Al Qaeda in Iraq defiant on Syria role

Message points to rift in global terror network

 The leader of Al Qaeda’s Iraqi wing refused an order from the terror network’s command to scrap a merger with its Syria unit, according to a purported message from the leader.
Bilal Fawzi/Associated Press
The leader of Al Qaeda’s Iraqi wing refused an order from the terror network’s command to scrap a merger with its Syria unit, according to a purported message from the leader.

BAGHDAD — The leader of Al Qaeda’s Iraq arm defiantly rejected an order from the terror network’s central command to stop claiming control over the organization’s Syria affiliate, according to a message purportedly from him that was posted online Saturday.

The latest statement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who heads the Islamic State of Iraq, reveals a growing rift within Al Qaeda’s global network. It also highlights the Iraqi wing’s determination to link its own fight against the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad with the cause of rebels trying to topple the Iran-backed Syrian regime.

His statement surfaced as rockets rained down on a Baghdad camp housing Iranian exiles, killing three people in the latest sign of growing unrest inside Iraq.


In an audio message posted online, the speaker identified as Baghdadi insists that a merger he announced in April with Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra rebel group to create a cross-border movement known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will go on.

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Al-Nusra is an Al Qaeda affiliate that has emerged as one of the most effective rebel factions in Syria. Its head, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, has rejected the takeover attempt by Baghdadi.

‘‘The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will continue,’’ Baghdadi said. ‘‘We will not compromise and we will not give up.’’

Al Qaeda’s global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has tried to end the squabbling and bring the group’s local affiliates back in line.

In a letter posted online by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV last Sunday, Zawahiri declared that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will be abolished and that the Iraqi and Syrian groups would remain independent with Baghdadi and Golani as leaders of their respective branches.


Baghdadi is now defying that command. In his statement, he referred to ‘‘the letter attributed to Sheik al-Zawahiri,’’ suggesting he was calling into question the authenticity of the letter.

‘‘I chose the command of God over the command that runs against it in the letter,’’ Baghdadi said.

He urged his followers to rise up against Shi’ites, Alawites, and the ‘‘Party of Satan’’ — a reference to the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which has been sending fighters to Syria to fight alongside President Bashar Assad’s regime. Assad comes from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

It was not possible to independently confirm whether the speaker was Baghdadi, but the man’s voice was similar to that of earlier recordings.

Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, said there are indications that Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant are operating as distinct groups inside of Syria.


He described Baghdadi’s defiance as ‘‘a potentially very damaging split within Al Qaeda’s senior leadership.’’

‘‘Baghdadi’s statement underlines an extent of division between himself and Zawahiri but also with another Al Qaeda affiliate,’’ Lister said. ‘‘Fundamentally,Baghdadi appears to be acting according to his own interests, instead of those of his ultimate ‘employer,’ Al Qaeda.’’

Violence has spiked sharply in Iraq in recent months, with the death toll rising to levels not seen since 2008.

Al Qaeda in Iraq is thought responsible for many of the car bombings and other violent attacks targeting the country’s majority Shi’ites and symbols of the Shi’ite-led government’s authority.

Iraq risks growing more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war raging across its western border. Iraqi border posts along the Syrian frontier have come under attack by rebels, and Syrian truck drivers and soldiers have been killed inside Iraq.

Iraqi fighters are moving across the border, with Sunni extremists cooperating with the rebels and Sh’iite militants fighting alongside government forces.

Also Saturday, an Iranian exile group living in a camp near Baghdad airport reported multiple casualties when the compound, known as Camp Liberty, came under attack from rockets.

The group, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, is the militant wing of a Paris-based Iranian opposition group that opposes Iran’s clerical regime and has carried out assassinations and bombings in Iran.

Mujahedeen-e-Khalq fought alongside Saddam Hussein’s forces in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and several thousand of its members were given sanctuary in Iraq.