The Rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant

Al-Qaeda has officially disavowed the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS). ISIL and other armed groups have been fighting each other for the past 2 months in northern Syria and beyond. One reason for the infighting among the rebel groups is that ISIL has been sidelining other groups from the areas under its control. In doing so, ISIL has shown other armed groups that it is not interested in sharing power but in consolidating its hold at the expense of other factions. What’s more, its hardline approach to Islamic law has alienated many under its control.  But there’s more to the story. ISIS and the Nusra Front, the other al-Qaeda-inspired group in Syria formed a merger several months ago but then the Nusra Front chief, al-Golani, repudiated the merger. Part of the reason why the union was annulled could be explained in the Saudi role in the conflict. The Saudis fund the Nusra Front but not ISIS, which some analysts view as a threat to the Saudi regime. While Nusra Front is ultra-conservative, they do not seek the overthrow of the Saudi regime and have their eyes on implementing Islamic law in the Levant region whereas ISIL not only seeks the implementation of Islamic law but also the destruction of “American regimes” such as the Saudi dictatorship.  Thus, if there was indeed a merger between the Nusra Front and ISIL, then Saudi funding could have been suspending.

While Saudi funding possibly complicated the merger between ISIL and Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s repudiation of ISIL today hints at a power struggle for the leadership of the global jihadist movement. The original Al-Qaeda organization headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri  quite possibly feels threatened by ISIL. Out of sight and away from the major jihadist frontlines, ISIL has emerged as the main al-Qaeda franchise and it expanded its reach from Iraq into Syria without Zawahiri’s approval. In other words, Zawahiri’s disavowal of ISIL not only hints at an international jihadist power struggle but quite possibly underscores a shift whereby ISIL and not Zawihiri’s al-Qaeda is the main jihadi powerbroker.

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