If the Assad regime had wanted to plant a Trojan Horse inside the Syrian revolution, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) would have provided the perfect vehicle. Whether ISIS is actually doing the regime’s bidding is almost besides the point since by design or not, the group is undoubtedly serving Assad’s interests. For all the other rebel groups in Syria, ISIS now represents the enemy within.
The conflict within the opposition — conflict which the press conveniently describes as “infighting” — predictably presents an image of a movement that is imploding; a movement whose lack of legitimacy is rising to the surface. Again, in this narrative the interests of the Syrian government and its supporters are being served.
Yesterday’s statement issued by al Qaeda’s central leadership is significant and should probably be taken at face value. It says:
Qae’dat al-Jihad (AQ) declares that it has no links to the ISIS group. We were not informed about it’s creation, nor counseled. Nor were we satisfied with it rather we ordered it to stop. ISIS is not a branch of AQ & we have no organizational relationship with it. Nor is al-Qaeda responsible for its actions and behaviors.
Aron Lund provides some background to this announcement:
In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that the ISI would become the ISIL by extending its activity into Syria and taking full possession of the Syria-based jihadi faction known as the Nusra Front, which Baghdadi had helped create in August 2011.
All this happened without Zawahiri being informed, to his great dismay. When he complained and attempted to assert authority over the ISI(L), ordering Baghdadi to dissolve the new cross-border entity and head back to Iraq, Baghdadi simply refused to comply. From his hideout, which is probably in Pakistan, there was little Zawahiri could do about it.
But the al-Qaeda leader didn’t leave the Syrian dispute empty-handed: he gained or regained the allegiance of the Nusra Front, whose leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, publicly declared his allegiance to Zawahiri in an attempt to avoid being gobbled up by the ISIL. Since then, the Nusra Front has functioned as a de facto al-Qaeda branch, even though it isn’t yet publicly declared as such.
This split between the ISIL and the Nusra Front, which took place in April 2013, set in motion the process that now, after almost a year, has resulted in brutal infighting in northern Syria, with the ISIL and the Nusra Front on different sides. But it also forced al-Qaeda to finally come clean about what may have been the reality for quite a while: it no longer seems to have an Iraqi wing.
Over the last few weeks, @wikibaghdady, who presents himself as an inside source, has revealed many details about the inner workings of ISIS and Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI/ISI).
Although Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is most often referred to as the leader, according to @wikibaghdady (see an English translation of his tweets) the core leadership is a three-man military council of former officers who served Saddam Hussein and were members of the Ba’ath Party. Brigadier General Haji Bakr led the council until his death near Aleppo in January.
General Haji Bakr first met Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi when he offered his services to him due to having experience in Saddam’s Ba’athist army. He demonstrated his dedication to him and he is now considered to be one of the closest to him. However, Haji Bakr didn’t have any previous jihadi experience before that. He was accepted to the Military Council on the one condition of providing the State [AQI / ISI] with important information about the Iraqi army. When he did that and proved his loyalty, he was then appointed as the military adviser to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hafs al-Muhajir and continuously provided them with information about previous military leaders, plans and successfully linking them with previous members of the Ba’ath Party.
Although ISIS has become infamous for its outward brutality, the account of Haji Bakr’s leadership makes it clear that he imposed his own internal reign of terror.
When Haji Bakr became a leader, a new era started that was important to Iraq as well where the amount of fear between citizens increased. A lot of people considered Haji Bakr to be arrogant next to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who many considered to be a quiet personality. In addition, Haji Bakr completely changed the way he looked where he shaved his beard off and even changed the way he speaks in the first few weeks. The main issue here is that no one in the State dared to question anything taking place because questioning was considered not trusting the other person. This issue was serious to a point where it was allowed to kill another member who considered being suspicious of another.
Haji Bakr then started holding private meetings with Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi to reshape the State. The first agreement was protecting the State from the inside and out. This involved creating a security outlet that would be able to respond to any type of danger. An important step that took place was that Haji Bakr prevented Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi from meeting with leaders from other groups so they didn’t impact or advise him in any way. The orders came from the Shura council that Abu Bakr created to ensure that all decisions made were fair. After this, the two became very close and were always with each other where many considered him to be Al Baghdadi’s private minister.
Among their plans were various assassinations that in fact took place. This first started with twenty people and within a month, the number increased to one hundred people. It is essential to understand that no one in the State AQI/ISI would dare to take any orders from anyone else but Haji Bakr or Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi during that time. Every member in the Shura was carefully chosen by Haji Bakr and most of them were in the previous Baath party. One of the members’ main responsibilities was assassinating everyone who disobeys or betrays the State.
The most recent tweets reveal:
There were about twenty to thirty fighters who split from the ISIS on a daily basis. They found that fighters from Saudi Arabia were the most likely to split and that Tunisians were the least. This is when he [Al Baghdadi?] ordered that the suicide bombers should be Saudi as much as possible, and that Tunisians shouldn’t be involved since they’re the most loyal.
If a jihadist group turns out to be run primarily by former Ba’athists — a thoroughly secular political movement — this begs the question: is ISIS being viewed through the right ideological prism?
No doubt ISIS recruits jihadists, but if it is led by men who drew their power from the security apparatus of a Ba’athist state, then their overriding interests may have less to do with the creation of a Caliphate and more to do with surviving in a harbor provided by the last remaining Ba’athist government in the Middle East.