Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri discusses the infighting between jihadist groups in Syria and his opposition to the Egyptian government in a newly released audio interview. As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, produced the interview, which is titled “Reality Between Pain and Hope.”
Zawahiri is asked about the state of al Qaeda’s jihad against the US, specifically in the wake of high-profile losses in al Qaeda’s leadership, including the killing of Osama bin Laden. Zawahiri says that despite the demise of some of the group’s leaders, al Qaeda is still winning the long fight against the US.
“The party that does not withdraw from its land is winning the battle,” Zawahiri says, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. “Which party withdrew from Iraq which one did not withdraw? Which party is withdrawing from Afghanistan and which party is not withdrawing?” Zawahiri adds that “victory” is only earned by “ground troops that control the land,” and the US is not close to achieving this goal.
Zawahiri addresses the claim that al Qaeda has been all but defeated as an organization. “Obama knows too well that al Qaeda, by the grace of God, is spreading out and deploying in other areas and when it is the right time we will reveal it, God willing.” In addition, Zawahiri claims, al Qaeda “is a message before it is an organization or a group” and its message has “spread out in the entire Islamic world and among the downtrodden people all over the world.”
The al Qaeda head has made this argument before, including in a message released on Sept. 10, 2012. A pro-al Qaeda demonstration led by Mohammed al Zawahiri, Ayman’s younger brother, was held the next day in Cairo. Al Qaeda-linked organizations assaulted several US diplomatic facilities in the days that followed, including in Benghazi, Libya.
Infighting in Syria
The As Sahab interviewer asks Zawahiri about the infighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), which has been disowned by al Qaeda’s general command, and the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. While refusing to name any of the parties involved, Zawahiri repeats much of what he has said in the past. He again calls for all of the groups involved to submit themselves to an independent sharia (Islamic law) court that can adjudicate between them.
Zawahiri points to examples of the past, including Algeria in the early 1990s. The excesses of some jihadists there compromised the fight against the Algerian government and alienated the people. Al Qaeda is keen to avoid such a scenario in Syria. And the al Qaeda master even suggests the possibility that Bashar al Assad’s regime or other foreign powers have infiltrated the jihadist groups in order to sow dissent.
ISIS is suspected of killing high-profile jihadists and has often fought with other groups inside Syria. Zawahiri says Islamic law prohibits him or any other leader, such as ISIS emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi or Nusrah emir Abu Muhammad al Julani, from ordering attacks against mujahideen. If a jihadist leader does so, Zawahiri argues, then the foot soldiers are obligated to disobey such orders.
In response to a question about the differences between al Qaeda and ISIS, Zawahiri mentions two differences in their ideologies. The first has to do with their approaches to waging jihad, and the second is related to al Qaeda’s organizational structure.
First, al Qaeda has issued “General Guidelines” for jihadists to follow, but ISIS has refused to do so. This is a bone of contention between the two groups. In Iraq and elsewhere, al Qaeda groups have lost popular support because of their indiscriminate slaughter of Muslim civilians. To address this strategic liability, al Qaeda decided to formulate the guidelines “after we had consulted all the brothers on it,” Zawahiri says.
Al Qaeda’s emir says that his group is focused on uniting the Islamic community to fight Islam’s supposed external enemies, including America. In addition, al Qaeda aims to restore the Caliphate, which was disbanded in 1924, but “on the basis of Shura [consultation with other groups] and consent by all Muslims.” While this is certainly an exaggeration, as al Qaeda operates by imposing its ideology, Zawahiri’s words are intended to draw a contrast with ISIS. The unruly former al Qaeda branch is seeking to rule over not just Syrian civilians, but also other jihadist groups. In short, al Qaeda is attempting to become more of a popular revolutionary movement while ISIS continues to operate as a top-down organization, refusing to consult with other mujahideen.
Second, al Qaeda did not bless the formation of ISIS in the first place. ISIS’ leaders announced the expansion of the group into Syria “without getting permission or sending a notification” to al Qaeda’s senior leaders. This claim has been made previously, including in the statement by al Qaeda’s general command disavowing ISIS. “The guidance from [al Qaeda’s] general command was not to make any public response to ISIS,” Zawahiri says. “This guidance was issued in full accord even by the brothers in Iraq.”
US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal that senior ISIS leaders in Iraq did not agree with Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s decision to expand the group into Syria. Zawahiri may be referring to this dissent.
Opposition to Egyptian government
Much of Zawahiri’s interview focuses on events inside Egypt, and the new constitution adopted there. Zawahiri says that while the constitution mentions sharia law it has no mechanism for enforcing sharia and is, therefore, not consistent with al Qaeda’s ideology.
Zawahiri portrays the new Egyptian government as an extension of America’s interests and encourages opposition to it. Groups such as Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (Ansar Jerusalem) and Ajnad Misr have attacked government officials and security officials, and have stated that they are attempting to avoid civilian casualties.
But in Egypt, as elsewhere, Zawahiri is worried about the population turning against the jihadists. “We bless every jihadist operation against the Zionist, Americanized Army that protects their borders, the Ministry of Interior, and the US interests that wage aggression against the Muslims as long as this jihadist operation abides by the sharia restrictions that avoid the impermissible [spilling of the] blood of Muslims,” Zawahiri says.
For an insurgency against the Egyptian government to succeed, Zawahiri says, the jihadists “must muster public support first.” The al Qaeda master warns, “Experience has shown us that without such support the fighting will not achieve victory or success.”