CAIRO – Al-Qaida's central leadership broke with one of its most powerful branch commanders, who in defiance of its orders spread his operations from Iraq to join the fighting in Syria and fueled bitter infighting among Islamic militant factions in Syria's civil war.
The break, announced in a statement Monday, appeared to be an attempt by the terror network's leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, to establish control over the feuding militant groups in Syria and stem the increasingly bloody reprisals among them.
It also reflected a move by al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the group's leader, to reestablish al-Qaida's eminence in the jihadi movement in general, at a time when new militant groups have mushroomed not only Syria but around the region, inspired by al-Qaida's ideology but not linked to it by organization.
The announcement sharpens a dispute raging the past year between al-Qaida's central leadership and the faction known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which was created last year by the head of al-Qaida's branch in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He formed the group to expand his operations into neighboring Syria in defiance of direct orders by al-Zawahri not to do so and to stick to operations within Iraq.
Now, the break is likely to spark a competition for resources and fighters between the two sides in what has become a civil war within a civil war as Syria's rebels fight against President Bashar Assad.
The past year, Islamic State — known by the initials ISIL — has taken over swaths of territory in Syria, particularly in the east. It has increasingly clashed with other factions, particularly an umbrella group called the Islamic Front and with Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, the group that al-Zawahri declared last year to be al-Qaida's true representative in Syria.
That fighting has accelerated the past month. On Saturday, a double suicide bombing killed a senior commander in the Tahwid Brigade and an ambush elsewhere on the same day killed a commander of another faction, Suqour al-Sham. Both groups are part of the Islamic Front, and many blamed the Islamic State for the killings. Since Jan. 3, more than 1,700 people have been killed in fighting between Islamic State and other factions.
At the same time, the Islamic State's leader al-Baghdadi has brought his group back to the forefront in his homeland Iraq. The past month, his fighters rose up and virtually took over main cities of Iraq's western Anbar province, and they continue to hold out against sieges by Iraqi government troops. His group has sought to present itself as the voice of that country's Sunni minority against the Shiite-led government.
That has made al-Baghdadi a powerful force in the jihadi movement. Rival Islamic factions in Syria accuse him of trying to take over their movement in that country. Even his choice of the group's name, Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, was seen as a declaration that his force was the only real Islamic movement in the country.
In Monday's statement, al-Qaida's general command announced it has "no connection" with the Islamic State, underlined that the group "is not a branch of the al-Qaida organization," and said al-Qaida "is not responsible for its actions."
Al-Qaida did not condone the group's creation "and in fact ordered it to stop," the statement said.
It also condemned the infighting among Islamic groups, saying, "We distance ourselves from the sedition taking place among the mujahedeen factions (in Syria) and of the forbidden blood shed by any faction." It warned that mujahedeen, or holy warriors, must recognize the "enormity of the catastrophe" caused by "this sedition."
The authenticity of the statement could not independently be verified but it was posted on websites commonly used by al-Qaida.
Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center said the al-Qaida statement reflected its "attempt to definitively re-assert some level of authority over the jihad in Syria."
As tensions rose between the Islamic State and other groups, al-Qaida's central leadership "failed to take a genuinely commanding line," until the fighting forced it to act, he said in emailed comments. However, he doubted the Islamic State would back down, saying its attacks on rival factions "have been aimed at weakening opponents' key strategic strongpoints and command and control."
That is likely to mean further fighting with other jihadi factions.
Capt. Islam Alloush, a military spokesman for the Islamic Front, said al-Qaida's announcement came late but praised it for isolating the Islamic State. "This faction is without cover or cosponsor. It has been totally stripped after al-Qaida and the people abandoned it," Allouch told The Associated Press.
But the announcement also pointed to larger splits among the jihadi movement. Numerous militant groups sprung up in the turmoil since the Arab Spring uprisings began in late 2010, from Algeria and Mali to Libya and Egypt to Syria and Yemen. Most of them show a degree of respect to al-Qaida, but the central leadership has little control over them. Al-Qaida's leadership focuses on trying to direct its declared branches in North Africa, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and — until now — Iraq, while issuing statements offering advice to others.
Several jihadi ideologues had lined up in support of al-Baghdadi's Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, particularly Abu Mundhir al-Shanqiti, an influential sheik believed to be from Mauretania.
The divisions were immediately clear from comments reacting to al-Qaida's new statement on Islamic militant websites. Participants in the sites' web forums quickly weighed in on both sides of the dispute. The participants, generally supporters of the jihadi movement, are registered by username pseudonyms but their views are believed to reflect the wide variety of sentiments within the movement.
Supporters of the al-Qaida statement denounced the Islamic State for defying the leadership and attacking its rivals. "Its mistakes have been getting worse day after day, and the (al-Qaida) leadership tried to advise and direct them," one participant, by the username Ahmed bin Ali, wrote. "But our brothers in the Islamic State listen to no one, no matter who."
But Islamic State supporters angrily said al-Qaida's leadership was turning its back on a powerful group fighting for the cause.
"The al-Qaida that we loved and prayed to God to make victorious died with the death of Sheik Osama (bin Laden)," one by the username Muslim2000 wrote. "God as my witness, al-Qaida did not do right by this mujahed group. Instead, it stood with its enemies."
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.