Several sources have reported a new merger between Syria’s Jabhaat al Nusra (Al Nusra Front) and the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). This is significant news, considering the recent falling out between Al Nusra and ISIS last year, when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the emir of ISIS, claimed overall command over both Al Qaeda affiliates, and that they were one and the same. Al Nusra refused to acknowledge any such command, and in the subsequent mediation by Ayman al Zawahiri, it was declared that the two affiliates were separate commands. Bloodshed between Al Nusra and ISIS in subsequent months led core Al Qaeda to declare the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham to no longer be affiliated with Al Qaeda.
In late June, Abu Yusuf al Masri, an Egyptian Al Nusra commander in the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal, pledged bayat, or allegiance, to ISIS. Several pictures posted on Twitter show him in the company of an unnamed, possibly Chechen ISIS commander, who appears to be Omar al Shishani. The banner beneath the picture of Abu Yusuf and Shishani reads, “The bayat between the soldiers of Jabhat al Julani (Al Nusra) in Albu Kamal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham.” Abu Yusuf has defended his allegiance on Twitter, even claiming that Ansar al Islam has united with ISIS, although Ansar al Islam has fought with ISIS, and Al Qaeda in Iraq before it, off and on for ten years. There is no corroborating reporting on any merger between Ansar al Islam and ISIS, though they do appear to be presently allied against Maliki’s majority-Shi’a government.
Much of the media reporting, such as Channel News Asia‘s report, of this incident, has been misleading, making it appear that Al Nusra and ISIS have merged. Such is not the case. One unit of Al Nusra has defected to ISIS. In fact, another notable jihadist, Abu Hassan al Kuwaiti, has inveighed bitterly against Abu Yusuf for his defection, citing the blood already shed between ISIS and Al Nusra, and continued tension between the two organizations near Deir al Zour.
While the Al Qaeda affiliates have appeared to have stronger command structures than some of the rebel groups in Syria, most of these jihadist organizations still operate on more of a loose, cell/brigade level than we tend to be used to in the West. It was part of their strength during the American involvement in Iraq; loosely affiliated groups are harder to run up the chain than those with strong command structures. Upon examination, most of the jihadist groups in Syria (and Iraq) are less strictly-defined organizations, and more confederacies of small units under commanders who often change their affiliation based on which way the wind is blowing. See the continual shakeups in Syria over the last year, with alliances forming and then being superseded, as with the Islamic Front. This incident appears to be nothing more than a local commander turning his coat. In fact, fighting between Al Nusra and ISIS continues to be just as fierce in Syria, as fighting continues near Mo Hasan, and Al Nusra recently executed a commander who defected to ISIS.
In the last two weeks, ISIS has seized every major border crossing in the west of Iraq. Albu Kamal is the Syrian side of one of those border crossings, and by reports from the Long War Journal, is believed to have had sixty-five fighters, against a concerted ISIS drive to secure the Iraq-Syria border. It is highly likely that he found himself surrounded and outnumbered, and defected to save his skin, posting about jihadi unity to preserve his honor.
Image courtesy DailyMail UK. Abu Yusuf al Masri on the right, with Abu Omar al Shishani.