A rumor has surfaced about a potential split in the Islamic State. Asharq al-Awsat, a Saudi-owned, London-based newspaper with a mixed reputation for reliability, issued a report that the IS group in Syria and the one in Iraq have divided and might be moving to separation. The source of this report was a tribal leader in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. The leader speculated on the emergence of two groups creating two separate states. According to him a prominent Iraqi IS leader clashed with Abu Bakr al-Baghadhi and had expressed both resentment of the marginalization of the Iraq-based leadership by Syrian leaders, and also apparent lack of support for operations inside of Iraq. The Iraqis felt that the both strategic and tactical decisions are being made by Syrians, without regards to the reality and needs of the the Iraqi wing of the movement. Another dimension has to do with mistreatment of Iraqi tribes by non-Iraqi or Arab IS leaders, which is undermining support for IS in Iraq. For example, non-Iraqi IS members are asking to marry Iraqi women from Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul, which has severely strained relations.
The report may be false, but it has an element of logic to it. Syria has become the home of the senior leadership and it is not only a focus of the fighting, but an international war zone, with American, Russian, French and recently British involvement. For the moment, Iraq has become a secondary front in the war from IS’s point of view. Tensions within any group evolving this quickly and under so much pressure would be expected. One wing becomes dominant, and the dominant wing fails to take the lesser into account. But it must also be remembered that the Iraqis have won some of the major victories, like Ramadi and Mosul. They also face the Iranians. While they have moved into a defensive posture, they are critical to IS’ expansion.
The focus on sexual dominance is particularly interesting and telling. It has been long reported that IS’ leadership has made rulings concerning the right of IS fighters to enslaving non-Muslim women and marrying by agreement Muslim women. As anywhere, this is both an explosive issue, especially with leaders of the Iraqi faction, and a visceral assertion of dominance to the Syrians.
The Muslim world has deep divisions and this is one of the major weaknesses. Arabs face non-Arabs, Sunnis face Shiites, clans and tribes face each other. One of the things IS is fighting against is the ability of outsiders to divide and conquer Muslims. The creation of a singular, unitary Islamic state is intended to impose unity and limit the ability of outsiders to create this situation. However, for there to be unity, someone must unify the state, and whoever unifies the state is always tempted to enjoy the fruits of domination. The demands for women, and the failure to provide sufficient support to Iraqi operations is the opposite sides of the same coin—the fractiousness of the Islamic world and in particular of the Arab world.
It is not clear that this report is true, as it is reporting the view of one man, albeit potentially an important one. Asharq al-Awsat is a Saudi-owned paper, and Saudi Arabia has an interest in portraying IS as divided because it views IS as a mortal enemy. It may also be an overblown report serving as a shot across the leadership’s bow, but as IS comes under pressure militarily, it is noteworthy that this kind of view may be emerging. We emphasize the word “may.” There have been prior stories about splits in IS in the western media that come from IS defectors, but this story is detailed enough to be taken seriously, and the implications for the region are substantial. We regard this as something important to track, as the unity of IS is one of the key issues of this war.