- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sharp divisions among al Qaeda terrorists in the Middle East are continuing despite a recent appeal by the group’s top leader to heal the rift between two warring factions.

While the split within the terrorist group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington is real, so far it has not diminished the threat of attack against Americans, according to officials and counterterrorism analysts.

The divisions pit the remnants of al Qaeda’s central organization and its supporters in the Middle East and North Africa against a splinter group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The internal conflict has resulted in fierce online debates, killings, and bombings on the ground in Syria, where ISIL has attacked both fighters and facilities belonging to the al Nusra Front, the official al Qaeda rebel group in the Syrian conflict.

ISIL continues to gain widespread jihadist support both in the region for insurgents in Syria and Iraq as well as from supporters worldwide.

That support came despite a speech last month by al Qaeda central leader Ayman al Zawahiri, successor to Osama bin Laden, and a statement earlier this month by the group’s “general command” that declared the ultra-hardline ISIL was not part of the global al Qaeda network.

“The al Qaeda of jihad group announces that it has no connection with the group called the [ISIL], as it was not informed or consulted about its establishment. It was not pleased with it and thus ordered its suspension,” said the Feb. 3 statement distributed on Twitter.

The statement said ISIL was guilty of “sedition” and was formed without consulting senior al Qaeda leaders. It also violated al Qaeda’s rules for waging Islamic holy war.

Zawahiri sought to end infighting among jihadists in Syria by declaring that Syrian rebels must end what he termed “partisan fanaticism” last month. Zawahiri had called for the abolition of the ISIL months earlier.

“Your unity and the unity of your ranks are more important for us than the organizational belonging and partisan fanaticism,” he said in a Jan. 23 recorded message.

U.S. officials said the appeals to terrorist group unity have not materialized and jihadists from Libya to Afghanistan are continuing to support ISIL.

Some jihadists recently defected from al Nusra Front to ISIL and denounced the official al Qaeda rebel group.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said the formal announcement by the al Qaeda core of the break with ISIL was unprecedented and a culmination of a long-standing dispute.

“ISIL’s insubordination — especially since it started operating in Syria last year — left Zawahiri with little choice but to announce a rupture that, for all intents and purposes, had already taken place,” the official said.

“Although the al Qaeda brand still carries weight among Jihadists worldwide, ISIL has never been dependent on al Qaeda core for resources or direction, so the tangible impact of the decision may not be that significant.”

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