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The official-sanctioned al Nusra Front is expected to play up its standing “but it is unclear if the Front can stem the loss of fighters to ISIL with a new PR campaign,” the official said.

Former CIA official Bruce Riedel, a counterterrorism expert, said the split “reflects the growing decentralization and diffusion of al Qaeda.”

“But it does not make the terrorists any less dangerous,” he said in an email. “Multiple competing al Qaeda groups will also compete for support by attacking American targets that will enhance their claims to be the ‘true’ heirs of Osama bin Laden.”

According to counterterrorism officials and analysts, the disavowal of ISIL, rather than bringing unity, prompted an outpouring of support.

Jihadists online in recent weeks described the core al Qaeda appeals as officially sanctioning the split between “good,” centrally-endorsed groups against a “bad” ISIL, formed several years ago out of the al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq and transplanted into Syria.

Some ISIL supporters also have asserted that Zawahiri was duped into opposing ISIL as part of a U.S. plot, backed by the intelligence services in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The reported objective is to drive a wedge between the two groups under the strategic rubric of divide and conquer.

Other less strident jihadists have backed ISIL without attacking senior al Qaeda leaders.

Ideologically, the division emerged several years ago and was given voice by clerics and other jihadist writers online. The differences center on whether al Qaeda should adopt more moderate policies as a more practical way of advancing global jihad and gaining large support from groups like the less violent Muslim Brotherhood.

ISIL, set up in June 2013, favors ultra-radical policies that have been on display in Syria with suicide bombings, executions, beheadings, and other scorched-earth terror tactics against both Syrian government forces and other Islamist rebels.

The split began before the Syria conflict or the Arab Spring and was evident on social media and other online forums in 2012, fueling major internal debates.

The rift has now become a battle over who will become the most effective force to advance Islamist efforts to achieve the ultimate objective of establishing a hardline Sharia-law driven empire in the region.

Sebastian Gorka, a professor of irregular warfare at the National Defense University, said the split is less important than the outcome of jihadists’ fight to take over Syria.

Al Qaeda Central is no longer relevant as an operational hub,” Gorka told the Free Beacon, adding that the group is now more of an “ideological brand” than centrally-directed group.

“Whoever out of the patchwork of jihadi groups captures Syria will be seen as having won the key territory for rebuilding the caliphate”—a vast Islamist state under Sharia law, Gorka said.

Fighting in recent months between ISIL and other Syrian Islamists has been fierce in Syria, complicating international efforts to reach a resolution of the conflict against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus.

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