Al-Qaeda's central leadership broke with one of its most powerful branch commanders, who in defiance of its orders spread his operations from Iraq to join the fighting in Syria and fuelled bitter infighting among Islamic militant factions in Syria's civil war.
The break, announced in a statement Monday, appeared to be an attempt by the network's leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, to establish control over the feuding militant groups in Syria and stem the increasingly bloody reprisals among them.
It also reflected a move by al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the group's leader, to reestablish al-Qaeda's eminence in the jihadi movement in general, at a time when new militant groups have mushroomed not only Syria but around the region, inspired by al-Qaeda's ideology but not linked to it by organization.
The announcement sharpens a dispute raging the past year between al-Qaeda's central leadership and the faction known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which was created last year by the head of al-Qaeda's branch in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He formed the group to expand his operations into neighbouring Syria in defiance of direct orders by al-Zawahri not to do so and to stick to operations within Iraq.
Break may spark competition
Now, the break is likely to spark a competition for resources and fighters between the two sides in what has become a civil war within a civil war as Syria's rebels fight against President Bashar al-Assad.
The past year, Islamic State — known by the initials ISIL — has taken over swaths of territory in Syria, particularly in the east. It has increasingly clashed with other factions, particularly an umbrella group called the Islamic Front and with Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, the group that al-Zawahri declared last year to be al-Qaeda's true representative in Syria.
That fighting has accelerated the past month. On Saturday, a double suicide bombing killed a senior commander in the Tahwid Brigade and an ambush elsewhere on the same day killed a commander of another faction, Suqour al-Sham. Both groups are part of the Islamic Front, and many blamed the Islamic State for the killings. Since Jan. 3, more than 1,700 people have been killed in fighting between Islamic State and other factions.
At the same time, the Islamic State's leader al-Baghdadi has brought his group back to the forefront in his homeland Iraq. The past month, his fighters rose up and virtually took over main cities of Iraq's western Anbar province, and they continue to hold out against sieges by Iraqi government troops. His group has sought to present itself as the voice of that country's Sunni minority against the Shia-led government.
That has made al-Baghdadi a powerful force in the jihadi movement. Rival Islamic factions in Syria accuse him of trying to take over their movement in that country. Even his choice of the group's name, Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, was seen as a declaration that his force was the only real Islamic movement in the country.
In Monday's statement, al-Qaeda's general command announced it has "no connection" with the Islamic State, underlined that the group "is not a branch of the al-Qaeda organization," and said al-Qaeda "is not responsible for its actions."
Al-Qaeda did not condone the group's creation "and in fact ordered it to stop," the statement said.
It also condemned the infighting among Islamic groups, saying, "We distance ourselves from the sedition taking place among the mujahedeen factions [in Syria] and of the forbidden blood shed by any faction." It warned that mujahedeen, or holy warriors, must recognize the "enormity of the catastrophe" caused by "this sedition."
The authenticity of the statement could not independently be verified but it was posted on websites commonly used by al-Qaeda.
Further fighting between factions likely
Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center said the al-Qaeda statement reflected its "attempt to definitively re-assert some level of authority over the jihad in Syria."
As tensions rose between the Islamic State and other groups, al-Qaeda's central leadership "failed to take a genuinely commanding line," until the fighting forced it to act, he said in emailed comments. However, he doubted the Islamic State would back down, saying its attacks on rival factions "have been aimed at weakening opponents' key strategic strongpoints and command and control."
That is likely to mean further fighting with other jihadi factions.
Capt. Islam Alloush, a military spokesman for the Islamic Front, said al-Qaeda's announcement came late but praised it for isolating the Islamic State. "This faction is without cover or co-sponsor. It has been totally stripped after al-Qaeda and the people abandoned it," Allouch told The Associated Press.