Al Qaeda head addresses infighting in Syria

The emir of al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri, has released a new audio message addressing the infighting between jihadist groups in Syria. Zawahiri does not mention any specific groups or individuals by name, but much of his message is clearly aimed at the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), a branch of al Qaeda that has been the main source of the internecine conflict.

Zawahiri addresses all of the jihadist factions fighting against Bashar al Assad’s regime, saying they are the best “hope” for establishing an Islamic state in the heart of the Levant, as well as “liberating Jerusalem,” according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.

Al Qaeda respects and admires “all of you,” Zawahiri says, addressing all of the factions as “brothers.” According to Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s leaders believe that the jihadists’ “brotherhood in Islam” is stronger than any temporary “organizational bonds.”

Zawahiri implores the jihadists to “let go” of their “partisan fanaticism” if it cuts against the “unity of your ranks.” The infighting distracts them from fighting their true enemies, including Shiite forces, Russia, and China, all of whom are supposedly colluding with the “Crusader campaign.”

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and other ISIS leaders have claimed to represent the only true Islamic state inside Syria and have tried to make other jihadist groups abide by its rules. However, other jihadist groups, including al Qaeda’s other official branch inside Syria, the Al Nusrah Front, as well as al Qaeda-linked groups such as Ahrar al Sham, have rejected ISIS’ claims of superiority.

Although Zawahiri does not address ISIS directly, at least three parts of the audio message seem to be targeted at the unruly group.

First, Zawahiri says that al Qaeda does not accept “any violation” or “any assault” against the “sanctity of any Muslim or jihadist.” Al Qaeda also does “not accept” the accusations of “infidelity or apostasy” that have been levied against some jihadist groups, because they are all “sacrificing their lives and properties” for the sake of jihad.

ISIS has repeatedly accused other jihadist organizations of being apostates or infidels, especially when they do not accept the group’s unilateral decisions.

Second, Zawahiri urges al Qaeda’s “dear brothers” to name “anyone they want” as the new ruler of Syria, as long as he has the proper religious credentials. “We will accept the person they choose” to run the new Islamic government, Zawahiri says.

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. 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.”

In a letter written in May 2013, Zawahiri canceled Baghdadi’s attempt to subsume control of the Al Nusrah Front. In the months since, however, Baghdadi has not relinquished his attempted power grab. Zawahiri’s message is aimed at unifying the jihadists’ ranks inside Syria such that they pursue common goals, and Baghdadi’s delusions of grandeur clearly interfere with this objective.

Third, and finally, Zawahiri urges the Syrian jihadists “to establish a sharia arbitration committee” capable of ruling “among different factions on all the accusations leveled by any group against its” jihadist brethren. This committee should also have “a mechanism to enforce” its decisions.

ISIS has frequently refused to settle its differences in a common sharia court. Instead, the group has sought to impose its decrees on others. On multiple occasions, Zawahiri and other al Qaeda-linked ideologues have attempted to get ISIS to acquiesce to rulings made by sharia court staffed with representatives from each of the groups. This would require ISIS to relinquish its exclusionary claim on power, which it has thus far been unwilling to do.

In sum, the long-awaited message from Zawahiri shows that al Qaeda is still attempting to settle the disputes between ISIS and other jihadist organizations.

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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  • SlayerMill says:

    Zawahiri’s statement has all the elements of a joke. He says al Qaeda does not accept “any violation” or “any assault” against the “sanctity of any Muslim or jihadist”; while the overwhelming majority of al Qaeda’s attacks have resulted in the deaths of Muslims as opposed to Westerners. Al Qaeda and the Taliban, who are pretty much the exact same group by this point with all the inbreeding amongst the two in terms of training, resources, and in many respects ideology and goals; consistently target Muslims in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Syria.
    Then Zawahiri asks jihadists to let go of “partisan fanaticism” if it cuts into their ranks. So it’s ok for Zawahiri to have partisan fanaticism for Al Qaeda, but not ok for guys like Abu Bakr al Baghdadi to have the same fervor for their organization despite the fact their goals are ultimately the same? Zawahiri obviously sees the threat posed to his power by the ISIS and wants to bring them firmly under his umbrella before growing beyond what his grubby mitts can control.
    Zawahiri also goes on to claim he won’t impose a ruler on Syria, that the jihadists inside Syria can decide that on their own as long as that person is qualified and committed to the rules of Sharia. “Sharia” is an extremely dynamic way of implementing laws contrary to what most people believe. In legitimate Sunni Islam, which Zawahiri claims to be a part of, there are basically four main schools which constitute what are laws and how they’re implemented. Without going into too much detail, the way Sharia is carried out is dependent upon the school which one comes from. Since Zawahiri ultimately doesn’t abide by any of the prescribed Sunni schools of law, he’s basically saying whoever runs the show inside Syria should be approved by him. Just like the Ayatollah does with presidential candidates inside Iran, Zawahiri is fine with whoever’s in charge, as long as they’re from a list of people he approves.
    In summation, Zawahiri wants full control over every jihadist organization and leader. Like all the apostate dictators in the Near East he seeks to topple, he wants dictatorial control over everything and everyone. Especially with Baghdadi requiring some members of the ISIS to proclaim allegiance specifically to him and being totally unwilling to submit to any type of authority, just as Zawahiri’s bed buddy bin Laden did; he sees a looming threat to his organization. I’m willing to bet at some point we’ll be reading articles on this website about Zawahiri green-lighting Baghdadi for assassination. Contrary of course, to Zawahiri’s statement about the bloodshed of other Muslims or jihadists being unacceptable.

  • Joseph says:

    And if the ISIS does not listen? What plugs can Zawahiri really pull on them if they don’t?

  • Evan says:

    Basically, Baghdadi played his ” ultra puritanical, deeply intolerant, completely out of touch,” version of jihad too soon.
    Meaning, that all of these guys, ISIL, Al Nusra, Ahrar al Shams, and more certainly, share the same goals.
    They desire an Islamic empire, one ruled by them.
    One of them jumped the gun on the others, and it took a while, but the others finally all got together to fight back.
    So, who’s next?


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