Al Qaeda confronts PR problem in Syria

When the extremists cast out one of their own, there must be pause for thought.

After Al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri disavowed the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) last week, the group’s leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi must be wondering what he did wrong. After all, when the world’s worst terrorist group thinks he and his group are too violent, even jihadis must pause for thought.

Isil is only one of a myriad militant groups operating in Syria, but it is one of the most violent. The group has clashed not merely with the regime of Bashar Al Assad, but also with other rebel groups, even with groups affiliated to Al Qaeda. But it is its conduct in the areas it controls in north-eastern Syria, where it has imposed draconian interpretations of Sharia law on the population, that led it to be excommunicated from the Al Qaeda fold earlier this week, with Al Zawahiri declaring that there was no connection between his organisation and Isil.

Al Zawahiri has been here before. In the middle of the last decade, Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq was headed by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, a thuggish Jordanian militant who was responsible for some of the most spectacular, and nakedly sectarian, killings. In a 2005 intercepted letter purportedly from Al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s then number two warned the militant that his strategy was alienating Iraqis. “I say to you,” Al Zawahiri allegedly wrote, “that we are in a battle and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. The Muslim populace ... will never find palatable the scenes of slaughtering the hostages.”

Al Zarqawi didn’t listen and was warned again the following year. Six months later, he was dead, after a US missile found his safe house north of Baghdad. There were suspicions that Al Qaeda had given him up.

What Al Zawahiri wrote about Iraq in 2005 remains true in Syria in 2014. From the outside, it seems astonishing that Al Qaeda’s leadership might worry at being associated with a slightly more violent militant group. But Al Qaeda, despite being hunted, retains a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of facts on the Syrian ground.

The conflict in Syria has fragmented, so that different militant groups control areas at different times. What Isil did was alienate civilians by imposing unwelcome Sharia law. That meant that ordinary people, who simply want some rule of law as opposed to the Assad regime, would fight to prevent Isil’s gains. What Al Qaeda has realised is that it is possible to fight the Assad regime or the Syrian people – but not both at the same time. The move by Al Qaeda to distance itself from the actions of Isil presents a new challenge in the fight against extremism, one that involves countering the strategy of hearts and minds followed by these groups.