It is a tired truism to highlight the elasticity of the global jihad movement. Twelve years after 9/11 it has successfully endured military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the assassination of key leaders, and the drying up of political and economic sanctuaries.
Nowhere have the fortunes of the jihad movement been more energised than in Syria, a conflict that is instructive in understanding both the challenges and opportunities facing the movement today. While the conflict has inspired a new generation of men to join militant causes, a number of jihadist groups – some of them officially aligned with al-Qaeda – have not just been fighting the regime, but also the most visible opposition group on the ground: the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS).
Throughout much of last year ISIS found itself in conflict with al-Qaeda's hierarchy, ignoring demands from Ayman al-Zawahiri to withdraw back to Iraq. That is where he wanted them to concentrate their fight, leaving Syria to his representatives in groups like Jabhat al-Nusrah.
This is not the first time al-Qaeda's leadership has clashed with its counterparts in Iraq. Ever since its inception during the Iraq War the group has routinely defied its leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The most dramatic example of this came during the height of the Iraqi insurgency when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi provoked a sectarian conflict with Shia communities. Conscious of the bad publicity this generated within the broader Arab world, Zawahiri told Zarqawi to stop. The advice went unheeded.
Zarqawi established the precedent in jihadist circles that proximity equates to power. He was on the ground in Iraq and consequently best placed to decide which strategies to pursue. Meanwhile, Zawahiri is divorced from the action, sitting on its periphery and issuing edicts from afar. His authority has never recovered.
It is important to remember that ISIS is a movement of unreconstructed Zarqawi devotees. It has already demonstrated the continuation of his legacy by imposing draconian punishments on Syrian locals, destroying heritage sites deemed to promote 'idolatry,' and launching sectarian attacks.
A statement released by ISIS in May revealed just how far the group has come. They accused Zawahiri of emboldening Shias by refusing to attack Iran and blamed him for not capitalising on the unrest in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. The corollary is that ISIS believes Zawahiri has negated his authority and will not abide his commands any longer.
For its part, al-Qaeda's leadership can only look on as ISIS strives towards its goals. It now holds more territory in the Middle East than the governments of Lebanon and Israel. This forms the cornerstone of its recent message to Zawahiri: we are more than an insurgent group; we are a functioning, ambitious and powerful state. Ayman al-Zawahiri ignored that warning to his own detriment. Western policymakers would be wise not to make the same mistake.