HomeOpinionNusra Front versus al-Qaeda in terror turf war

Nusra Front versus al-Qaeda in terror turf war

You can’t tell the players without a programme, and it’s no wonder that people feel confused by the plethora of names the terrorist groups use.
To make matters worse, they keep splitting, and sometimes they change their names just for the hell of it.
So here’s a cut-out guide you can stick on your wall. Everybody likes to pontificate about terrorism, but you can be the best-informed terrorism expert on your block.
In the beginning there was al-Qaeda, starting in about 1989. There were lots of other terrorist start-ups in the Arab world around the same time, but eventually almost all of them either died out or joined one of the big franchises.
Al-Qaeda is the one to watch, since the success of its 2001 attacks on the United States on 9/11 put it head and shoulders above all its rivals.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and foreign jihadis flocked into the Sunni Arab parts of the country to help the resistance, they sought to affiliate themselves with al-Qaeda to boost their appeal.
In 2004 Osama bin Laden agreed to allow them to use the name al-Qaeda in Iraq, although there was little co-ordination between the two organisations.
In 2006 al-Qaeda in Iraq formally changed its name to Islamic State in Iraq (Isi), but it didn’t really begin to prosper until a new leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, took over in 2010. Soon afterwards the Syrian civil war broke out, and Baghdad sent a Syrian member of Isi, Abu Muhammad al Golani, into Syria to organise a branch there. It was called the Nusra Front.
The Nusra Front grew very fast — so fast that by 2013 Baghdadi decided to reunite the two branches of the organisation under the new name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). But this meant Golani was being demoted to the manager of the Syrian branch, so he declared his independence and asked to join al-Qaeda, which leaves its affiliates largely free to make their own decisions.
Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri (by now bin Laden was dead), backed Al Nusra because he felt that creating an Islamic state, as Baghdadi intended, was premature.
Baghdadi thereupon broke relations with al-Qaeda, and in early 2014 the Nusra Front and Isis went to war. Thousands of Islamist fighters were killed, and after four months it was clear that Isis could hold eastern Syria but could not conquer the Nusra Front in the west of the country.
The two rival organisations agreed to a ceasefire — and two months later, in June 2014, Isis used its battle-hardened forces to invade Iraq. The Iraqi army collapsed, and by July Isis controlled the western third of Iraq.
Counting its Syrian territories as well, Isis now ruled over 10-12 million people, so Baghdadi dropped the “Iraq and Syria” part of the name and declared that henceforward it would just be known as Islamic State.
Soon after he declared himself caliph, and therefore commander of all the world’s Muslims. Some jihadis in other countries, most notably Boko Haram in Nigeria, declared their allegiance to “Caliph Ibrahim” and Islamic State, while others — the Nusra Front, Al Shabaab in Somalia, and the various al-Qaeda branches in Yemen, Egypt, the Maghreb and elsewhere — stayed loyal to the older organisation.
So there you have it: two rival franchises competing for the loyalty of all the other jihadi organisations. There’s not really much difference between them ideologically or practically, but the franchise wars will continue. I hope that helps.
Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.

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