the leader of the Nusra Front objected to the merger and appealed to al-Zawahiri to intervene, which the al-Qaida leader did in June, telling ISIS to leave Syria to Nusra.

WASHINGTON – Al-Qaida’s central command publicly has disowned its Iraqi affiliate over that group’s brutal activities in Syria in an unprecedented break that analysts say may weaken the Syrian insurgency and impact al-Qaida’s operations across the Middle East.

Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a statement posted on jihadist forums late Sunday, formally declared the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, not an al-Qaida affiliate over its defiance of his order last year to limit its operations to Iraq and to leave operations in Syria to the official al-Qaida affiliate there, the Nusra Front.

“ISIS is not a branch of al-Qaida and we have no organizational relationship with it,” al-Zawahiri’s statement said. As a result, it added, al-Qaida is no longer responsible for the “actions and behaviors” of ISIS, which has been fighting a bloody campaign against other rebel groups in Syria while imposing strict Islamic law on the parts of Syria it controls, often executing people it finds to be insufficiently pious.

Experts on al-Qaida offered a variety of interpretations on the importance of al-Zawahiri’s statement. Some said it was likely to be closely watched by al-Qaida affiliates in other parts of the world; if ISIS survives the expulsion and continues to hold on to its positions inside Syria, it likely will mean that central al-Qaida’s ability to command their operations will have collapsed.

“If ISIS succeeds without being part of al-Qaida, it could create a competing center of jihadist power,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow who studies al-Qaida for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It’s possible that it will dim al-Qaida’s brand as well as al-Qaida’s fundraising.”

The break with ISIS could also work out to be a boon for U.S. counterterrorism efforts by opening up “the possibility of the most serious internal fighting – I mean violent fighting – al-Qaida has faced,” said Seth Jones, an associate director of RAND Corp.’s International Security and Defense Policy Center who’s worked closely with U.S. Special Forces Command.

“The good news angle is that this is essentially fratricide,” he said.

But other analysts were more cautious, warning that ISIS pushed from Syria could turn its wrath on that country’s neighbors, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The group already has claimed deadly bombings in Lebanon and Turkey.

The State Department also saw little upside to an ISIS defeat if it served only to strengthen the Nusra Front, which the United States declared a terrorist organization in December 2012.

“The fact to remember here is that both ISIS and al-Nusra are designated terrorist organizations,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday. “Yes, they’ve been fighting each other for months, but that doesn’t change our view of both of those groups.”

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