Al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, As Sahab, has released the third installment in its long-delayed “Islamic Spring” series featuring Ayman al Zawahiri. The jihadist group’s emir uses the video to launch an ideological attack on the Islamic State’s so-called “caliphate,” arguing that it is not based on the “prophetic method” and is therefore illegitimate. Zawahiri builds upon the arguments he made in the first two editions of the series, which al Qaeda began to release in August.
Zawahiri says that one of the most important features of the “prophetic method” is arbitration according to sharia law. Al Qaeda has consistently criticized Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State for failing to arbitrate its differences with other jihadist groups in sharia courts. Anyone who fails to abide by sharia arbitration, Zawahiri argues, “is not following the prophetic approach” and is therefore “not even fit to be pledged to.”
In other words, Baghdadi is not “fit” to receive the oaths of allegiance that have been sworn to him as the self-declared caliph.
Zawahiri cites a variety of Islamic texts, including hadiths, to emphasize his point that Muslims must be consulted before a caliph accepts their pledges of fealty. Neither the person who gives his allegiance “without consulting the other Muslims,” nor the man “to whom the pledge of allegiance was given” should be “supported, lest they both should be killed,” Zawahiri says, citing one text.
After working his way through additional Islamic tracts, Zawahiri argues that the community of worldwide Muslims, represented by those in power, has the right to select a caliph from among those fit for the leadership role. Baghdadi was not elected in such a manner, but instead by the people immediately “around him.” The al Qaeda leader blasts the process by which Baghdadi was deemed the caliph, arguing that such a important role cannot be filled by a man who receives a “pledge of allegiance” from “a small number of anonymous people” who do not represent the ummah (worldwide community of Muslims).
Zawahiri wonders why the Islamic State rushed “to claim titles and designations” for itself that were not warranted. The al Qaeda leader says the jihadists must “strengthen” the “units” that already exist and are “headed” by “the Emir of the Faithful,” Mullah Muhammad Omar.
This segment shows how dated Zawahiri’s talk is, as the Taliban announced Omar’s death in late July. (A transcript released along with the audio message indicates it was likely recorded in March or April of this year.) The Taliban also subsequently admitted that it covered up Omar’s death in order to keep the jihadists united under one banner. Al Qaeda reaffirmed its allegiance to Omar in mid-2014, at a time when the Taliban’s first emir had already either died or was otherwise incapacitated.
Incredibly, al Qaeda shows no embarrassment from any of this, deciding not to edit Zawahiri’s references to Omar out of his speech. Zawahiri even calls on jihadists to avoid “rebelling against” or breaking their existing oaths of loyalty to Omar.
One reason why al Qaeda may be unconcerned about Zawahiri’s references to Omar is that few jihadist groups have broken from the Taliban-al Qaeda axis in the nearly two months since the Taliban admitted that Omar was an absentee leader. In addition, al Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban is secure, as the two remain closely allied more than 14 years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Baghdadi’s Islamic State grew out of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), a political front established by al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Zawahiri briefly discusses the ISI’s loyalty to al Qaeda. The ISI was established by Abu Ayyub al Masri (also known as Abu Hamzah al Masri), who swore allegiance to another jihadist known as “Abu Omar al Baghdadi.” US military and intelligence officials concluded that, at first, Abu Omar al Baghdadi was an empty figurehead invented to put an Iraqi face on AQI’s efforts. Later, according to US officials, al Qaeda backfilled the role.
Outwardly, however, al Masri was loyal to “Abu Omar al Baghdadi.” Zawahiri says that al Masri “mandated” that al Baghdadi be “subservient” to Osama bin Laden and also swear his allegiance to Mullah Omar. According to Zawahiri, Abu Omar al Baghdadi agreed to this arrangement.
Zawahiri’s explanation of the ISI’s place in al Qaeda’s network is a not-so-subtle attempt to further undermine Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s credibility. It was only after Abu Ayyub al Masri and Abu Omar al Baghdadi were killed in April 2010 that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi became the ISI’s top leader. Al Qaeda has made it clear that he, too, swore allegiance to bin Laden and Zawahiri before going rogue.
Al Qaeda’s emir lists a number of other criteria that a caliphate must satisfy in order to be considered legitimate, arguing that the Islamic State falls short in each case. And Zawahiri closes with a warning for Baghdadi’s followers. He tells them not to fight any man unless they are certain that he is “an enemy of Islam and deserves to be fought.” It doesn’t matter if their emir (leader) commanded them to do so, Zawahiri says, as this excuse will not save them from Allah’s judgment should they spill Muslim blood without good reasons.