ISIS is back to being buddies with the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate, according to AP reports, just as the militant group’s leader released a new audio recording showing that he is still alive. This move comes amid reports that President Obama is rethinking the U.S.’s Syria strategy and whether it’s possible to resolve the ongoing conflict without removing Bashar al-Assad — reports the Obama administration denies.
The al-Nusra front broke ranks with ISIS in February, and the two have been blowing up each other’s fighters for the better part of this year. According to many reports, the split was owing to Al Qaeda leaders’ concerns over the brutality of ISIS’s campaign. Now the priority appears to be pushing down Assad’s remaining forces and opposing rebel factions: The loose agreement means the groups will no longer fight and will coordinate for key attacks in some parts of Syria. However, the relationships between all rebel groups are highly volatile — they are in a constant state of flux.
But even a temporary alliance may be a smart move on ISIS’s part, since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s new audio implies that the group is looking to expand. Baghdadi, who some said was killed or injured by U.S. air strikes this week, is a shadowy figure, and he’s only had one major appearance since being named “caliph” of the militant organization. But this recording doesn’t seem to be pre-recorded: In it, he refers to the Sinai-based terrorist organization Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which only pledged allegiance to ISIS just as al-Baghdadi was purportedly killed or injured. Baghdadi also refers to President Obama’s weekend decision to send 1,500 more troops to act as advisers in the region.
His speech, sprinkled with anti-Semitism, seeks to reassure his followers that ISIS is still strong and growing. He refers fondly to supporters elsewhere in the Arab world, including Algeria and Libya, while railing against the “Crusaders” and “Jews” of the West. Importantly, Baghdadi boasts that there is no place for mushrikin, a term used to refer to polytheists and other non-believers, in the “peninsula of Muhammad” — a move that seems to imply Saudi Arabia as a possible next target. He refers to it as the “head of the snake.”
Syria doesn’t actually border Saudi Arabia, and its southern neighbor is actually Jordan. Fortunately for King Abdullah — who, at least for now, is preoccupied with dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis — the areas closest to Jordan are still being held by either Bashar al-Assad’s forces, or by non-ISIS rebels. Iraq, on the other hand, shares a large land border with Saudi Arabia, spanning hundreds of miles. That’s where ISIS would cross into the Kingdom.
And, despite both ISIS’s and Saudi clerics’ fondness for covering women up and limiting their freedoms, the two groups are very much not in ideological agreement. The Saudi king — also named Abdullah, just to make these matters more confusing — even preemptively sent 30,000 troops to the Iraqi border in August. Only about 10 percent of the country’s population has a “positive” or “positive to some extent” view of ISIS.