A Nightmare Situation: ISIS and Al Qaeda Join Forces

Sep 21, 2014 at 11:59 AM ET

The video has all the hallmarks of a jihadi snuff film. A Lebanese police officer pleads for mercy as a fighter from the Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, shoots him in the head. The camera then pans to another soldier. He’s dressed in white and his hands are tied behind his back. He’s crying and kneeling before a tree, begging Hezbollah, the Shiite militant and political group, to renew its fight with Israel and leave the Syrian battlefield.

Released on Saturday, the video is the latest window into the harrowing new reality across along the porous Lebanese-Syrian border. Although Al Qaeda has long been locked in a bloody power struggle in Syria against its former ally, the Islamic State, here, these two deadly jihadi groups act more like allies. (The two split last year over ISIS’ harsh tactics.) For months, Nusra and its former enemy, commonly known as ISIS, have been working hand in hand. In August, their alliance appeared to grow stronger as ISIS and Nusra coordinated a brief takeover of Arsal, a dusty mountain town along the border, which has become a sanctuary for Syrian refugees and rebels.

The Lebanese army eventually took it back, but during the fighting Nusra and ISIS captured some two-dozen Lebanese policemen and soldiers, including the two who appeared in the latest execution video. Both groups have threatened to kill their respective Lebanese hostages unless Hezbollah and their allies release Islamist militants from Lebanese jails, among other things. So far, mediators from Qatar and the Lebanese government have been unable to strike a deal.

So why are these groups working together here and enemies elsewhere? Well, in the area around Arsal, most of their fighters are Sunni Lebanese Muslims. Their real fight has little to do with the war in Syria; it has to do with what they see as Hezbollah’s stranglehold on politics and security in their home country.

Indeed, over the past year, the two groups, working independently, have carried out deadly attacks against the Iranian-backed Lebanese group—from car bombs in civilian markets in Beirut to a suicide attack on a Hezbollah checkpoint on Saturday night near the Syrian border. Their goal: to weaken Hezbollah, which is openly fighting in the Syrian civil war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad.

In response to the latest executions, Lebanon’s defense minister, Samir Moqbel, told reporters on Saturday that the army was given a mandate to apply “zero tolerance with everything that threatens the integrity of Lebanon, the region of Arsal and its outskirts.” Hours before, amateur video showed intense fighting between ISIS and the Lebanese army outside of Arsal.

In the meantime, the latest jihadi snuff films have also sparked tit-for-tat kidnappings by the hostages’ relatives, as well as random attacks against Syrian workers and refugees across Lebanon. With both Nusra and ISIS promising more executions in the coming days, and perhaps working in tandem again, many fear this is only the beginning of a very bloody fall.