Al Qaeda has released a message from Ayman al Zawahiri, who rebukes Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and the Islamic State, arguing the so-called “caliphate” is illegitimate. Ever since the rivalry between the two jihadist poles boiled over in early 2014, Zawahiri has allowed others to take the lead in al Qaeda’s attempt to undermine the Islamic State’s credentials. Zawahiri has criticized the Islamic State, but he has not unleashed a full broadside.
In the message released today, however, Zawahiri doesn’t hold back. He emphasizes that al Qaeda doesn’t recognize Baghdadi’s so-called “caliphate,” saying it is not qualified to lead Muslims.
The al Qaeda emir’s audio address is embedded in a video, which is nearly 45 minutes long. A still image of him is used throughout. The video is the first in al Qaeda’s “Islamic Spring” series. It was recorded several months ago, but not released until earlier today.
Zawahiri says he has pulled his rhetorical punches in the rivalry with Baghdadi’s group because he didn’t want to further inflame the “fitna” (or discord) that plagues the jihadists’ ranks. Zawahiri says he also hoped for reconciliation.
Eventually, al Qaeda’s emir says, he had no choice but to forcefully respond. Baghdadi called for members of al Qaeda to defect to his cause, renouncing their oaths of loyalty to Zawahiri in the process. Baghdadi’s organization has also further exacerbated the jihadists’ divisions by declaring “provinces” in several areas.
Zawahiri mentions the Islamic State’s attempts to convince members of Shabaab, al Qaeda’s official branch in Somalia, to switch their allegiance to Baghdadi. And the al Qaeda chieftain reveals that Ahmed Abdi Godane (a.k.a. Mukhtar Abu al Zubayr), the first emir of Shabaab, wrote to him to express his disapproval of the Islamic State’s methods.
Interestingly, these efforts have failed thus far, as the Islamic State has failed to establish a significant foothold in East Africa.
Godane was killed in an American airstrike in September 2014. Although Godane was eulogized by al Qaeda’s regional branches, Zawahiri himself did not release a statement on Godane’s death. But Zawahiri offers his condolences for the fallen Shabaab commander in his newly released address. And he also formally accepts the oath of loyalty (bayat) sworn by Abu Ubaidah Ahmad Umar, Godane’s successor as the emir of Shabaab. Al Qaeda’s branch in Somalia reaffirmed its loyalty to Zawahiri just days after Godane’s death.
Zawahiri stresses that no Muslim is obligated to swear fealty to Baghdadi or his state. The al Qaeda leader says that the supposed “caliphate” wasn’t established based on the “prophetic method” and lacks the approval of recognized jihadist authorities.
Even though the Islamic State has made serious “mistakes” and he doesn’t recognize its legitimacy, Zawahiri says that if he were based in Iraq or Syria he would work with it against the “crusaders,” Shiites, the Iraqi government, secularists and others. The jihadists’ interests are more important than the Islamic State’s supposed “caliphate,” Zawahiri argues.
Al Qaeda’s call for unity against the jihadists’ common enemies isn’t new or surprising, despite the enmity between the two sides. Zawahiri has repeatedly attempted to broker a peace deal. Al Qaeda’s regional branches have as well. It is likely that while al Qaeda considers Baghdadi and most of his inner circle to be a lost cause, the group still hopes that part of the Islamic State can be reconciled.