ISIS spokesman blames Zawahiri for infighting in Syria

The spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), Abu Muhammad al Adnani, has released an audio message blaming al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri for the jihadists’ infighting in Syria. The ISIS was formally disowned by al Qaeda’s general command in February.

Adnani’s new message is a response to Zawahiri, who had again called for reconciliation in an address earlier this month. Adnani rejects the overture, including Zawahiri’s demands that the ISIS leave the battlefields of Syria and submit itself to a common sharia (Islamic law) court capable of settling its differences with other factions.

The ISIS’ animosity for Abu Muhammad al Julani, who heads the Al Nusrah Front, is apparent throughout the message. Al Nusrah is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. Adnani refers to Julani as a traitor and Al Nusrah’s members as “thieves and traitors.”

Prior to the revolution in Syria, Julani served as a lieutenant to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the ISIS. In April 2013, however, Julani refused an order from Baghdadi to fold Al Nusrah’s operations under the banner of the then newly-expanded ISIS, which had previously concentrated its efforts in Iraq. Julani instead reaffirmed his allegiance directly to Zawahiri. The bitter feud has not subsided in the year since.

Adnani’s message begins with citations to several al Qaeda leaders: Osama bin Laden, Abu Yahya al Libi (a top al Qaeda leader killed in 2012), Sulaiman Abu Ghaith (bin Laden’s former spokesman, who is now imprisoned in the US), and Abu Musab al Zarqawi (the deceased leader of al Qaeda in Iraq). Adnani uses the testimony of these four senior jihadists to undermine the legitimacy of the governments ruling in Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, saying they are not proper Islamic states. In the process, Adnani tries to portray the ISIS as the only entity ruling according to sharia, as al Qaeda’s leaders have consistently advocated.

Oath of allegiance a key issue in dispute

A key issue in the dispute is the ISIS’ former place within the al Qaeda hierarchy. Some within the ISIS and its supporters have claimed that the group did not really swear a full oath of allegiance to al Qaeda’s emirs, but instead only pledged its support for al Qaeda. Earlier this month, Zawahiri addressed this claim in his own message, saying that the ISIS’ predecessors were loyal to bin Laden and al Qaeda’s leadership, and that the ISIS repeatedly addressed him as their emir.

The ISIS spokesman struggles to explain why his group was not a formal branch of al Qaeda before the dispute over Syria broke out. Adnani says that al Qaeda as it supposedly existed prior to the dispute “runs in our blood” and “has become rooted in our hearts.” Adnani adds that he and his comrades “revered” and “glorified” al Qaeda “to the extent that we have not obeyed leaderships other than this leadership.”

Adnani even mentions one of the same missives Zawahiri introduced as evidence of the ISIS’ former loyalty — a message to al Qaeda’s general command from Abu Hamza al Muhajir, a Zawahiri loyalist who was a senior figure in the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) before being killed in 2010. “In this message, the ISIS emphasized ‘its loyalty to the figures of the ummah as manifested in al Qaeda’,” Adnani says, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.

Adnani further explains that, in al Muhajir’s message, the ISIS told al Qaeda: “You have the final say in leading jihad in the world. Although your organization has been dissolved in the ISIS land, you still have the final say in order to maintain the unanimous decision of the mujahideen and close their ranks.” (Al Muhajir’s group had not yet expanded into Syria, so Adnani’s reference to it as the ISIS is anachronistic. It was the Islamic State of Iraq at the time.)

Adnani concedes that the ISIS’ “emirs used to address al Qaeda as soldiers address their emirs, students address their mentor sheikhs, and juniors address their seniors.” And he even admits that the ISIS has refrained from targeting the Shiite nation of Iran, because the ISIS was “acting upon the orders of al Qaeda to safeguard its interests and supply lines in Iran.”

“Let history record that Iran owes al Qaeda invaluably,” Adnani bristles.

The ISIS also has not operated inside Saudi Arabia or interfered in Egypt, Libya or Tunisia, so as to not “disobey the figures and leaders of jihad” in al Qaeda.

After saying that the ISIS has obeyed al Qaeda’s directives in all of these ways, Adnani argues that the ISIS has not refrained from targeting Shiite civilians in Iraq, as repeatedly directed by Zawahiri. Adnani says the ISIS would have complied with this order if Zawahiri was its emir. But then Adnani immediately concedes, “We complied with your request not to target [the Shiites] outside Iraq, in Iran and elsewhere.”

Still, Adnani insists that the ISIS was not under al Qaeda’s command. He asks what assistance, financial or otherwise, al Qaeda has provided the organization, implying that the answer is none. Adnani claims that al Qaeda did not oversee the ISIS’ operations. And Adnani argues that Zawahiri did not speak to the ISIS as an emir would until the disagreements in Syria erupted.

Demand for jihad throughout North Africa and Middle East

To quell the infighting, Adnani says, Zawahiri must “refute the allegiance” the Al Nusrah Front’s Abu Muhammad al Julani has offered him. Zawahiri must declare all Shiites “infidels,” according to Adnani, and he also has to declare the ruling regimes in several countries to be apostates.

Adnani’s argument is curious because Zawahiri has repeatedly condemned the governments in at least some of the countries the ISIS spokesman mentions, including Egypt. The ISIS, however, does not like al Qaeda’s calibrated approach to the post-Arab Spring world, in which al Qaeda sometimes uses tactics other than violence, including proselytization, to spread its ideology. Accordingly, Adnani wants al Qaeda to declare an open jihad in virtually every country throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

In the end, Adnani appeals to the other branches, or so called “affiliates,” of al Qaeda. He requests “an official statement from all the branches of al Qaeda in all the regions stating their clear stances” concerning ISIS and its approach to waging jihad.

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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