With ISIS back in headlines in recent weeks, Sunni jihadis throughout the Middle East are vigorously debating the organization’s worth.
After ISIS revealed that it had immolated Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh, Jordan’s government released al-Qaida cleric Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi from prison, knowing he would be outspokenly critical of ISIS. Maqdisi called the group’s actions “not acceptable in any religion.”
Top al-Qaida leaders have vehemently denounced ISIS since the two organizations formally separated in February 2014. Al-Qaida tends to see the newer group, which originated as an al-Qaida franchise in Iraq following the U.S. invasion, as too set on sowing chaos in the Arab world rather than fighting the West.
Outside the region, the relationship between the two is blurrier. While al-Qaida claimed direct responsibility for January’s terrorist attacks in Paris, one of the attackers pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (RELATED: Jihadi Statements On Paris Attacks Highlight Rivalry)
The public struggles between al-Qaida and ISIS may even extend to ISIS’ own ranks. A recent report in The Daily Beast describes paranoid infighting among ISIS officials in Syria, where “disobedience is automatically seen as rebellion deserving of summary execution.” Syrian and North African recruits have reportedly complained against ISIS leadership, saying they are treated as mere “cannon fodder” compared to Gulf Arabs and Europeans. (RELATED: Indian ISIS Recruit: They Made Me Clean Jihadi Toilets)
Despite these internal tensions, the ISIS “brand” has continued to spread to other parts of the Islamic world. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, bandits who launch occasional attacks in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, announced in November that it had pledged allegiance to ISIS, taking on the new name “Sinai Province.” Another militia, calling itself “Barqa Province,” claims to represent ISIS in a chunk of Libyan territory. Those have been followed by groups in Algeria, Pakistan, the Gaza Strip and the Philippines.
Some aspirants to ISIS legitimacy have been endorsed by the group’s central leadership, though others have not. The extent to which even the “official” franchises coordinate with authorities in Syria and Iraq is hard to determine.
Radicals far from ISIS-led chaos can easily declare their staunch support for an ascendant extremist organization, but alliances fluctuate quickly on the battlefield. At different times in Syria’s civil war, ISIS has found itself aligned with the secular Free Syrian Army as well as the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, all of which now seek to impede its progress.
With new setbacks at the hands of Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, as well as renewed U.S.-led airstrikes, ISIS is increasingly finding more enemies than friends. If the new signs of division and discontent endure, the group will have to adapt to being lonely and embattled, as even other terrorists disparage its tactics.
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