Golani vs. Baghdadi: Al-Qaeda’s Internal War in Syria

Syrian rebels head to the town of Bsankol in the northwestern province of Idlib to join comrades fighting regime forces for the control of the highway that connects Idlib with Latakia on 11 July 2013. (Photo: AFP - Daniel Leal-Olivas)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Saturday, August 10, 2013

Tensions between al-Qaeda’s two branches fighting in Syria – Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Nusra Front – are reaching a breaking point, despite efforts to resolve the dispute from the organization’s international leadership.

Despite their best attempts to keep the ongoing dispute between ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his Nusra counterpart, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, contained at the leadership level, al-Qaeda’s internal war in Syria is increasingly becoming public.

The disagreement between the two leaders first emerged when Baghdadi declared the formation of a single organization under his leadership that would cover both Iraq and Syria.

Nusra’s Golani, who was initially sent to Syria by the ISIS after the outbreak of the uprising, refused on technical grounds, saying that Baghdadi had not consulted al-Qaeda’s leadership before taking such a step, which he described as poorly timed and unsound.

This prompted al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri to intervene, sending a message to the two groups that was aired on al-Jazeera on June 9, ordering them to maintain their organization as they are and delay the issue of integration until a later time. Zawahiri’s message blamed both leaders, accusing each of committing mistakes that led to the discord.

In a telling development, a video was posted on the Internet showing the recent suicide bombing at Meneg Military Airport in Aleppo, with ISIS claiming responsibility. This suggests that despite Zawahiri’s intervention, Baghdadi is forging ahead with his plans to create a single jihadi organization under his control.

The mounting tensions, however, have not led to any kind of armed confrontations between the two groups, despite the fact that they fight alongside one another in a number of areas across the country. In opposition areas in the north, ISIS tends to dominate, while Nusra has a much stronger presence to the south.

Jihadi sources report that ISIS has been making gains at the expense of Nusra, particularly after a number of sheikhs and Islamist brigades pledged their loyalty to Baghdadi. This was met with similar declarations by a smaller number of jihadi organizations in favor of Golani.

These sources say that the mounting tensions led Zawahiri to intervene again, this time sending Golani a letter asking him to put an end to the infighting by dissolving his organization and merging it under Baghdadi’s command, but to no avail.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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