Can ISIS and Al-Qaeda Unite to Save One Another in Iraq and Syria?

Tom O’Connor

The bleak future of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria may force the jihadists to return to their roots and reconcile with an old ally: Al-Qaeda.

Citing information he received by government and local officials, Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi said Monday that "discussions and dialogue" were taking place between officials representing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri amid the numerous military defeats ISIS has faced across the Middle East, according to Reuters.

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ISIS has lost nearly all of its territory in Iraq where it battles an alliance of Iraqi troops, Kurdish forces, Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militias and a U.S.-led international coalition attempting to oust the jihadists from their final stronghold of Mosul in Iraq. In neighboring Syria, it faces opposition from factions including the Russian-backed Syrian government, the U.S. and Kurd-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and other insurgent groups, some of which are linked to Al-Qaeda. Territorial losses have reduced the group's self-proclaimed caliphate to a fraction of its height around 2014, the same year that ISIS formally split from Al-Qaeda. The recent losses, however, may yield a newfound strategic alliance between the two ultraconservative Sunni Muslim militant groups.


A Syrian flag flutters next to the Islamic State group's logo at a roundabout where executions were carried out by ISIS militants in the city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria in this April 1, 2016 file photo. The Syrian army and its allies managed to twice retake the city of Palmyra from ISIS and have established control over virtually every major population center in the nation. Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

ISIS originated as Al-Qaeda's branch in Iraq and became active after the 2003 U.S. invasion and toppling of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. It waged a violent, sectarian war against U.S. troops and the local Shiite Muslim community. In 2006, the group declared itself the Islamic State of Iraq, but retained its links to Al-Qaeda. Baghdadi, who became its leader in 2010, sent one of his top peers, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, to Syria to form the Nusra Front and expand the group's franchise. When Baghdadi announced the merger between the two groups to form ISIS in 2013, Julani refused and instead stuck to Al-Qaeda, causing a major split between the jihadist factions fighting in Iraq and Syria. 

Initially, ISIS had the upper hand. The group managed to take nearly half of Iraq, including major cities, in a series of lightning advances. When Baghdadi made his only public appearance in 2014 to declare ISIS a global jihadist network, tens of thousands of foreign Muslims heeded his call. In Syria, ISIS marched through the country's east and center, expanding its rule across large stretches of territory that included lucrative oil fields.

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Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda consolidated its support among Syrian rebel groups fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2011. But these pockets of resistance began to collapse as the Russian-backed Syrian military and its allies launched their own series of offensives in 2015 and 2016, taking back major cities from opposition control. 

ISIS' acts of terror, often broadcast by the group's slick media presence to lure fresh recruits, similarly caught up with it. The execution of foreign journalists, aid workers and soldiers, as well as deadly acts of terror around the world, drew calls for action. The 2014 U.S. intervention and 2015 Russian intervention took its toll on the group in Syria and ISIS was forced to defend rather than expand its territory. In Iraq, ISIS saw much of its earlier gains reversed by the military, militias and Kurdish groups throughout 2015 and by the end of 2016 the group was forced to defend its last and largest bastion of power in Mosul. 


Protesters carry Al-Qaeda and Free Syrian Army flags during an anti-government protest after Friday prayers in the town of Marat Numan in Idlib province, Syria, March 11, 2016. The Islamic State group (ISIS), which broke off of Al-Qaeda in 2014, may turn back to its former jihadist ally in an attempt to reverse territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

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With Iraq almost entirely under coalition control, both ISIS and Al-Qaeda must consider their options in Syria, where six years of civil war have created fertile ground for jihadist support. The once so-called "moderate" opposition, largely under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and assisted by the West, has since been sidelined to various Islamist coalitions such as Ahrar al-Sham and Tahrir al-Sham, of which Nusra Front's new incarnation, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, was a member. (Nusra Front changed its name in 2016 in an attempt to distance itself from Al-Qaeda, however, the group and its affiliates have retained strong connections to Zawahiri's organization and effectively act as its branch in Syria.)

A merger or alliance between ISIS and Al-Qaeda would not likely provide the jihadists with enough tactical support to reverse their territorial losses in Iraq and Syria, but would likely result in even further delay for hopes of peace in Syria and could have deadly global consequences. ISIS has about 12,000 to 15,000 active militants, only 2,000 of which remain in their theater of Iraq. Al-Qaeda's resources in Syria could number as high as 31,000 fighters, according to London-based Arabic newspaper Al Sharq Al AwsatBeyond that, Al-Qaeda claims thousands of members across Asia and Africa, where ISIS has also established a presence.

Military pacts between ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates abroad may be harder to sell to locals compared with militants in Iraq and Syria, but would likely be more devastating. Some of the world's deadliest terror groups such as Nigeria-based Boko Haram and Somalia-based Al-Shabab already have links to ISIS and Al-Qaeda, respectively. Regional differences could complicate such a broad agreement among various groups, but any significant coordination could seriously escalate jihadist activity in many parts of the world.


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