In a three-page statement released online, al Qaeda head Ayman al Zawahiri again discusses the infighting between jihadist groups in Syria. Zawahiri’s missive is addressed to the six jihadist ideologues who called on him to offer specific critiques of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), which was disowned by al Qaeda’s general command in early February.
The ideologues called for Zawahiri’s statement in mid-April. The al Qaeda emir’s reply is dated May 3, but was not released by As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda shop, until May 24.
In his new statement, Zawahiri refers to a message he released in early May entitled, “Testimonial to Preserve the Blood of Mujahideen in al Sham.” Zawahiri explained in that message that the ISIS’ leaders, including the ISIS chief Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, had sworn bayat (an oath of allegiance) to al Qaeda. Some ISIS supporters and officials have claimed that the group was not an official branch of al Qaeda, despite the fact that ISIS openly referred to Zawahiri as its emir. Zawahiri’s message served as a rebuttal in which he offered several examples showing that ISIS and its predecessors treated Zawahiri as their leader.
Zawahiri summarizes his previous message in his new one. “I said that the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) was a branch of al Qaeda, and that its emir and soldiers had upon their neck a pledge of allegiance to al Qaeda and its emir, Sheikh Usama bin Laden, may Allah have mercy on him, and then upon my weak self, and it had been repeated by them often,” Zawahiri says, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.
“I had mentioned some examples of this, and I will give you another,” Zawahiri continues, citing an Oct. 23, 2012 message from Abu Bakr al Baghdadi that begins with the words, “To our Emir, Sheikh Dr. Abu Muhammad Ayman al Zawahiri, may Allah preserve him: Peace be upon you, and Allah’s mercy and blessings.”
According to Zawahiri, Baghdadi went on to address Zawahiri as “‘our blessed Sheikh,'” saying “‘we are a part of you, and we are from you and for you, and we owe it to Allah that you are the caretakers of our affairs and you have upon us the right of listening and obeying as long as we live.'” Baghdadi’s message made it clear that his group owed its obedience to Zawahiri, who also cited this statement by the ISI emir: “‘Your advice and reminding us what is right upon us, and your commands are obligatory upon us, but the issues may sometimes require some clarification due to us living the reality of the events in our field. Therefore, we hope that your heart would widen to hear our viewpoint, but the matter after that is for you, and we are nothing but arrows in your quiver.'”
After citing Baghdadi’s October 2012 message, Zawahiri goes on to recount how he ordered the ISIS to return to Iraq and continue its work as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Baghdadi disobeyed this command, however.
In his latest message, Zawahiri again says that Baghdadi and his subordinates should return to the jihad in Iraq. The al Qaeda emir also says that the pledges of allegiance Baghdadi has collected as emir of the ISIS “are null pledges, because they arose from a direct violation of my command as his direct emir,” according to SITE’s translation.
Zawahiri also reiterates his call for the establishment of an independent sharia court capable of mediating the disputes between the jihadist factions.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.