February 5, 2014 | Policy Brief

Understanding Al-Qaeda’s ISIS Expulsion

February 5, 2014 | Policy Brief

Understanding Al-Qaeda’s ISIS Expulsion

Al Qaeda announced on Sunday that it was no longer affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The statement shunning this former Iraqi affiliate sent a powerful shockwave through the jihadist world.

This is a test for both al Qaeda and ISIS. On the one hand, if ISIS thrives despite being disowned by al Qaeda, that could cause further fragmentation within al Qaeda’s network, as the cost of defying leadership or even being expelled may appear low. On the other hand, if ISIS loses significant power as a result, the group may serve as a powerful cautionary tale for other “rogue” affiliates.

Other developments worth watching include whether ISIS members jump ship (as some clerics have called for); whether ISIS loses some of its traditional funding streams; and whether ISIS itself experiences fragmentation, particularly if factions loyal to al Qaeda and not ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi assert themselves.

Another space to watch is that of jihadist influencers. One interesting case is prolific online jihadist Abu Sa’d al-Amili, who appears to have significant sway within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and has reportedly maintained support for ISIS. On Twitter, Amili proclaimed that he “was not pleased” with ISIS’s expulsion. However, he immediately portrayed the expulsion as a net positive, saying that it was “in the interest of the State [ISIS].”

Expanding on this point, Amili wrote, “it could be more useful to the jihad path for the State [ISIS] to operate independently, and for the Front [Jabhat al-Nusra] and other honest groups to continue their path independently.”

Thus, in Amili’s view, ISIS’s expulsion “may be a temporary solution to avoid any disasters or great damage to the jihad project.” This is, of course, a reference to ongoing jihadist infighting in Syria. Amili adds his desire that “all rifles be aimed at the enemy and towards those who stand by the enemy’s side.”

Thus, despite the recent split, Amili hews to an inclusive path: one that embraces al Qaeda’s leadership, and touts the wisdom of ISIS’s expulsion, while continuing to support ISIS’s efforts.

Amili’s vision of a divorce that is good for al-Qaeda, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the global jihad is almost certainly fanciful thinking. Following ISIS’s expulsion, fissures will almost certainly grow. Whether they are worse for ISIS or for al Qaeda is a critical question.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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