Islamic State is talking to al Qaeda about a possible alliance as Iraqi troops close in on IS fighters in Mosul, Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi said in an interview on Monday.
Allawi said he got the information on Monday from Iraqi and regional contacts knowledgeable about Iraq.
“The discussion has started now,” Allawi said. “There are discussions and dialogue between messengers representing Baghdadi and representing Zawahiri,” referring to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda.
It’s important to remember that ISIS, or the Islamic State, is, in fact, a derivative of al-Qaeda. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi developed ambitions to rule territory, rather than fight a long underground war, he ran afoul of al-Qaeda central, still headed up by Obama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
This represented a key conflict between jihadists. All Sunni supremacist jihadists believed they had to reestablish the caliphate, the Ottoman-era supreme Sunni authority abolished by the Turkish republic in 1924. What they differed on was how and when. Al-Qaeda central believed the caliphate could only be built and survive once al-Qaeda had overthrown all Western-backed states in the Sunni Middle East: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf States being the biggest targets. But Saddam’s Iraq, Assad’s Syria, and Qadaffi’s Libya were all equally bad in their eyes: their secular leanings were seen as apostasy.
Others, however, believed that only by building a territorial base out of the shards of one broken state could the caliphate return. This is a big reason for the blitz of 2014: when Baghdadi officially split with al-Qaeda, it was because he and his supporters believed the time was right for a military campaign to grab territory and govern it. From there, they believed, millions of recruits would flock to the Islamic State, empowering it to launch new campaigns to eventually overcome the whole Middle East.
It’s turned out, in this at least, al-Qaeda was the wiser. As soon as Islamic State took Mosul in June 2014, it sparked an American return to Iraq and forced IS to carry out ever more spectacular – and grotesque – acts of murderous courage to keep the flow of recruits coming. While al-Qaeda could carry on its slow wars in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, IS spread itself thin by trying to take territory in Egypt’s Sinai, Libya’s city of Sirte, Afghanistan, and Yemen, all while trying to hold its tenuous conquests in Syria and Iraq.
Now it seems IS is looking for allies as its capital city, Raqqa, looks ready to fall. Could IS return to the al-Qaeda fold as just another franchise, a discredited faction allowed only to run car bombs in a few cities? That would be the best case scenario for Baghdadi and his collapsing inner circle.