FEB. 3, 2014
Al Qaeda Breaks With Jihadist Group in Syria Involved in Rebel Infighting
By BEN HUBBARD
ISTANBUL -- Al Qaeda's central leadership has officially cut ties with a powerful jihadist group that has flourished in the chaos of the civil war in Syria and that rushed to build an Islamic state on its own terms, antagonizing the wider rebel movement.
The animosity between the group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and other rebel groups has fueled the deadliest infighting yet between the foes of President Bashar al-Assad and has sapped their campaign to depose him.
Though the isolation of the group could lead to greater unity among other rebel forces, it is unlikely to assuage fears in the United States and elsewhere about the increasing power of extremists in Syria.
The break between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, announced late Sunday on jihadist websites, served both sides, said William McCants, a scholar of militant Islam at the Brookings Institution. Al Qaeda cut ties with a group that was besmirching the Qaeda name among other militants, while the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria bolstered its image as a force to reckon with.
"ISIS is now officially the biggest and baddest global jihadi group on the planet," Mr. McCants said. "Nothing says 'hard-core' like being cast out by Al Qaeda."
The rise of the group has largely reflected what many analysts see as the diminished clout of the original Al Qaeda organization and the rise of affiliates and other militant groups  that share its ideology but run their own affairs.
Rifts between Al Qaeda and the group emerged last year when the Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, ordered it to withdraw from Syria and leave the insurgency there to be run by the official Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria refused.
Its haste to seize resources like oil fields and border crossings brought it into conflict with other rebels, and widespread clashes between the sides in recent weeks have left thousands dead across northern and eastern Syria, according to partisan activist groups. That violence has led to harsh criticisms of the group from other rebel leaders who consider it just as dangerous as Mr. Assad.
On Monday, a bomber from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria detonated himself at a rebel base in northern Syria, killing 16 fighters and wounding 20, activists said.
Such attacks have led an influential Saudi cleric who is based in Syria and was once close to the group to disown it and call on its fighters to defect.
In a video  posted online on Sunday, the cleric, Abdullah al-Muheiseni, said one of the group's suicide attacks had killed a 12-year-old boy. Another destroyed a water facility and killed a civilian.
"That brother who blew himself up, what is his destiny now before the almighty God?" Sheikh Muheiseni said.
In a written statement posted on jihadist forums, Al Qaeda accused the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria of not working with other groups, naming its own leaders and trying to impose its own authority.
The statement called on all groups in Syria to work together to spare the blood of Muslims and to remain loyal to the teachings of Osama bin Laden.
American intelligence and counterterrorism analysts said the group's increasing economic independence -- largely through revenue from commandeered oil fields, border tolls, extortion and granary sales -- had allowed it to thrive without links to Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.
"Although the Al Qaeda brand still carries weight among jihadists worldwide, ISIS has never been dependent on the Al Qaeda core for resources or direction, so the tangible impact of the decision may not be that significant," a counterterrorism official said.
The official, who requested anonymity to speak about intelligence reports, said the Nusra Front was likely to try to benefit from its exclusive Qaeda credentials.
Inside Syria, however, those credentials appeared to be less significant than the Nusra Front's efforts to maintain good relations with other rebel groups.
"We have no problems with Nusra, and we fight with them sometimes in the same trench," a rebel fighter, Nader Ramandan, said in a Skype conversation from northern Idlib Province. While he disagrees with the Nusra Front's ideology, he said, he does not consider the group a threat and hopes it will help get rid of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Nearly three years of civil war in Syria have left more than 130,000 people dead and destabilized neighboring countries. On Monday, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a bus south of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, killing himself and wounding other passengers. The bombing was the latest in a series of attacks that have targeted civilian areas across Lebanon.
Also on Monday, at least 30 people, including 13 children and three women, were killed in aerial bombardments by the Syrian government in the northern city of Aleppo, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Similar attacks had killed scores of people in the city in recent days.
International efforts have so far failed to stop the war, and a first round of international peace talks concluded in Geneva last week with no concrete progress.
In what appeared to be a concession to the Syrian government, the United Nations announced on Monday that the deputy to Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, was resigning, effective this week.
The deputy, Nasser al-Kidwa, a former foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, is also the nephew of Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader who died in 2004. Mr. Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, was said to have despised Mr. Arafat, and Syrian officials objected to Mr. Kidwa's role in the talks.
A statement  posted online by the office of Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, gave no reason for Mr. Kidwa's departure.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Rick Gladstone from New York.