The past week or so has seen a significant controversy erupt in jihadist circles over the relationship between an entity called the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS)- a merger of Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) first proclaimed by ISI emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in April- and JAN as headed by Abu Mohammed al-Jowlani.
First came a purported letter by Jowlani circulated to his followers, summarizing an alleged edict by Aymenn al-Zawahiri that denied responsibility for Baghdadi's announcement of ISIS and accordingly called for the abolition of this name, and recognition that ISI and JAN have the separate spheres of Iraq and Syria respectively. The Zawahiri document then came to light only a couple of days later, obtained by al-Jazeera.
The supposed Jowlani letter and the alleged ruling by Zawahiri (NB: I have provided full translations with notes on both documents here and here) both emphasize the need for cooperation between ISI and JAN, and mutual respect for each other's efforts of jihad. In short, the documents merely call for an end to the name of ISIS, and stress an ideal harmony that is thought to have existed prior to Baghdadi's declaration of ISIS.
Whatever the truth behind these documents, a quick search on Twitter, Facebook, forums and the like will show that many jihadi activists and media groups are continuing to use the name of ISIS as if nothing has happened. Most notably, the newspaper ash-Sharq al-Awṣat claims to have obtained a document circulated by those under the banner of ISIS denying the authenticity of the Zawahiri letter (hat-tip: Charles Lister).
Whether or not the newspaper has an authentic ISIS document, there are understandable reasons why those favoring the brand of ISIS might be skeptical? Why, for example, did Zawahiri not simply discuss the issues in his purported letter in the video statement? Why also did Jowlani not issue his letter in the name of JAN's media channel al-Manarah al-Bayḍā', which in the letter he claims will return to full operation very soon?
There are of course reasonable counter-arguments to these objections, most notably if one posits the idea that Zawahiri- as the alleged letter from him suggests- wanted the naming controversy dealt with quietly on the ground and out of the site of media, hence the initial lack of discussion in jihadi circles on social media and forums.
Yet here I am not so much concerned with debating the authenticity of the documents as realities and perceptions on the ground. What is apparent from recent evidence is that ISIS is an active entity in the Aleppo area, going beyond mere tweets and Facebook statuses of jihadis. In media articles on the ISIS-JAN controversy, reporters like Basma Atassi and Mariam Karouny have drawn a dichotomy of foreign fighters versus native Syrians, whereby the majority of the former are said to have flocked under the banner of ISIS.
Certainly this paradigm of analysis makes sense in Aleppo, which has since last year seen a particularly strong concentration of foreign mujahideen relative to other areas. There are in fact other battalions in the wider area using the same al-Qa'ida banner as ISIS, such as the Katiba al-Muhajireen (KAM) led by Abu Omar al-Shishani and Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (not to be confused with the Gaza/Sinai group).
Thus, this relatively recent photo of a Qatari mujahid in Aleppo could be a fighter aligned with any one of the aforementioned groups. However, it must be recognized that the boundaries between these groups is not at all clear-cut, rather analogous to the fact that Iranian proxy groups in Iraq can serve as mere fronts for one another. In this context, my friend Shami Witness rightly points out that Baghdadi had appointed Shishani as emir of Aleppo, Idlib and Lattakia.
The most recent wave of evidence for ISIS activities in the Aleppo area most prominently featured the circulation of a photo of ISIS insignia being used in the area. As far back as 18 May, the pro-ISIS channel ash-Sham reported that ISIS fighters had freed a number of prisoners from Aleppo central prison.
It would appear that ISIS in Aleppo has been conducting siege operations against the central prison for quite some time, for the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights reported on June 7 that ISIS fighters in coordination with Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham was targeting the central prison with machine-gun fire.
Meanwhile, the past few days has seen a surge in the number of Youtube videos uploaded by the Halab News Network (NB: not pro-ISIS, but simply providing footage of developments in the Aleppo area) allegedly showing ISIS operations.
For instance, here is a video from the Duwerineh district of Aleppo, purporting to show clashes between ISIS fighters and regime forces. Here are two other videos from the same area, allegedly showing ISIS men targeting regime forces with Grad-missiles.
Another area of operations for ISIS is the regime stronghold of Jabal Ma'ar (dubbed Jabal Shouihna in the video titles), which is also being targeted by other battalions like the Kata'ib Nur ad-Din az-Zinki (see Facebook page here). Thus, here is one video where ISIS purportedly targets a tank with a Malyutka missile.
Likewise, here is a video of the aftermath of ISIS bombardment of regime positions in the same area. Further, here is a video of ISIS fighters in the area firing at regime forces: and note in particular the presence of the ISIS flag on the Mazda car.
So what of the relation between ISIS and JAN in the Aleppo area? To be sure, there is certainly a JAN presence in Aleppo (e.g. see this recent photo from Halwaniya). To hear from the report by Basma Atassi in particular, there have been tensions in Aleppo over distribution of flour, as fighters aligned with ISIS did not recognize the committee headed by JAN and other battalions responsible for said distribution.
Thus, Atassi's report implies that in Aleppo, ISIS and JAN are two separate entities, which contrasts with the situation in Raqqah Governorate where ISIS and JAN are more or less synonymous and interchangeable. In my view this separation in the Aleppo area is borne out with other evidence.
For example, recently a report emerged from Aleppo of a child who had been brutally slain, allegedly by Islamist rebels for apostasy. In response, JAN and ISIS issued separate statements disassociating themselves from the execution, with the JAN statement also bearing a stamp of the 'Shari'a committee in Aleppo' and 'Jabhat al-Nusra.'
Here is a copy of the ISIS statement, bearing the familiar stamp of the group and lacking identification with any Shari'a committee in the city. This corroborates the idea of lack of recognition by ISIS of the already established Shari'a organizations in Aleppo.
Videos of ISIS rallies in Aleppo also add to this portrait of separation and a degree of animosity between ISIS and JAN in Aleppo. Here is one video of an ISIS rally in the Bab al-Hadid area, featuring a recital of al-Fātiḥa. In a similar vein, here is a video of an ISIS march through Tariq al-Bab. Here is another video of the same rally, featuring the nasheed 'Labbayka Islam al-Butula' (see translation on my website; it is popular with Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Syria too).
There are two things to note about these rallies. First, Jabhat al-Nusra flags are nowhere to be seen. Second, the demonstrations are entirely separate from those held elsewhere in Aleppo featuring FSA flags, giving a strong contrast with Raqqah where ISIS, JAN and FSA flags can be observed together in a rally united under one cause (see my Jihadology post on Raqqah, as well as this recent video).
All this evidence suggests that no concord of understanding has been reached between pro-ISIS demonstrators and those of different ideological inclinations, or even with JAN activists who are similarly al-Qa'ida-aligned.
In sum, whereas Raqqah showed how JAN and ISIS could generally be interchangeable, the case of Aleppo appears to provide strong indications that the two organizations are separate and at odds with each other, with ISIS containing a disproportionate number of foreign fighters who are more strongly concentrated in Aleppo than other parts of the country.
Indeed, nothing may be thought to encapsulate this issue of ISIS, foreign fighters and Aleppo better than this video of a Turkish fighter under the ISIS banner in Aleppo (Duwerineh). The Raqqah-Aleppo contrast illustrates just how fragmented both ISIS and JAN are.
In any event, so long as there is no clear, public statement by Zawahiri or any other figures involved in the naming controversy of ISIS and JAN, and bearing in mind the issue of inevitable personal rivalries among different rebel groups, the problems of ISIS-JAN tensions in rebel-held areas of Aleppo are likely to remain and grow, even if clashes with regime forces in the Aleppo area do not preclude military cooperation between ISIS and other battalions.