Al Qaeda has released a new audio message from Ayman al Zawahiri entitled, “Go Forth to the Levant.” Zawahiri is known for his long-winded lectures. By his standard, the new audio is mercifully short at just over ten minutes long. It was disseminated via social media yesterday.
The al Qaeda emir emphasizes, once again, that his men seek to build an Islamic emirate (or state) in Syria. And he heaps praise on Al Nusrah Front, which is openly loyal to him.
Zawahiri begins by saying that the “Levant today is the hope of the Muslim ummah [worldwide community of Muslims],” because it is the only “popular revolution” started during “the Arab Spring that followed the correct path,” which requires both dawa (proselytization) and jihad to establish the “rightly guided caliphate.”
Throughout his talk, Zawahiri contrasts the Islamic emirate that al Qaeda hopes to build in Syria with that of the “Kharijites,” a name given to a faction in Islam’s early history that is considered deviant. Today, the word is often used as a synonym for extremists. Indeed, Zawahiri uses “Kharijites” and “neo-Kharijites” as a way to refer to al Qaeda’s rivals in Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State. Al Qaeda and like-minded jihadists have rejected Baghdadi’s project, arguing it is not a proper caliphate.
The al Qaeda emir says it is the “duty” of all Muslims today to “defend jihad in the Levant against” various “conspiracies” that are supposedly led by America, Britain and Saudi Arabia. Others seek to “establish a regime” based on Islam, but it is only a “counterfeit” version of Islam because it approves of “secularism” and “nationalism,” Zawahiri warns.
Some believe that al Qaeda is only interested in attacking the West and doesn’t really seek to acquire territory. This myth is contradicted by many facts. And Zawahiri’s latest message demonstrates, again, that al Qaeda’s principal interest in Syria is to wage guerrilla warfare until Bashar al Assad’s regime is toppled. Only then can al Qaeda and its allies build a jihadist emirate in Assad’s ashes.
Zawahiri says it is “our duty today” to work for the “unity of the mujahideen” until the Levant is “liberated” from the “Nusayri” (a pejorative term for Alawites) regime and their Shiite partners (meaning Iran and Hezbollah), as well as the Western “Crusaders” and Russia. The goal is to build a “rightly guided” Islamic “entity.”
The al Qaeda leader urges the mujahideen to unite in Syria, saying it is a matter of “life and death” for them. He also cautions them not to be distracted by the discussion of Al Nusrah Front’s relationship with al Qaeda.
Referring to reports that Al Nusrah is going to break its bay’ah (allegiance) to al Qaeda, Zawahiri asks rhetorically if this is would satisfy the “criminals.” Zawahiri wonders further if such a break would lead to Al Nusrah being forced to “submit to humiliating and insulting agreements” as part of a “surrender” to “corrupt” governments in the region. Zawahiri cautions that this is the path to “rotten” democracy, which was the downfall of other Islamist groups, such as the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and led to their members being thrown in jail.
Zawahiri says he and others in al Qaeda “cherish” their “relationship” with the “precious Al Nusrah Front” and he asks Allah to increase its “steadfastness” in the face of its enemies.
He then gets to the heart of the matter, repeating what he and others have made clear in the past: Al Qaeda is fighting to install an Islamic emirate based on its version of sharia. Only then will al Qaeda’s mission be accomplished.
“We have said over and over [to] the people of the Levant” and especially to the “brave and blessed mujahideen,” if “they establish their Muslim government and choose an imam, then what they choose is what we choose,” Zawahiri says, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. He argues that al Qaeda’s men are not “students of power” who want to rule over others, but instead “students of sharia judgment” who want to be “ruled as Muslims” under Islam.
Zawahiri calls on the mujahideen to unite in the Levant, so they can “establish a rightly guided mujahid Islamic government.” Such a state would ultimately lead to the “return of the caliphate” according to the “prophetic methodology.”
Organizational “affiliations” will not be “an obstacle” to achieving this goal, Zawahiri insists, because al Qaeda is a part of the “ummah” and “not its rulers.” He takes another dig at the Islamic State, saying al Qaeda does not require a bay’ah to “unknown people” or a “Caliph of surprises,” meaning Baghdadi.
“We in al Qaeda have not accepted pledges of allegiance except those given gladly, nor have we forced them upon anyone,” Zawahiri says, according to the translation obtained by The Long War Journal. He draws a direct contrast to the “neo-Kharijites” in the Islamic State, who threaten to kill people if they do not pledge their fealty.
Zawahiri’s explanation of al Qaeda’s goals and relationship with Al Nusrah Front is entirely consistent with what al Qaeda leaders have said in the past.
In an interview televised in December, for instance, Al Nusrah Front emir Abu Muhammad al Julani explained that his group would cease to be al Qaeda only when they achieved victory. If the jihadists win and form the radical Islamic government they envision, then there will be no need for al Qaeda. Julani cited Zawahiri in his explanation. [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front leader refuses to break with al Qaeda.]
“If the Levant is liberated, and if the Muslims come together in a well-guided Islamic government, a well-guided Muslim state that enforces the sharia of Allah Almighty, I will be the first soldier of such a government, and I will be under its jurisdiction,” Zawahiri said previously, according to Julani.
“Even Dr. Ayman [al Zawahiri] will be a soldier serving under the command of such a government” that “enforces all the instructions of Islam,” Julani said. And Al Nusrah’s jihadists “will be the first soldiers working under the command of such a government” as well.
Some claim that Zawahiri’s words imply a real “break” between Al Nusrah and al Qaeda’s senior leadership. But his latest message, and Julani’s previous explanation, do not support that interpretation.
The Long War Journal has reported on multiple occasions that some jihadists, including even some al Qaeda leaders, view the al Qaeda brand as a hindrance to overthrowing Assad. Al Nusrah’s overt role in al Qaeda’s network likely limits the amount of support that some regional actors can provide to the insurgents. [See, for example, LWJ reports: Al Nusrah Front chief proposed rebel unity plan and US strikes al Qaeda’s ‘Khorasan Group’ in Syria.]
Even if Al Nusrah did announce a split from al Qaeda, then it likely would be nothing more than a marketing ploy. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri have ordered groups loyal to them to hide their affiliation in order to avoid the baggage that comes with being associated with al Qaeda. The group has also adopted multiple brands across the globe to obfuscate the extent of its network from the West and broaden its appeal to Muslims. For example, Al Nusrah currently leads the Jaysh al Fath alliance in Syria. The coalition provides Al Nusrah (al Qaeda) with a way to pool the resources of other groups, including those receiving support from foreign nations.
Zawahiri’s new message is simply the latest confirmation of al Qaeda’s longstanding goal.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.