Reports last week indicated that the Nusra Front, a major anti-Assad jihadist group, might be abandoning its affiliation with al-Qaeda due to a combination of leadership losses and internal dissent, though a Nusra spokesman has since denied that development. The group, otherwise known as Jabhat al-Nusra, was first formed in Syria as an independent affiliate of both al-Qaeda and ISIS, which were then allies. When al-Qaeda and ISIS parted ways, Nusra established itself as a rival to its former Islamic State sponsor out of loyalty to al-Qaeda. Even with that defection, however, the self-proclaimed Islamic State is becoming increasingly attractive to other members of the jihadist universe, with Boko Haram the latest group to sign on.
Such kaleidoscopic patterns are not uncommon: What’s sometimes referred to as the global jihadist “movement” is actually extremely fractured. It’s united by a general set of shared ideological beliefs, but divided organizationally and sometimes doctrinally. Whether to fight the “near enemy” (local regimes) or the “far enemy” (such as the United States and the West), for example, has been contentious since the 1990s, when Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States. Rivalry among like-minded militant groups is as common as cooperation. Identities and allegiances shift. Groups align and re-align according to changing expectations about the future of the conflicts they’re involved in, as well as a host of other factors, such as competition for resources, leadership transitions, and the defection of adherents to rival groups that appear to be on the ascendant.