Counter-Terrorism: Why Syrian Rebels Have Their Own Internal Civil War

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June 17, 2013: The head of al Qaeda (bin Laden successor Ayman al Zawahiri) has declared the recent merger of the new (since January) Syrian Jabhat al Nusra (JN) with the decade old Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) as unacceptable and ordered the two groups to remain separate. The reason for this was that the merger was announced by ISI without the prior agreement of the JN leadership. The merger formed a third group, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). That was the problem, as many JN members then left their JN faction to join nearby ones being formed by ISIL. JN leaders saw this as a power grab by ISI leaders and most of the JN men who left to join ISIL were non-Syrians. Many of these men had worked with ISI before and thought they were joining a more powerful group. But ISIL was apparently just an attempt by ISI (which is having a real hard time in Iraq) to grab some glory, recruits, cash, and power by poaching JN members. JN appealed to Zawahiri for help and got it. That’s not the first time al Qaeda has had to slap down misbehaving Iraqi Islamic terror groups and it won’t be the last. But it’s not a problem unique to Iraq.

One of the major weaknesses of Islamic terror groups is that they often get into vicious and destructive feuds with each other. It should not be surprising, as Islamic terrorists are motivated by religion and in particular a personal call from God to serve. Since no two people are going to interpret the details of this divine summons the same way, there will be many different interpretations. These are often formed by ethnic differences. This could be seen recently in Mali, where three different Islamic radical groups (Ansar Dine, MUJAO, and AQIM) took control of the northern portion of the country last year and were run out earlier this year by a French-led force. Along the way the three groups were often battling each other.

Ansar Dine (which controlled Timbuktu) is from Mali and led by Tuareg Islamic radicals.  MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) controlled Gao and is from neighboring Mauritania. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has members from all over North Africa, but mostly from Algeria. MUJAO is basically a Mauritanian faction of AQIM and there is some tension between the two groups. AQIM has the most money and weapons and used this to exercise some control over the other two radical groups (who outnumbered AQIM in Mali). Both these groups are sometimes at odds with Ansar Dine, which felt it should be in charge because it is Malian. Until late 2012, all three groups cooperated in order to maintain their control of the north. Then Ansar Dine began negotiating with the Mali government for a separate peace and some kind of compromise over Tuareg autonomy in the north. In part this was because MUJAO and AQIM were bringing in reinforcements from Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, Nigeria, and Sudan and threatened to reduce the area Ansar Dine controlled. Ansar Dine saw itself as the only Malian group in the Islamic radical government up north and was determined to defend Tuareg interests against the many foreigners in MUJAO (which also has Malian members) and especially AQIM (which wanted to run everything). Ansar Dine saw AQIM as a bunch of gangsters, dependent on its relationship with drug gangs (al Qaeda moves the drugs north to the Mediterranean coast) and kidnappers (who hold Europeans for multi-million dollar ransoms). All this cash gave AQIM a lot of power, both to buy weapons and hire locals. With the high unemployment in the north and the impressive image of Islamic warriors, working for AQIM was an attractive prospect for many young men. Most of those new recruits deserted as their employers fled the advancing French. The Tuareg members of MUJAO and Ansar Dine could find locals in the north to shelter them while the foreigners (mainly from AQIM) had to flee because they were too easily spotted by Mali civilians and pointed out to the French, Malian, and other African troops who now occupy the north. In the last six months all three groups have suffered heavy losses in Mali, either from deaths or desertions. Many non-Mali Islamic terrorists fled and sought new groups to join. Some of those have been showing up in Syria, where they tend to prefer the more internationalist ISIL rather than the Syria-centric JN.

These differences often lead to violence, or simply a lack of cooperation, between rival Islamic terror groups. This has been happening in Syria as it already happened in Mali, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. It’s the nature of the beast. Unfortunately, it’s not helping the rebel cause overall in Syria. The Islamic terror groups tend to have the most daring members, the best weapons and the most cash. But the Islamic terror groups are also often difficult to work with, especially for non-religious rebel factions. But most Islamic rebel groups are ready to pick a fight with anyone, because everyone else lacks a unique relationship with The Almighty.

 

 


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