Islamic State of Iraq & Levant too Extreme for al-Qaeda (Not the Onion)

(By Juan Cole)

Ayman al-Zawahiri, now the leader of the international terrorist organization, al-Qaeda, has disavowed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIL (also called ISIS, substituting Syria for ‘Levant’) controls Falluja and part of Ramadi in Iraq, along with parts of Aleppo and its hinterland in Syria. It has been involved in a sanguinary battle with other Sunni extremist militias in northern Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusra (the Succor Front) for several weeks, which has left 2000 dead at a time when the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad has regrouped and launched assaults on the rebels. I found the Arabic text with an Arabic web site search but am not linking for obvious reasons.

Al-Zawahiri said, “Al-Qaeda al-Jihad announces that it has no link to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. It did not create it, did not invest it with authority, did not consult with it, and did not express approval of it. Rather, al-Qaeda ordered it to stop its actions. Therefore, it is not an al-Qaeda affiliate, no organizational relationship binds the two, and al-Qaeda is not responsible for its behavior.”

Al-Zawahiri is clearly embarrassed by the ISIL attacks on other jihadis and is afraid people will think he put them up to it. He attempted to reaffirm his “commitment to brotherhood among Muslims and jihadis.”

He lambasted Abu Bakr Baghdadi, the ISIL leader, for not consulting others or acting in concert with other fighters, and condemned resorting to public propaganda against other groups instead of resolving differences privately.

The letter underlines what I have been saying for some time, which is that it is a mistake to see the so-called al-Qaeda affiliates as the same sort of phenomenon as core al-Qaeda. It is clear that ISIL does not have a reporting line to al-Zawahiri and has repeatedly just blown him off. The same is true of the other “affiliates.” These radical Sunnis just declare an al-Qaeda affiliation to increase the fear with which they are viewed. It isn’t organizational, and al-Zawahiri has admitted as much. That isn’t to deny that some core al-Qaeda operatives have occasionally shown up in the affiliates, or that al-Zawahiri tries to communicate to them. But he can’t give them orders. Moreover, they are interested in the ‘near enemy,’ in taking on regional leaders like Bashar al-Assad in Syria or PM Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. With the exception of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen (AQAP), they don’t seem interested in hitting US targets, and that kind of thing seems to have tapered off in AQAP in any case.

ISIL is a nasty piece of business, a kind of religious/ political license for serial killing. So is al-Qaeda. But that the latter is embarrassed about the former is telling.

For more see the Long War Journal.

Reuters: “Al Qaeda says it has no link with Syrian militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”

13 Responses

  1. So, you do realize this means that the only effective force on the rebel side fighting ‘al-Qaeda’ is now ISIS. Irony, thou art a heartless bitch.

  2. But the ISIS scored a very important and decisive victory against PM al Maliki’s troops in Fallujah. I read an article recently in The Washington Post where a news reporter surveyed the reactions of former American grunts who fought during the second battle for Fallujah in November-December of 2004 and finally regaining control of the city in early 2005. One of the grunts, a former army captain, rhetorically asked if the black flag of Al Qaeda flying in Fallujah doesn’t harken back to when Saigon fell to the NVA in April of 1975. Well, I would compare the fall of Fallujah more to if the NVA had actually won the battle at Hue during the Tet Offensive of 1968. But we were both in the same ballpark. Of course, all that Professor Cole wrote in his post about the brutal nature of the ISIS and the hypocrisy of Al Qaeda is, as he usually is with his astute analysis, right on the money. But that’s just the nature of the beast called war and the players acting out in this grand and tragic narrative. But I agree with that former infantry captain in the news article, we seem to be approaching a watershed moment in Iraq. PM al Maliki has definitely better get his act together. Now he’s throwing money once again to the Sunni tribal leaders to fight against the ISIS jihadist in Anbar province, and he got Kerry to send him Hellfire missiles and a small fleet of unarmed drone missiles. Now if he could only get his troops to march toward the enemy rather than beat a hasty retreat out of the city limits of Fallujah, he just might have a chance to stay the PM. Boots on the ground win or lost wars. And the ISIS jihadists are definitely hardcore to the nth degree even if they are also brutal killers and take no prisoners. They remind me of the NVA soldiers in Vietnam if you substitute their religious fanaticism for the NVA’s doctrine communist ideology in their war of liberation against Western imperialism. And they could care less what the old hardine leaders of al Qaeda think, who are probably jealous of their success more than anything else. We live in interesting times.

  3. Just right, right down to the exception you make for AQAP.

    What about al Qaeda in the Maghreb? Do you consider them to be more like AQAP, or more like ISIS?

    • Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb does attack Western facilities, but typically not in the West but in Algeria etc.

  4. Al Qaeda is probably not “embarrassed”, they are probably jealous… ISIL is close to actually taking power or at least having a political base.

  5. There is speculation that ISIS may be covertly funded and armed by the Syrian government to foment destabilization among the Syrian rebel movement. It would be interesting to see where their actual financial support and arms are derived from. Their fighters have been reportedly predominantly foreigners, largely Iraqi.

    ISIS has reportedly summarily executed several dozen captured al-Nusra Front and Islamic Front fighters in recent weeks.

    The only positive report made about them is they have suppressed, to some degree, criminal gang activity in area they control in Syria.

    • Interesting post, Mark, so thanks. But in war the big fish always eat the little fish. That’s just the nature of war.
      And, ironically, we can also thank all the neocon and liberal war hawks, who voted for Bush’s resolution to go to in Iraq. As you pointed out many of these hardcore jihadists got their on-the-job training fighting in Iraq. On-the-job training always beats book-learning.
      So they’re skilled and savvy practitioners of the tactics one employs in urban guerrilla warfare,. That had to be one of the decisive factors in them defeating PM al Maliki’s government troops in Fallujah. Maliki’soldiers seem to be only hanging around for a steady paycheck.

      • Not so clear, any more, first, what “war” is, and second, that “the big fish always eat the little fish.” For some context, in the morass of hyperstrategoptionalizationism where people like Petraeus and McChrystal and Lind and their predecessors who defined the opening idiotic doctrines of WW I and subsequent idiocies:

        “Is 4GW dead?” link to

        “Is 4th generation warfare dead?” link to

        “Fifth Generation Warfare: Conspiracy and Shadow Government” link to

        “Update about one of the seldom-discussed trends shaping our world: 4GW” link to

        Sun Tzu postulated that when a state goes to war, the people need to feel that what is being done is righteous, and that the war leaders are smart enough not to pick a fight they can’t win in a place so far away that the costs, of all sorts, of warring will bankrupt the state. Just because “we” CAN “go to war with the Army you’ve got,” that obviously does not mean
        “we” should — depending, of course, ,on what the real underlying and over-lie-ing interests and goals of the rulers and war leaders really are. F-35, anyone? Private jets for generals, another carrier battle group for another admiral to “lead?”

        • To be diplomatic, you are entitled to your own opinion in this topic. But I served as a medical corpsman in Vietnam. So I saw this war movie before, and I didn’t like the plot the first time around. All I learned in Vietnam was never trust the brass and even more so the suits thar sent us there. As far as the morality of going to war, I get the impression that you’ve been a civilian all your life. Only a civilian would search the literature on war to find some moral principle to kill a fellow human being. That’s the first illusion I discarded when i saw severely wounded grunts.
          There is no morality in war. It’s just a beast with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. And it never gets tired. And it’s always on the prowl growling for some fresh game.
          I have nothing against the generals you mentioned in your post, other that the fact that they’re just brass.
          And I’ve already told you how I felt about the brass. They’re like CEOs in a corporation, and they’re only punching their ticket for the next promotion in their career. Only the geography changes: Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. And they had an adage in Vietnam: “F**k up and move up.” It’s not exactly something you would find reading Von Clausewitz’s “On War.” But even he was a failure in war just as Thucydides was. But both were great writers. Unfortunately, book-learning just doesn’t hack it when it comes to winning wars. It’s the romantic psychopaths like Patton who do win battles. But that unique generation of military commanders, they’re are all gone and faded into the mist of history.
          I’m just blessed that all my appendages are attached to my torso, if you get my drift, and I live in the Midwest not the Mideast. Take care. And pray for peace in between reading those books on warfare. OK?

        • If I can reply, George, and if you were writing to me, may I say that I served with the 1st Cav in helicopters from August 1967 to August 1968, based at a place called Phan Thiet in the South, to An Khe and Chu Lai and Phu Bai (just down the road from My Lai) in the northern part of then South Vietnam. That includes that “Tet” thing and some personal experience with that insatiable Beast, and more than enough exposure to the hated Brass and their BS. I’ve got all my appendages, but the residues of that time have “earned” me a VA disability.

          My “book on warfare” any more is “Catch-22.” From other reading, I try to understand what’s really going on and illuminate the idiocy of the whole Pentagram thing. Interesting that you would so misunderstand what I wrote. Sorry too — what it shows is how effing hard it is for any of us ordinary fodder to either understand one another well enough to do anything but savage or deprecate one another or, in the case of our “apologists” here, flacking for the crap that keeps on dragging us mopes back into the savagery, using their understanding of human motivations and beliefs to manipulate others into supporting what’s profitable for the scammers’ little personal scams or ambitions or to excuse past bad behaviors as “required under the circumstances.”

          The “boots” war is always the same grunting horror, as you say. Honest veterans will own up that for them, despite the kind of floating patriotic idiocy that induced them to join up, and me to enlist in 1966, it was mostly about taking care of your buddies and trying to stay alive. Band of Brothers. But the whole larger “war” thing, at the trillions-of-dollars scale, is just an operation of Milo Minderbinder Enterprises, by guys who will bomb their own troops for cost plus 15 percent. Completely divorced from the grunting violence.

          Far as I can tell, you and I are mostly on the same side. What I was pointing to is that Big Clumsy Massive War Machines, run by Battlespace Managers, are getting their a__es kicked by relatively poorly armed people who know and love and live in their terrain, in “4th Generation Warfare,” the kind practiced by the Viet Cong and NVA. Or are mercenaries of the worst sorts, for “religious affiliation” or just for Erick Prince-Dickless-Cheney-style money. And now we are into the age of “5th Generation Warfare,” leading eventually to a war of all against all, and that Gahan Wilson insight that first appeared in “Playboy” while I was still in Vietnam: “I think I won!” link to Is that Syria in the background?

          There ain’t no winners in war any more, except for the Brass and some politicians and the suppliers and financiers. Peace ‘n love, brother.

        • Paraphrased:

          “My “book on warfare”… is “Catch-22.” From other reading, I try to understand what’s really going on and illuminate the idiocy of the whole Pentagram thing.”

          “Just because we CAN go to war…does not mean
          we should.”

          Hello, McPhee.

          I served in a cushy USMC posting on an aircraft carrier in the peacetime late 50’s. So there is one unbridgeable difference between our experiences, combat. But as we lawyers come to know almost everything anyway it probably doesn’t matter. And the solution is institutional anyway.

          One of the things I have come to know is that diminishing returns accrue when one focuses on a single aspect of any complex problem.

          Another is that the Inter-Galactic Office For American Imperial Assessments and Military Interventionist Planning has no phone number or street address. Its product is deep state stuff with lots of rubber stampings unavailable to mere earthlings until decades after the damage is done. We don’t know what interests are consulted or the personalities involved. Mere fodder will be called upon to fly and hump the “missions,” but it will know little to nothing about how and why the whole thing came about. That would “endanger national security” to say nothing of the peddlers of undue influence.

          We don’t understand the input, the factual presumptions, the judgments, the full motivations, the most relevant history; and they are never written about or discussed in public by the ACTORS in timely fashion. The identity of most of those actors is not even made public. Worst, the inside evaluation of actual American interests in the various regions to be assaulted, the cost-benefit stuff, is not disclosed in the open either. We have little opportunity to evaluate them ourselves in real time and no resources for accomplishing it either. We natter on the Net through succeeding decades, still pissed-off, some even as profoundly pissed-off as you, while the trove of evidence lies secured in locked files and the witnesses die off or suffer dementia, it eventually no longer seeming to matter.

          Plans for “projected-power” interventions are not questioned by America’s best and brightest as would befit their importance, much less by the Americans impacted in myriad ways by the wars.

          Something’s wrong when the most important and dangerously freighted processes are matters to which we have no access. The men who pass down “the word” are as if Gods, but Gods which nevertheless have the moral fiber and basic humanity of George Bush and Dick Cheney and the reliability of those Wolfowitz and Feith operatives for a hostile foreign country whose first names I seem to have repressed.

          So why not craft an exception to the rules around national security to include the principle that “just trust us, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to whom we testify in confidence, and the 13%-approval-rated-Congress too” doesn’t cut it on matters of war and peace, and that public disclosure of everything in advance is nowhere near so dangerous as is being misled or lied into catastrophic wars which we can then not even reconsider and put to an early end?

          The system reeks, it’s stacked, my friend. But no matter how nearly impossible it will be to change it, the result would be an impediment to what now are essentially flim-flammed wars of choice of immense stupidity such as we have experienced in the Middle East.

  6. Yeah, thanks for the reply. I served as a medical corpsman at the 12th USAF Hospital at Cam Ranh Bay and worked as an orderly on the orthopedic ward. My tour of duty was from 31 May 1967 to 31 May 1967. It could get pretty bad on the ward, because it specialized in grunt who had fractures from mostly the flying shrapnel. That’s why I refer to war as a beast. It describes it graphically enough without being too blunt. We also got guys, who unfortunately would have to have an amputations, or even worse became paraplegics. But it was mostly your usual minor gunshot or shrapnel wounds.
    But what was unusual was the fact that we got a lot of grunts from up north in Eye Corps, mostly Marine grunts. There were flights, I think,, from Danang down to us. So we got casualties from the Siege at Con Thien, the battle at DakTo, and in Tet from Phu Bai, Dong Ha, Camp Carroll, and of course, the Siege at Hue. And I also was a litter bearer when the dustoff helicopters would fly in casualties from battles near the base, who were usuallSouth Korean ROK Marines, White House Division, that guarded out base.
    So even though I was in the rear with the gear I saw the human face of war on the wounded grunts and also the wounded Vietnamese civilians. We even got a couple of wounded VC guerrillas, which really pissed off the grunts. But who could blame them? I’m sure you know what I mean.
    We did got rocketed and mortared a couple of times in Tet, but like I say Cam Ranh Bay was almost liken State side duty. By that time I was so deeply disillusioned I viewed all the casualties on the ward as just victims, even those poor scared VC guerrillas. It really took the wind out of my sails, and to this day I don’t trust the brass or the suits in Washington D.C.
    Like you did, I volunteered and specifically got the MOS I wanted and went to medical corpsman school after basic training. I almost volunteered to enlist in the Navy. I dodged a bullet by going into the Air Force instead. Then when I got to Vietnam, I was really shocked at all the wounded Navy corpsmen that came through the hospital. I didn’t know Navy corpsman went with the Marines out on patrol in the boonies. So like I said I was about as clueless as the proverbial village idiot.
    For better or worse, Vietnam remains the defining experience of my life. It’s the prism through which I view the world around me. So I was experiencing déjà vu when the country went off to two wars after the 9/11 attacks. I think you get my drift. I’m even shaking my head from side to side (lol) as I write these sentences.
    It’s so sad what has happened to this country. It’s really worthy of a Greek tragedy where the sins of the father are visited onto the sons. It breaks my heart just thinking about all those young and women who have done multiple tours of duty, three, four times, in Afghanistan and in Iraq., I mean that guy who President Obama honored at his State of the Union got wounded by an IED on his 10th tour of duty! Unbelievable.
    I only have a mild case of PTSD. But I did finally get a modest disability from the VA in September, 2010, because my type of heart disease was linked to my exposure to Agent Orange. I’ve had two minor heart attacks, but I really feel blessed when I go to the local VA clinic and see how badly other guys have who were also exposed To Agent Orange. Or they were wounded in Vietnam by shrapnel or a round. So I’m basically a happy camper though I’m also a confirmed cynic when it comes to the brass and the suits.
    I agree with you about there aren’t any winners in war expect the brass and the professional politicians and the military contractors who are making a ton of money off this so-called long war on terror.
    Take care of yourself. It meant a great deal to me that you decided to write me. You’ve really made my day. Honestly, I really mean that. Later, Brother.

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