Al Jazeera has published a letter that was purportedly written by Ayman al Zawahiri to the heads of al Qaeda’s franchises in Iraq and Syria. Two senior US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal say the letter is genuine.
In the letter, dated May 23, Zawahiri rules on a dispute between the emirs of al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and the Al Nusrah Front in Syria. The disagreement has reportedly caused problems for al Qaeda’s operations since it first became public in early April.
The dispute arose when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who heads the ISI, tried to fold al Qaeda’s operations in Iraq and Syria into a single organization, the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Nusrah Front emerge as rebranded single entity.]
A few days after al Baghdadi’s April 8 announcement, Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of the Al Nusrah Front, responded with a message of his own. Al Julani rejected al Baghdadi’s attempt to rebrand their efforts under a common banner and reaffirmed his oath of allegiance to Zawahiri directly, thereby bypassing al Baghdadi, who is al Julani’s former commander in Iraq. [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front leader renews allegiance to al Qaeda, rejects new name.]
In his letter, Zawahiri dissolves al Baghdadi’s Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and admonishes both leaders, saying their operations are confined to their respective theaters for the time being. Al Baghdadi “was wrong when he announced the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant without asking permission or receiving advice from us and even without notifying us,” Zawahiri writes.
Al Julani “was wrong” in rejecting al Baghdadi’s announcement and “by showing his links to al Qaeda without having our permission or advice, even without notifying us.”
The Al Nusrah Front will remain “an independent entity” under al Qaeda’s “general command,” Zawahiri says, while the ISI will continue to hold its seat inside Saddam Hussein’s former nation state.
Zawahiri says both men can continue in their role as emir of their respective groups for one year, but they must each then “submit a report to the general command of [al Qaeda] about the progress of work.” At that time, the “general command” will decide “whether to extend” their mandates.
In the meantime, the pair are to avoid infighting, and each is to support the other’s operations as needed, including with “fighters, arms, money, shelter and security.”
Old school al Qaeda talent overseeing efforts
The letter indicates that Zawahiri has appointed an al Qaeda leader known as Abu Khalid al Suri, “the best of men we had known among the Mujahidin,” to make sure that his orders are carried out. Al Suri has been empowered to resolve “any dispute” between the two emirs “arising from the interpretation of this ruling.” And if necessary, al Suri can “set up a Sharia justice court for giving a ruling on the case.”
A longtime al Qaeda operative named Muhammad Bahayah, also known as Abu Khalid al Suri, was released from a Syrian prison in the wake of the rebellion against Bashar al Assad’s regime. Bahayah is profiled at length in Brynjar Lia’s Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al-Qaida Strategist Abu Musab al Suri.
Abu Musab al Suri, whose real name is Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, is a prominent al Qaeda ideologue who remains imprisoned inside Syria.* Lia describes Abu Khalid as Abu Musab al Suri’s “life-long friend and companion.”
Additional intelligence reporting on Abu Khalid can be found in leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessments, which describe him as Abu Musab’s “close friend” and “pistol trainer” at training camps in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. The duo compiled a thick al Qaeda dossier, despite disagreeing with Osama bin Laden over key issues in the 1990s.
If the Abu Khalid al Suri mentioned in the letter is Muhammad Bahayah, then old school al Qaeda talent is now overseeing the organization’s designs in Syria and Iraq.
Possible back story on the dispute
It is clear that al Baghdadi jumped the gun in announcing that al Qaeda’s branches in Iraq and Syria would fight and operate under his leadership — a move that was rejected by both the emir of the Al Nusrah Front and now al Qaeda’s most senior leader.
Why, then, did al Baghdadi brazenly try to place Al Nusrah under his command? We cannot know for certain, and any answer requires speculation. But press reporting and posts on prominent al Qaeda-linked forums provide clues.
Just over two weeks prior to the dispute becoming public, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Al Nusrah Front “was deepening its ties to the terrorist organization’s central leadership in Pakistan, according to US counterterrorism officials.” These same anonymous officials “said they have seen a growth in communications among operatives from al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan.” They also reported “growing numbers of al Qaeda fighters traveling from Pakistan to Syria to join the fight with” Al Nusrah.
The newspaper continued (emphasis added): “The ties to al Qaeda’s central operations have become so significant that US counterterrorism officials are debating whether al Nusrah should now be considered its own al Qaeda affiliate instead of an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq, as it has generally been viewed within the US government, according to a person familiar with the debate.”
Thus, even before al Baghdadi’s announcement it was clear that the Al Nusrah Front was growing in stature and was on the verge of becoming its “own al Qaeda affiliate.”
The dispute between al Baghdadi and al Julani created quite a stir on pro-al Qaeda message boards and forums, with prominent jihadists taking sides. In late May, a little-known jihadist known as “Abu al Layth al Ansari” posted a 67-page study of the issue on the Ansar al Mujahidin web site. The study was summarized by BBC Monitoring.
Al Ansari claimed that al Baghdadi’s organization “had got wind that Al Nusrah Front was internally discussing ‘separating’… and that Al Nusrah had raised this request to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri.” Al Baghdadi then supposedly announced the merger in an attempt to “block” his former lieutenant’s ascension to leader of his own al Qaeda affiliate.
BBC Monitoring cautioned that “it was not possible … to verify the claims and it was unclear how [Al Ansari] had obtained his information.” Perhaps this was not the origin of the dispute. However, it certainly does have a ring of truth of it.
The early April messages from al Baghdadi and al Julani contain a fair amount of quibbling over credit for establishing the Al Nusrah Front. And al Julani disobeys al Baghdadi’s command, swearing allegiance directly to Zawahiri. This makes it possible, if not likely, that al Julani was trying to separate from the ISI before al Baghdadi’s attempted power grab. Ironically, as reported by the The Wall Street Journal more than two weeks earlier, US officials were having the same conversation about the Al Nusrah Front’s place in al Qaeda’s pecking order.
In addition to The Wall Street Journal, other press outlets have reported on al Julani’s and the Al Nusrah Front’s direct ties to Zawahiri prior to the dispute with al Baghdadi. In December, for example, the German daily Die Welt cited “Western intelligence sources” as saying that al Julani is Zawahiri’s “contact in Syria.”
Leading the affiliates
In his letter, Zawahiri summarizes communications to and from the Al Nusrah Front and the ISI dealing with this issue. The letter reveals that Zawahiri has the capacity to communicate regularly with the two affiliates.
Zawahiri writes that he was caught off guard by the dispute that erupted in April, saying al Qaeda’s most senior leaders were never “asked for authorization or advice” and had not “been notified of what occurred between both sides,” only hearing “the news from the media.”
Zawahiri explains that shortly thereafter, on April 11, he sent the two al Qaeda leaders a message telling them to stand down. Zawahiri writes that he “sought to resolve the dispute by sending a message” and wanted to freeze “the matter as it was before the dispute until the matter could be arbitrated,” a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group reads.
Both groups did shutter their propaganda operations after the spat became public, which suggests they were waiting for the matter to be resolved and did not want to further exacerbate the situation. Curiously, however, their propaganda operations have not been restarted.
Zawahiri’s missives in advance of his May 23 ruling were not ignored. “I received messages from both sides and from other sides,” Zawahiri writes. The al Qaeda emir says he held “consultations with my brothers in [the] Khorasan and outside of it” to help resolve the issue.
It was after this back and forth that Zawahiri penned his ruling. Thus, Zawahiri’s decision came 42 days after he initially wrote to both parties on April 11.
How al Qaeda’s branches in Iraq and Syria react in the coming days and weeks will shed additional light on this episode.
*There were conflicting reports regarding Abu Musab al Suri’s status. This sentence was later edited to note that he was still imprisoned inside Syria.