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The Convergences of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State

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By  Mary Habeck


For several months, I have been writing about signs of cooperation—generally on a local level—between al-Qaeda (AQ) groups and others that have sworn fealty to the Islamic State (IS). It might seem counterintuitive that the two, which have accused each other ofassassinating leaders, engaged in a very public mutual disowning, and fought each other openly in some areas, would work together at all. But there is growing evidence of localized convergences between the two organizations, especially in Lebanon, Syria, and Tunisia. Whether this will turn into something more comprehensive is unclear.

Cooperation between IS and al-Nusra Front (AQ’s branch in Syria) was first reported in fighting in Lebanon during the late summer and early fall 2014. Observers commented on the unusual nature of this collaboration, given the well-known hostility between the two groups, but were uncertain whether it was just a temporary alliance or a real change of heart by the organizations.  In early November 2014, multiple sources stated that a high-level meeting between al-Nusra Front and IS occurred.  There were also many reports of the two groups working together to attack the moderate Syrian resistance forces (although other reports denied these claims). After clashes between the two groups in Lebanon, another agreement was reportedly signed between local IS and Nusra Front commanders, dividing disputed territory into two areas of influence.

The most significant cooperation has been over the fight around Damascus. In Qalamoun, north of the capital, there have been numerous reports of an on-again off-againrelationship between the two groups over the past seven months. The latest reporting suggests that the two have decided once again to a truce and to collaborate when fighting the “aggressor enemy,” i.e. Hezbollah or the Syrian government. What is interesting is that this is occurring despite the efforts of delegates sent by IS to consolidate the group’s power in the region. The head of the AQ local group refused to join IS, and was disavowed as “a sect of infidels and apostates” by one of the IS representatives. This should have precluded any compromise or cooperation between the groups and yet it has continued.

There is another apparent area of cooperation even closer to Damascus.After initial reports that the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp had been attacked and seized by IS, later reports claimed that it had been taken through a joint assault by the Nusra Front and IS. When a Nusra Front commander involved in the offensive was accused of joining IS, he denied this rumor and renewed his oath of fealty to the head of the group, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani (naming him, significantly, “Amir of al-Qa’ida in the Land of Sham”). As he explained, the Nusra Front saw its duty as not getting involved in any infighting and instead working to “aid” the oppressed civilians.

Perhaps even more telling is recent insight into cooperation between AQ and IS in Tunisia. Next week I’ll do a more thorough analysis of the Bardo Museum attack and what this tells us about the two groups’ relationship, but suffice to say here that there is growing evidence the attack seems to have been, like the Charlie Hebdo assault, a joint operation between IS and AQ groups. Terrible as this terrorist attack was, however, it might be just one example of something much more sinister: an area of the greater Middle East where AQ and IS are converging rather than competing.

Ifriqiyya Media, which swore fealty to IS in November, yet continues to publish al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) material, put out a statementrecently in which it explained the relationship between the various Tunisian jihadist groups. In their words, ‘Uqba bin Nafi’ Brigades is part of AQIM; Jund al-Khilafah and Vanguards of Jund al-Khilafah are sworn to IS; and Tawhid wa-l-Jihad is completely independent. Despite this difference in affiliation, the groups have no disputes or issues between them and “cooperate on some actions.” It is also significant that “Vanguards of Jund al-Khilafah” is described by Ifriqiyya Media as the group specifically set up by IS to create an Islamic State “province” in Tunisia.

Analytically, it is clear that the cooperation between IS and AQ has three characteristics: first, it is a local phenomenon that does not necessarily signal a change of relationship between the organizations as a whole. This is good news, although it is important to stipulate that the current state of the cooperation does not preclude a widening of the collaboration until it includes a substantial portion of—or even the entirety of—the AQ and IS networks. If this were to occur, it is difficult to understand how this end state would differ in substance from a formally worked out truce and agreement to cooperate between the leaderships of the two groups.

It is also clear that even the current local cooperation does not reflect the wishes of the head of IS. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced in November 2014 the “nullification” of all local jihadist groups in the lands where men had sworn fealty to him, the creation of provinces in these lands to replace the old groups, and the appointment of new commanders (walis) to lead them. He also urged all jihadis to join the groups that had sworn fealty to him. The discussion above demonstrates that during this same time frame, representatives were empowered—at least in Syria and Tunisia and perhaps elsewhere—to implement this order. Yet, local IS groups chose to continue their cooperation with local AQ groups. On the other hand, Zawahiri and the leadership of AQ branches (e.g., AQAP and AQIM) have apparently made no such demands and have shown no qualms about working closely with groups that have sworn fealty to IS.

Finally, the cooperation has been directed at areas where the two groups can agree, for instance, against common enemies (like the Syrian government). Unfortunately, the area where they most agree is in attacking external enemies (like France, foreign tourists, and the U.S.). This brings me to the third point. In an earlier blog post, I speculated that it was possible the U.S. intervention in Iraq and Syria might cause AQ and IS to externalize their competition. That is, rather than fighting each other, they might be able to agree to fight the U.S. and its allies and therefore cooperate on killing us, rather than killing each other. The examples raised here suggest that this might, in fact, be occurring.

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