Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's announcement that his group had merged with the Syrian group Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) marks a remarkable development in the modus operandi of armed groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Middle East.
The announcement not only confirmed what analysts have been saying for months about the link between ISI and JAN, but was remarkable in the sense that JAN leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani hastened to refute the announcement of JAN's merger with ISI, al-Qaeda's branch in Iraq, and instead "renewed the bayaa" (oath of allegiance) to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
What could the two contradictory announcements by the leaders of al-Qaeda branches in Iraq and Syria signify?
To answer this question, it may be helpful to present a brief summary of the history of the relationship between these two branches of al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was officially established in late 2004, when Jordanian Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, then emir of al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, announced the merger of his group with al-Qaeda and swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden. The latter responded by appointing al-Zarqawi leader of the al-Qaeda branch in "Mesopotamia" (Iraq).
Prior to joining al-Qaeda, al-Zarqawi had succeeded in establishing cells for his group, al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, in countries adjoining Iraq, including Lebanon and Syria. Those cells joined al-Qaeda in early 2005 when al-Zarqawi became bin Laden's representative in Iraq, according to a series of reports published by al-Hayat in 2010.
The al-Hayat reports, which cited Arab jihadists as sources, said that after these cells transferred to al-Qaeda they became unofficial branches of al-Qaeda in the Levant but remained directly affiliated with AQI, led by al-Zarqawi, rather than al-Qaeda's central command in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas.
No formal announcement was ever made about the establishment of an al-Qaeda branch in the Levant, perhaps because of the blows dealt by Syrian and Lebanese security forces in 2007 and 2008 to those cells, which were inherited from al-Zarqawi and had grown when he became leader of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
Those cells seemingly remained strictly associated with the leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq, however, even after al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006 and succeeded by Abu Ayyub al-Masri. At the end of the same year, ISI was established under the leadership of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.
With this historical background in mind, perhaps a better understanding can now be gained of the on-going argument between al-Qaeda's branches in Iraq and Syria.
In an audio recording posted on jihadist websites a few days ago, al-Joulani, JAN's "general commander", said he was involved in what he referred to as "jihad" in Iraq before returning to Syria to launch JAN after the onset of the revolt against the regime in 2011.
Al-Joulani praised al-Baghdadi, saying "he gave the people of the Levant their due and repaid the debt twofold", recalling that "hundreds" of fighters from the Levant and elsewhere died in Iraq fighting alongside al-Qaeda and ISI.
Al-Joulani said al-Baghdadi "approved a plan we proposed to him to come to the aid of our vulnerable people in the Levant. We then split the treasury of the [Islamic] State despite the financial hardship they were experiencing, and he put his full trust in this poor subject and authorised him to develop the policy and plan, and assigned him a few brothers".
That was the first public confirmation of its kind by al-Joulani that JAN is directly linked to AQI.
But what is more striking is that al-Joulani refuted al-Baghdadi's announcement that JAN and ISI had merged.
Instead, he said his organisation "was not consulted" before al-Baghdadi announced that JAN is an extension of ISI and that the names of both organisations would be dropped and replaced with one name: "The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant".
"Delaying the announcement is not due to feebleness of religion or weakness on the part of JAN members, but stems from wisdom based on legitimate principles," al-Joulani added.
JAN may have declined to confirm the link because it is aware of al-Qaeda's bloody track record in Iraq, which could harm JAN's cause among Syrians.
At the same time, however, al-Joulani renewed his allegiance to al-Zawahiri, saying "This is a bayaa from the sons of Jabhat al-Nusra and their general commander that we renew to the Sheikh of Jihad, Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri". JAN will continue to operate under its current name, he added, even though it takes "pride" in the name 'Islamic state' proposed by al-Baghdadi.
With that, al-Joulani clearly pledged JAN's allegiance to al-Qaeda, limiting it specifically to al-Zawahiri and not the leader of al-Qaeda's branch in Iraq, thus for the first time shifting the allegiance of al-Qaeda's cells in the Levant to the organisation's leadership in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas.
If al-Joulani had in the past declined to confirm JAN's emergence from AQI primarily to avoid having Syrian citizens view his organisation with the same suspicion with which they view AQI, JAN's actions since 2011 have revealed what its leader has not; that the suicide bombings it has carried out, which have killed as many civilians as regime military personnel, confirm beyond any doubt there is no fundamental difference between JAN and AQI.
Al-Joulani's refusal to merge his branch with al-Baghdadi's and his pledge of allegiance to al-Zawahiri is peculiar, as there is no real difference between the actions of al-Qaeda and those of its affiliates, which supposedly represent it and follow its orders and instructions.
Therefore, al-Joulani's pledge of allegiance to al-Zawahiri and not al-Baghdadi leads to speculation that he believes JAN today is too big to merge with the branch that spawned it, and is in fact on equal footing in its relationship with the parent organization led by al-Zawahiri.
It is not yet clear whether al-Baghdadi will resent al-Joulani's stance, or where al-Zawahiri stands with regard to the contradictory stances of the leaders of his organization's branches in Iraq and Syria. The indisputable truth, however, is that JAN has officially become an al-Qaeda affiliate.