Analysis: Zawahiri’s letter to al Qaeda branches in Syria, Iraq

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.]

Zawahiri’s ruling

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.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • sundoesntirse says:

    The situation in Syria is complex for the West. There is two sides to this coin, from a Western perspective:
    If the West backs the rebels and they win, then not only will Russia be totally cut off from the Middle East, but Iran and Hezbollah will have suffered a massive, irreversible blow. This may lead to a chain linked effect where Hezbollah and Iran also suffer their own insurrections and possibly cease to exist as a result of their own collapses. The West would achieve great geopolitical gain in this region if moderate rebels prevail and topple the regime. But, however, Sunni extremists could then set up shop and wreak havoc across the region with their massive supplies of money and weapons and recruits.
    If the Assad regime ends up winning, then Iran and Hezbollah will be emboldened, and Russia will have guaranteed it’s geopolitical stake in the Middle East. Assad will stay as an arms buyer of Russia, they get to keep their port in Tartus, and they get a victory against the West. The regime in Iran and Hezbollah combined with Assad will get a new boost of life as the “Axis Of Resistance” will consolidate it’s existence, shore up their military power and perhaps prepare to strike Israel next. Iran would be in absolutely no mood to “negotiate” about it’s nukes. This situation, if Assad wins, would be an absolute geopolitical failure for the West.
    It is my view that we should arm rebels under the command of Salim Idriss, one of the few FSA battalions left. Syria is a great geopolitical battle arena with different sides trying to get a piece of the pie and tugging Syria around in all different directions for their own benefit. The western powers would be wise to make sure that this conflict ends up benefiting them in the long run.
    Syrians should not have to settle for an Assad family dynasty, Alawite minority ruled 43 year police state dictatorship where the regime’s thugs systematically destroy entire cities, massacre entire villages, use chemical weapons on the population, rape women, shell houses, and throw hundreds of thousands into torture dungeons just so a family dictatorship can continue to rule over an entire ancient land that the Assad’s believe they own.
    Bashar Al Assad never truly opposed Al Qaeda – until they turned their guns on him. I should remind everyone to know that his regime was a major facilitator for Al Qaeda in Iraq, allowing them to use Syrian territory to cross over into Iraq, conduct attacks and then run back into Syria. The Syrian Intelligence Services even occasionally provided them with weapons caches, including supplying them with IEDs and teaching them how to make IEDs as well.
    And when it comes to the “terrorism” factor, I wonder why almost everyone I see condemning the “terrorists” in Syria were never around for the atrocities of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Mali, Algeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Chechnya. Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, all countries of which have suffered from Islamist terrorist attacks. Why all of a sudden is everyone coming out of their hole to condemn the few Al Qaeda fighters in Syria, when the reason they are there is because the West never came to the aid of slaughtered Syrians?
    Give the moderate FSA factions proper equipment to fight the regime and the suicide bombings, car bombings, and Al Nusra style extremist attacks will stop. It is a simple fact of war that when certain factions are more powerful than others, that their style of combat will also prevail over others.
    There is the FSA, then Islamist factions like Ahrar Al Sham, and then you get into the Al Qaeda style groups. We should arm the FSA moderates, isolate the Islamist factions and that in turn will sap Al Qaeda of the power it has gained in Syria over the years.

  • Paul D says:

    Is Ayman al Zawahiri in Iran or a Pak ISI safe house?

  • JRP says:

    Any way of discerning from this AAZ’s whereabouts? AAZ is the last of the 3 main 911 Attack plotters and probably the shrewdest of the lot, notwithstanding his lack of charisma. If best guess is that AAZ is in Pakistan, as was the case with Bin Ladin, then U.S. needs to financially squeeze Pakistan to assist us in locating and either capturing him or otherwise eliminating him.

  • matthew says:

    According to Peter Bergen, Zawahiri wasn’t one of the main 9/11 plotters. Bin Laden didn’t even inform him of the 9/11 plot until the summer of 2001.
    As for his location, my guess is Pakistan. Most of the other shura council members are in Iran.

  • mike merlo says:

    Why have ‘anybody’ in charge? ‘These guys’ seem to ‘accomplish’ a lot more when all involved are just ‘winging’ it.

  • Moose says:

    Two things I find interesting in this article:
    1) Zawahiri is communicating with AQ affilitates and emirs way more than OBL ever did. This is another reason I think he’s in the tribal regions of Pakistan and not in areas directly under the control of the Paki state. The ISI would have kept a muzzle on him for sure. Do the Pakis know where he is? Of course, but they won’t bother going after him. No matter, at some point his extensive communications will be his undoing.
    2) The drama makes me wonder how Zarqawi would have handled it if he were alive. Zarqawi dissed AQ central early on in the Iraq war and was always a thorn in their side. I’m pretty sure he would have disregarded Zawahiri’s letter and probably assassinated al-Julani. Wouldn’t be the first AQ mafia-style hit… that’s how OBL became top dog after killing al-Azzam, allegedly.
    Exploiting these divisions is the key to winning the long war.

  • Jacknola says:

    Re: Syria – from a purely academic point of view, it may be best to just let all sides fight it out for a long time. Moderate groups never prevail against fanatics. Best to let them all “get it out of their system” by killing each other.
    And – we ought to be arming the Turkish protestors, who represent the hope of a modern society in the Muslim world. The only way to institutionally undermine the muslim terrorists is to culturally subvert them, and they know it which is why they are so adament about attacking any vestige of western culture.
    Re: Pakistan – the home of terrorism. Pakistan hosted the father of Al Qaaida, and every major terrorism event in the last 25 years has roots in that country, and probably in the ISI. Pakistani Generals were tapped toasting each other after 9-11. Killing or arresting the foot soldiers is a battle of attritiion that will last forever. Time to go for the head. And here may be a way sense we are so lawyer-bound that we are almost unable to act, even in wartime.
    Eye for an eye: the good thing about turning Afghanistan over to the Afghans is that they will not be constrained by our rules. They will go back to being Pashtuns… you kill my family – I kill yours. Apparently mysterious assasinations are occuring in Quatta… and we aren’t doing them. I wonder if this could be encouraged? Proxy war…

  • My interest in the article is solely the release of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri (happened in 2012?). He is a ‘guerrilla’s guerrilla’, I highly suggest reading Brynjar Lia’s book about al-Suri as Mr. Joscelyn has mentioned.
    Thomas, al-Suri was a known for criticizing al-Qaeda’s over-arching strategy as being a terrorist ‘organization’, which he thought would be a precursor to its downfall; he was, and still is as more digital ‘jihadists’ read his extensive works and listen to his lectures, arguably one of al-Qaeda’s most pragmatic thinkers who was extremely well-read in regards to history and irregular warfare. Since Abu Mus’ab al-Suri repeatedly lobbied for a Syrian ‘jihad’ in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, will the Syrian conflict that is still unfolding allow him to establish a position of importance if he chooses to mentor ‘jihadists’ on the ground? Or do you think he will criticize the way al-Qaeda is managing it’s franchises in the Levant and Iraq?

  • mike merlo says:

    @Paul D, JRP, matthew, Moose
    IMO based on ‘everything’ we’ve come to ‘witness’ & have been ‘exposed’ to I wouldn’t be surprised to find Zawahiri periodically ensconced in the Sudan & roaming about the ‘Extremist Ether’ that has settled upon & enveloped the Sahara & Mediterranean Africa

  • Tim says:

    Zawahiri has a brilliant mind but has no true charisma. I can assure you most of his decisions can be characterized as not having gall. he doesn’t want to cause conflict with any group, so he will tend to say this group stay within its owns functions and grounds. Though Bin Laden was in Pakistan since at least 2008, Zawahiri travels though limited.. he is sheltered in Iran not Pakistan. Also travels to Herat Afghanistan. Pakistan is corrupt but got gunshy after Bin laden. Zawahiri days are numbered whether it be by death or expulsion by his own people. It will come soon


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