The emir of al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri, has released a new audio message addressing the infighting between jihadist groups in Syria. Zawahiri does not mention any specific groups or individuals by name, but much of his message is clearly aimed at the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), a branch of al Qaeda that has been the main source of the internecine conflict.
Zawahiri addresses all of the jihadist factions fighting against Bashar al Assad’s regime, saying they are the best “hope” for establishing an Islamic state in the heart of the Levant, as well as “liberating Jerusalem,” according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.
Al Qaeda respects and admires “all of you,” Zawahiri says, addressing all of the factions as “brothers.” According to Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s leaders believe that the jihadists’ “brotherhood in Islam” is stronger than any temporary “organizational bonds.”
Zawahiri implores the jihadists to “let go” of their “partisan fanaticism” if it cuts against the “unity of your ranks.” The infighting distracts them from fighting their true enemies, including Shiite forces, Russia, and China, all of whom are supposedly colluding with the “Crusader campaign.”
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and other ISIS leaders have claimed to represent the only true Islamic state inside Syria and have tried to make other jihadist groups abide by its rules. However, other jihadist groups, including al Qaeda’s other official branch inside Syria, the Al Nusrah Front, as well as al Qaeda-linked groups such as Ahrar al Sham, have rejected ISIS’ claims of superiority.
Although Zawahiri does not address ISIS directly, at least three parts of the audio message seem to be targeted at the unruly group.
First, Zawahiri says that al Qaeda does not accept “any violation” or “any assault” against the “sanctity of any Muslim or jihadist.” Al Qaeda also does “not accept” the accusations of “infidelity or apostasy” that have been levied against some jihadist groups, because they are all “sacrificing their lives and properties” for the sake of jihad.
ISIS has repeatedly accused other jihadist organizations of being apostates or infidels, especially when they do not accept the group’s unilateral decisions.
Second, Zawahiri urges al Qaeda’s “dear brothers” to name “anyone they want” as the new ruler of Syria, as long as he has the proper religious credentials. “We will accept the person they choose” to run the new Islamic government, Zawahiri says.
Zawahiri’s remarks in this regard are identical to those made by the head of the Al Nusrah Front, Abu Muhammad al Julani, during an interview that aired on Al Jazeera last month. Julani said that Zawahiri and al Qaeda’s central leadership have “given us a large margin to decide on our own” how things go inside Syria. Zawahiri “always tells us to meet with the other factions,” Julani said. “We will not impose a ruler on the people,” Julani added, as al Qaeda only seeks “the implementation of sharia and any ruler should be committed to the rules of the sharia and qualified for that.”
Interestingly, there have been allegations that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has required jihadists who pledge allegiance to him and ISIS to also acknowledge Baghdadi as the new “caliph” or Islamic ruler.
Earlier this month, a senior jihadist ideologue known as Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, who is imprisoned in Jordan, issued a statement criticizing this requirement. Maqdisi denounced ISIS’ fatwas, which “obligate Muslims to make a grand pledge of allegiance to Baghdadi as a caliph.” Maqdisi also explained that such fatwas lead to the shedding of Muslim blood and incite jihadists to “to disobey the authorities’ orders, particularly the orders of Sheikh Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri.”
In a letter written in May 2013, Zawahiri canceled Baghdadi’s attempt to subsume control of the Al Nusrah Front. In the months since, however, Baghdadi has not relinquished his attempted power grab. Zawahiri’s message is aimed at unifying the jihadists’ ranks inside Syria such that they pursue common goals, and Baghdadi’s delusions of grandeur clearly interfere with this objective.
Third, and finally, Zawahiri urges the Syrian jihadists “to establish a sharia arbitration committee” capable of ruling “among different factions on all the accusations leveled by any group against its” jihadist brethren. This committee should also have “a mechanism to enforce” its decisions.
ISIS has frequently refused to settle its differences in a common sharia court. Instead, the group has sought to impose its decrees on others. On multiple occasions, Zawahiri and other al Qaeda-linked ideologues have attempted to get ISIS to acquiesce to rulings made by sharia court staffed with representatives from each of the groups. This would require ISIS to relinquish its exclusionary claim on power, which it has thus far been unwilling to do.
In sum, the long-awaited message from Zawahiri shows that al Qaeda is still attempting to settle the disputes between ISIS and other jihadist organizations.