While some jihadists are growing impatient waiting for al Qaeda’s response to the Islamic State’s declared caliphate, one senior al Qaeda leader on Twitter decided to remind his comrades what Ayman al Zawahiri previously had to say about building an Islamic State.
And know, Oh dear loved ones, that we have called, still call, and will – with Allah’s permission – continue to call on everyone to work to establish a Muslim government in Sham … and they will choose whomever satisfies them – among those people who meet the legal [sharia] conditions – as their leader. Whomever they pick is our choice as well, and we do not want anyone to impose himself on them because we seek to return the rightly guided caliphate upon the platform of prophecy that rules according to sharia, propagates the shura, spreads justice, protects rights, and confronts aggression.
It appears that this quote was taken from an audio message released by Zawahiri in January. Zawahiri did not specifically address any of the warring jihadist factions in Syria in his January message, but instead called for reconciliation while implicitly criticizing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham’s (ISIS) practices.
Within hours of the initial release of Zawahiri’s message, Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini released a reconciliation initiative aimed at uniting the rival jihadist groups against Bashar al Assad’s regime. Muhaysini specifically cited Zawahiri’s address in his initiative. However, on Jan. 27, the ISIS rejected Muhaysini’s proposal. And so, in early February, al Qaeda’s general command disowned the ISIS, which now calls itself the Islamic State.
On Jan. 23, shortly after Zawahiri’s message was released, I cited the same quote shown in the banner above and reported:
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 [in December 2013]. 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.”
Zawahiri’s words in January were a not-so-thinly veiled rebuttal to Baghdadi’s claims. As you can see from the reporting at the time, Baghdadi was already arguing that he was the new caliph. This makes the Islamic State’s declaration in late June entirely unsurprising.
Although al Qaeda’s senior leaders haven’t yet officially responded to the Islamic State’s caliphate claim, Zawahiri’s January message provides a preview of one argument they are likely to make. According to al Qaeda, the new caliph is supposed to be selected through consultation (shura), not unilaterally declared by one party. Jihadists who are part of al Qaeda’s network have already been making this argument on Twitter.
And so has Sanafi al Nasr, who reposted Zawahiri’s words just yesterday.
Oren Adaki, a research associate and Arabic language specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, contributed to this article.