I originally intended to get this post up before the Insubordination post. Here is the background and context of the dispute between ISI and the Al Nusra Front.
On June 9th, Al Jazeera published a letter, purportedly from Ayman al Zawahiri, addressed to the Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq, and Abou Muhammad al Julani, the emir of Jabhaat al Nusra. According to the Long War Journal, US intelligence considers the letter to be genuine.
On April 8th, al Baghdadi (also known as Abu Dua) announced the formation of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant by audio message, claiming that ISI and al Nusra were now under his one, over-arching organization. He claimed that al Julani had been trained and deputized by the Islamic State of Iraq (the new brand name for al-Qaeda in Iraq) and that therefore it was appropriate that the connection between the groups be acknowledged, and they both fall under the same command.
Only a few days later, al Julani issued his own message, rejecting the new name. He swore allegiance directly to Ayman al Zawahiri, effectively establishing that he holds an independent command, and does not answer to al Baghdadi. According to Al Jazeera, the dispute has led to defections and a breakdown in operational capability as infighting started between the two branches.
Al Zawahiri finally weighed in on May 23rd. He admonished both al Baghdadi for announcing ISIL without notifying al-Qaeda first, and al Julani for announcing al Nusra’s ties with al-Qaeda, again without first notifying al Zawahiri. He reiterated that ISI is responsible solely for Iraq, and that al Nusra needs to focus its attention on Syria. He urged both organizations to cooperate, supporting each other with weapons and supplies.
Al Zawahiri also said that he was sending Abu Khalid al Suri, “the best of men we had known among the Mujahedin,” to oversee the resolution of the dispute, empowering him to set up, “a Shariah justice court for giving a ruling on the case.” Abu Khalid al Suri is a known kunya for Muhammad Bahayah, a long-time Al Qaeda operative who was known to be present in pre-9/11 training camps in Afghanistan. Whether this is the same man is as yet unknown for certain (Al Jazeera claims he is a local Syrian commander), but it seems likely.
One of the chief takeaways from this incident is the fact that there is, however loosely, still very much a chain of command in place for al-Qaeda internationally. Al Zawahiri, as the emir of al-Qaeda, maintains and overall command, albeit largely in an advice and support capacity, while affiliates in various countries maintain independent command, with what appears to be regular communication for support and advice back to the core al-Qaeda. While still decentralized from an operational perspective, this incident appears to shed some light on how cohesive the entire overarching organization still is.
Anyone saying that al-Qaeda is dead and gone is sadly mistaken.