Update: Since we posted the report below a few hours ago, Al Maqreze Media has Tweeted the following in English: “Dr Ayman Al-Zawahiri will not be speaking on our station. We will be raising crucial questions for all concerning the conflict in Syria.” An earlier tweet in Arabic was more ambiguous, making it sound like Hani al Sibai will not be speaking “directly” to Zawahiri (saying that was “impossible”). Some jihadists posting to forums had promoted this as an interview, but that is not in fact the case. In any event, it appears Zawahiri won’t be speaking in any capacity. It would be unusual for Zawahiri to speak through an outlet that is not an official al Qaeda propaganda arm. We will update further if and when Maqreze releases something on the situation in Syria.
Al Maqreze Media, which is based in the UK, has announced online that an interview with Ayman al Zawahiri will be broadcast tomorrow (March 25). The interview will focus on the conflict between the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), which has been disowned by al Qaeda’s general command.
The man asking the questions will be Hani al Sibai, the longtime Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative who runs a prolific jihadist media presence. The EIJ was led by Zawahiri and merged with Osama bin Laden’s venture prior to the 9/11 attacks. Sibai posted the banner above, which is an advertisement for the forthcoming interview, on his Twitter feed today.
ISIS emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi tried to subsume control of the Al Nusrah Front in April 2013. His attempt failed, however, after Abu Muhammad al Julani, who heads the Al Nusrah Front, rejected Baghdadi’s orders and publicly reaffirmed his allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri.
Shortly after Julani rejected Baghdadi’s orders, Zawahiri sent both leaders a letter, demanding that they account for their actions. Both replied and Zawahiri issued his ruling, which was favorable to the Al Nusrah Front, on May 23, 2013. Baghdadi then openly defied Zawahiri’s decision.
The fighting between the Al Nusrah Front and ISIS, both in the online world and on the ground, has not subsided since. On Jan. 23, Zawahiri weighed in on the infighting in an audio message that was distributed online. Zawahiri urged reconciliation, and an initiative was launched to bring ISIS back into the fold. ISIS rejected that effort, too, and was then disowned by al Qaeda.
But ISIS remains a problem for al Qaeda’s senior leadership and, therefore, Zawahiri is forced to weigh in once again.
The Al Nusrah Front and ISIS have been involved in a very public propaganda war. One of the key claims made by Al Nusrah is that Baghdadi had sworn bayat (an oath of fealty) to Zawahiri, and that by disregarding Zawahiri’s orders Baghdadi has broken the oath. Some ISIS supporters have denied this.
It will be interesting to see if Zawahiri comments on this aspect of the dispute.
It is also interesting that Sibai, who lives in London as a “political refugee,” and his media front were able to coordinate this interview with Zawahiri. (Updated: And, of course, based on the latest from Maqreze Media, Sibai will not in fact be interviewing Zawahiri. We will update further if Magreze releases anything.)