Al-Qaeda still offers olive branch to ISIS: analysts
Al-Qaeda is using U.S. air strikes in Syria as a reason to extend olive branches to the renegade Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, saying the two should stop feuding and join forces to attack Western targets – a reunification that intelligence analysts say would allow Al-Qaeda to capitalize on the younger group’s ruthless advance across the region.
Analysts are closely watching Al-Qaeda’s repeated overtures, and while a full reconciliation is not expected soon – if ever – there is evidence the two groups have curtailed their infighting and are cooperating on the Syrian battlefield, according to activists on the ground, U.S. officials and experts who monitor jihadi messages.
Al-Qaeda is saying, “Let’s just have a truce in Syria,” said Tom Joscelyn, who tracks terror groups for the Long War Journal. “That is what’s underway now. … What we have seen is that local commanders are entering into local truces. There are definitely areas where the two groups are not fighting.”
ISIS has seized about a third of Iraq and Syrian territory and is terrorizing civilians to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Their advances led to air strikes by the United States and a coalition of Western and Gulf nations in both Iraq and Syria.
ISIS was kicked out of Al-Qaeda in May after disobeying its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. So far, ISIS has not publicly responded to Al-Qaeda’s calls to reunite – the most recent on Oct. 17 from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based offshoot that denounced the air strikes and called on rival militant groups to stop their infighting and together train their sights on the West.
Reconciling with Al-Qaeda senior leadership would let ISIS benefit from Al-Qaeda’s broad, international network but would also leave it restrained in carrying out its own attacks. For its part, Al-Qaeda would get a boost from ISIS’ newfound popularity in militant circles, which has provided an influx of new recruits and money. The U.S. Treasury Department said last week that ISIS has earned about $1 million a day from selling oil on the black market.
One school of thought is that if the two groups continue to spend time and resources fighting each other, it diminishes the terror threat to the West. Experts tracking terrorist networks say, however, that continued infighting also could incite a competition over who would be the first to launch a new attack against the West.
Jihadi groups across the world recently have rushed to proclaim a new allegiance to ISIS, either out of fear or because they want to be with the winning team. But Joseclyn notes that they are all “B-listers,” not mainline Al-Qaeda affiliates.
“The Islamic State [ISIS] is the strongest jihadist group in Iraq and Syria but the evidence thus far says that Al-Qaeda is much stronger everywhere else,” he said.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists around Syria, also said that ISIS and the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, have stopped fighting in parts of the country since the air strikes began there Sept. 23.
Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Observatory, said that in the Qalamoun region bordering Lebanon, the two groups have been cooperating for some time – even before the strikes. Moreover, Abdurrahman says, hundreds of fighters have defected from the Nusra Front and joined ISIS.
“Tens of fighters left Nusra over the past days,” he said, citing increased sympathy for the ISIS group because of the air strikes.
“They believe that they are being attacked by what they call the infidel crusader enemy” – the United States – and should not be fighting against each other.
An activist in the central Syrian province of Hama who is in contact with rebels in Aleppo and Idlib in northern Syria said hundreds of militants have defected from Nusra Front as well as an ultraconservative group that had fought for months alongside Nusra Front against the ISIS.
The activist, Bassil Darwish, also said infighting stopped after the United States said in August that it would launch air strikes. Asked if the plans for air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition led to this undeclared truce, he said: “Yes, this is the main reason.”
Rita Katz, the director and co-founder of the SITE Intelligence Group, which analyzes international terrorists’ messages, said she sees no evidence that the infighting has stopped and cited fighting between the groups about 10 days ago in Aleppo.
“I cannot believe that at this stage ISIS or Nusra [Front] are saying they are not fighting,” she said.