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War of Words Between al Qaeda and ISIS Continues With Scholar’s Smackdown

Escalating a war of words between terrorism’s old and new schools, an Islamic scholar with al Qaeda’s Yemen-based offshoot on Friday accused ISIS of “planting … disunity” among the various Islamic extremist factions fighting to topple the Syrian government and rejcted the authority of the Iraq- and Syria-based group’s self-declared caliphate.

Harith Al-Nadhari, a spiritual leader and Shariah law scholar with the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), said in a videotape released on YouTube and other social media that the infighting among Syrian rebel groups was “the biggest disaster that hit the Ummah (Arabic for the Muslim community) at this stage.”

He blamed ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, for the divisions, saying that it had exported “infighting and fitna (Arabic for strife) to other fronts,” according to a translation of his comments by Flashpoint Partners, which monitors terrorist group’s online communications.

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Al-Nadhari also criticized ISIS for what he described as an overreach by calling for Muslims everywhere to “pledge allegiance to the caliph.”

“They declared extending the caliphate to a number of countries in which they have no power… and they suspended the jihadi groups that did not pledge allegiance to them in these countries,” he complained, referring to a Nov. 13 statement by ISIS leader Abubakr al-Baghdadi indicating that militants in Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Egypt and Qatar had joined the caliphate.

Laith Alkhouri, a Flashpoint analyst, said AQAP leaders likely felt they could no longer wait to respond to both the Islamic State's charges against al Qaeda Central and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, and the indications that ISIS want to expand in Yemen, AQAP’s primary operational territory.

“ISIS began touching on sensitive nerves way too close to home for AQAP,” he said..

Al-Nadhari’s comments are the just the latest salvo in an ongoing feud between al Qaeda and its network of affiliates and ISIS, originally an al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq before crossing into Syria to join the conflict there.

After fierce fighting erupted in January in northern Syria between ISIS forces and those of the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliated Syrian rebel group, al-Zawahri and the group’s Central Command disavowed ISIS the following month, saying it “is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group . . . does not have an organizational relationship with it and (al-Qaeda) is not the group responsible for their actions.”

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Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s successor at the helm of the terrorist group, also criticized ISIS for its brutal tactics, including the beheadings of fellow Muslims.

ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani fired back in May, blaming Zawahri for “causing misconceptions among Muslims” and accusing Al-Nusra leader Muhammad Al-Jawlani of being a traitor.

More recently, reports indicated that ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front were cooperating in the face of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria primarily targeting the former. But Al-Nadhari’s comments suggest that the two sides have not yet buried the hatchet.

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U.S. officials, speaking with NBC News on condition of anonymity, said say the AQAP videotape may have been intended to quickly put to rest the possibility of “rapprochment” between the two groups.

One official said that while there may be ISIS sympathizers in al Qaeda, the leadership remains solidly on the side of Al-Nusra Front. Armed conflict continues among the various groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, the official added.

Alkhouri, the Flashpoint analyst, said he does not expect a reconciliation between al Qaeda and ISIS any time soon.

“ISIS has insulted al-Zawahri, one of the most revered jihadi leaders in contemporary times, and any jihadist that joins ISIS accepts that Zawahiri is no longer relevant,” he said. “Those who believe that Zawahri, and al Qaeda in general, as relevant and remain the top dog in the jihadi game, do not acknowledge the caliphate.”

Robert Windrem contributed to this report.