Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, discusses the infighting in Syria and the history of al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq at length in a newly released message entitled, “Testimonial to Preserve the Blood of Mujahideen in al Sham.”
Zawahiri even extends an olive branch to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who leads the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), which has been disowned by al Qaeda. Zawahiri again calls on Baghdadi to leave Syria and return to the fight in Iraq. This has been al Qaeda’s desire since the beginning of the dispute. If Baghdadi does so, then Zawahiri is apparently willing to welcome him back into the fold, despite all of the problems, from al Qaeda’s perspective, that Baghdadi and ISIS have caused.
“Listen to and obey your emir once again,” Zawahiri says when addressing Baghdadi, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. “Come back to what your sheikhs, emirs, and those who preceded you on the path and immigration of jihad have worked hard for.”
Baghdadi claims he is a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed’s family. And Zawahiri flatters the rogue commander by saying that he should follow the path of his “grandfather” Hasan, a grandson of Mohammed who forfeited his role as leader of the Caliphate. Baghdadi and his supporters believe that he is the rightful new Caliph. But Zawahiri wants Baghdadi to be a “good grandson” by abandoning this claim and returning to the jihad in Iraq instead.
Zawahiri also calls on the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, to “immediately stop any fighting” that is an act of aggression against “their jihadist brothers.” Al Nusrah and ISIS have been fighting each other for months.
History of al Qaeda’s relationship with the ISIS and its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI)
Although Zawahiri’s message is conciliatory on its face, it is also intended to undermine the ISIS’ claim of independence.
Leading jihadist ideologues, including Hani Sibai, a longtime member of Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), recently called on Zawahiri to address the situation in Syria once again. They wanted Zawahiri to discuss specific aspects of the dispute between the ISIS and al Qaeda, including whether or not the ISIS’ leaders had sworn bayat (an oath of allegiance) to al Qaeda. If Baghdadi did not swear bayat, then he has not betrayed his oath to al Qaeda by disobeying Zawahiri’s orders.
Some of Baghdadi’s supporters have claimed that the ISIS emir never swore bayat to al Qaeda’s leadership. Another claim made by the ISIS is that Baghdadi’s bayat was not a full oath of allegiance, but instead merely a statement of support for al Qaeda’s mission.
Zawahiri says that he decided to address the history of al Qaeda’s relations with ISIS and its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), out of respect for Sibai, who used his radio show to urge Zawahiri to comment.
Zawahiri describes much of his message as “testimony” and he relies on correspondence between al Qaeda’s senior leaders and the ISI and the ISIS to make his case. The head of al Qaeda even cites two documents that were released by the Obama administration from the cache recovered during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. But he cites other documents as well. In an earlier message, Zawahiri ordered As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, to prepare the al Qaeda correspondence for publication.
The ISI is a “part” of al Qaeda’s group, Zawahiri says. Although the ISI was initially established “without the permission or counseling” of al Qaeda, its leader sent a message to al Qaeda’s general command “explaining how the state was established and pledging allegiance” to the group. The message was sent by Abu Hamza al Muhajir (a.k.a. Abu Ayyub al Masri), a longtime Zawahiri subordinate who was then al Qaeda’s top leader in Iraq. The message indicated that Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the head of the ISI, had also sworn allegiance to al Qaeda and his oath was witnessed by a member of the sharia (Islamic law) committee.
Abu Hamza’s “message stated that the ISI is a branch belonging to al Qaeda and explained that it was established in secret due to some political circumstances forced on them in Iraq back then,” Zawahiri says.
In April 2010, both Abu Hamza and Abu Omar were killed in Iraq, thereby decapitating the ISI’s leadership. Al Qaeda lost control of the selection process to determine who would be the ISI’s new emir and, therefore, al Qaeda’s leaders requested biographies for Abu Bakr and other ISI leaders who were chosen without the consent of al Qaeda’s general command.
However, Zawahiri says, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi maintained the ISI’s fealty to al Qaeda. After bin Laden was killed in May 2011, Abu Bakr issued a statement saying that Zawahiri has “faithful men” in the ISI. In late May 2011, a “liaison” for the ISI sent a message to al Qaeda’s leaders asking if the ISI should “renew its allegiance publicly or secretly as before.” Indeed, the ISI’s spokesman publicly praised Zawahiri’s selection as the new emir of al Qaeda.
Zawahiri goes on to cite additional messages showing that leaders within both the ISI and then the ISIS, including Baghdadi, continued to address him as their leader.
One of the thorniest issues Zawahiri must address is this: Why did al Qaeda acquiesce to the creation of the ISI, but not the ISIS, which merely expanded the ISI’s presence into Syria?
Zawahiri offers several reasons. First, he says that the ISIS was created on the basis of a “rift” between jihadists, meaning Baghdadi and the head of the Al Nusrah Front, Abu Muhammad al Julani. The ISI did not suffer from this defect.
Second, Zawahiri states that the ISI was created in coordination with other jihadist groups in Iraq, whereas the ISIS tried to impose its will in Syria without consulting other groups. Not even the Al Nusrah Front, originally an extension of the ISI, was consulted, Zawahiri argues. And third, the declaration of the ISIS was “in clear violation” of the orders issued by al Qaeda’s general command to its soldiers in Iraq and Syria “not to declare any official presence of al Qaeda in the Levant.” In other words, al Qaeda sought to hide its hand in the Syrian rebellion.
Zawahiri goes on to say that the creation of the ISIS has led to much Muslim bloodshed and been a “political catastrophe for the people of the Levant.” The ISIS has also been a gift to Assad, Zawahiri claims, because it has divided the jihadist cause.
The bloodshed and all of the other turmoil could have been avoided if the ISIS had followed the directions of “their emir,” Zawahiri says, referring to himself.
Zawahiri again calls for the ISIS and other jihadist groups to resolve their differences in a common sharia court. Zawahiri has also now offered a fuller version of his case against the ISIS’ leadership.
In the ongoing back and forth between ISIS and al Qaeda, including the Al Nusrah Front, the ball is now back in ISIS’ court.