In 2013, the jihadist group ISI (Islamic State in Iraq) began tactical operations in Syria, taking advantage of the country’s civil war. Fighting in both Iraq and Syria, ISI became ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). Their rise is largely due to vast resources, disciplined organization, and aggressive social media campaigns. Their success in Syria had been so significant that they attempted to take operational control of Syria’s al-Qaeda branch, the al-Nusra front. The resulting feud was the catalyst for a complete break between al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Earlier this year, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself as the leader of all Muslims; he considers himself a caliph. That edict was problematic for al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has had control of al-Qaeda since Osama bin Laden’s death. “Al Qaeda announces that it does not link itself with [ISIS] … It is not a branch of the al Qaeda group, does not have an organizational relationship with it” said al-Zawihiri. Though not completely personal, the organizations would have a slim chance of reconciling while both Ayman al-Zawihiri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi helmed their respective groups.
ISIS and al-Qaeda are now in direct competition to carry the banner of jihad. It would be a significant development if al-Qaeda and ISIS were to reemerge as partners in Syria. According to new reports, a purported secret meeting in Syria may indicate that such a rekindling might be in the works.
Yesterday, the Government of Iraq suggested that ISIS’s al-Baghdadi might have been killed in airstrikes. There is currently no public information available confirming or denying his death. Though, if he is no longer the leader of ISIS, the chances for a meaningful merger between ISIS and the al-Nusra front will likely increase. With al-Baghdadi potentially out of the mix, ISIS and al-Nusra could bury to hatchet and combine efforts against a common enemy: US-trained rebel forces.
Whether or not a secret meeting occurred, all ears are awaiting official word regarding al-Baghdadi’s alleged demise. As ISIS continues to wage multi-front campaigns throughout Iraq and Syria, a burgeoning partnership with al-Nusra in Syria would boost their operational success. While the US-led coalition would likely classify al-Baghdadi’s death as a strategic victory, the operational impact of a renewed ISIS/al-Nusra alliance might present more difficult challenges than currently face coalition forces.