WASHINGTON – Rival al-Qaida jihadist militant groups are begrudgingly praising the exploits of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, or ISIS, as it steamrolls through Iraq from northeast Syria in order to create a caliphate subject to strict Shariah law.
ISIS’ success in Iraq is due largely to other Sunni and ex-Baathist groups joining its numbers, although there are increasing reports that factions within ISIS in Iraq already have had violent exchanges between them.
One such case has been a gun battle in recent days between ISIS and the ex-Baathists of the Naqshbani Army, which initially joined ISIS to aid its sweep through Iraq and may have given the jihadist group access to a sarin production facility, as WND recently reported.
Nevertheless, ISIS’ success to date has prompted an increasing number of fighters from al-Qaida groups to switch to ISIS, which was excommunicated from al-Qaida central by its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, creating the prospect that ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, could become the new face of al-Qaida.
This prospect of rivals jumping onboard the ISIS bandwagon poses increasing concern and a potential threat to such countries as Jordan and Lebanon, where militant groups like the Sunni al-Qaida rivals Jabhat al-Nusra and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades are present.
Neighborinng countries, including Turkey and Israel, potentially could be threatened because of ISIS’ presence in Syria as a result of rival groups beginning to join ISIS.
Sources tell WND that despite their differences with ISIS, members of these rival jihadist groups are cheering ISIS’ sweep into Iraq.
Their enthusiasm for ISIS is due not only to its territorial sweep, but also because it has created an Islamic caliphate – despite ISIS’ reputation for brutality, beheadings and amputations, which prompted Zawahiri to disassociate his al-Qaida central organization from ISIS.
Sources say that ISIS is beginning to respond to concerns from other Islamist groups over its brutality by undertaking less indiscriminate killing, thereby attracting more rival fighters.
Sources say that members of al-Nusra and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Lebanon, for example, exchanged congratulations over ISIS’ victories in Iraq.
“The achievements of ISIS are a source of pride and dignity for us, even if we disagree on many things,” a member of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades told the Al-Akhbar newspaper.
The Abdullah Azzam Brigades is especially prominent in Lebanon at the Ain el-Hilweh Palestinian camp near Saida, or Sidon, just south of Lebanon’s capital city, Beirut.
Another Sunni group prominent in Lebanon is the al-Qaida affiliate al-Nusra, many of whose members share the view point of members of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades.
WND previously referred to growing concerns by the Shiite residents of Lebanon (which many observers believe is under the influence of Shia Iran) that ISIS could sweep through the country.
Sunni areas in Lebanon increasingly have become safe havens for al-Nusra and Abdullah Azzam Brigades members. They saw how quickly ISIS has been able to move into Iraq occupying much of the Sunni-controlled regions of the country and believe Lebanon would fall in a matter of hours if ISIS launched a concerted attack.
Before that can happen, however, ISIS would need to partner with al-Nusra in Syria and bury their current differences, as many of its members remain loyal to Zawahiri.
ISIS’ takeover of Iraqi towns near the Turkish border is also creating concerns in Ankara of a potential threat to Turkey, given its open border policy of allowing jihadist fighters into the country to use it as a launching pad for attacks inside Syria.
Jordan also will remain key, since ISIS already has announced that it intends to attack Jordan and remove the Sunni monarchy of King Abdullah II ibn al-Hussein, who is coming under increasing Islamist pressure within his own country.
Timing of ISIS’ attack into Jordan, sources say, is only a question of time, but could meet more resistance than its fighters did in Iraq.
As ISIS spinoffs grow, however, the likelihood of them uniting inside Jordan grows and could pose a serious challenge to the government’s authority.
Sources believe that ISIS could pose a pincer movement by moving immediately into Jordan if it continues to face resistance in its efforts to take over the Shiite dominated area of Iraq that includes Iraq’s capital, Baghdad.
At the same time, it could consolidate its support with rival groups in Syria to pose a threat not only to Lebanon but also Turkey, which would then put ISIS in a position to attack Israel, which it also has declared is its goal.
Already, there are concerns inside Israel over the potential that ISIS could take over the border areas where Syria, Iraq and Jordan come together.
In southern Syria, there is a combined U.S.-Israeli-Jordanian military effort in place that could serve to counter a potential ISIS attack into Israel with the backing of the Israeli Defense Force.
However, there are further indications that ISIS also has placed its cells in the Sinai Peninsula.
As al-Qaida affiliated groups join ISIS, the threat to the entire region becomes even greater, given its attractions to recruits and the financial assets of well over $1.5 billion it has acquired.
F. Michael Maloof, senior staff writer for WND / G2Bulletin, is a former security policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He can be contacted at [email protected].