Al Qaeda released yet another message from Ayman al Zawahiri yesterday. Since mid-2015, Zawahiri has released a steady stream of statements concerning events around the world.
The al Qaeda leader’s latest message, titled “We Shall Fight You Until There is No More Persecution (Allah-Willing),” glorifies his predecessor’s role in supposedly uniting the jihadists around a common cause. Images of the 9/11 attacks play in the background as he speaks.
Zawahiri praises bin Laden for “[u]niting the jihadi organizations on a common goal on which the Ummah can be united,” “[m]aking the Ummah recognize its real enemy, which must be made a target of priority in its Jihad,” and “[b]ringing jihadi organizations under the banner of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” meaning the Taliban.
Bin Laden could have confined al Qaeda to a “regional jihad,” Zawahiri says, but instead he decided to fight both America and the regimes ruling Muslim-majority countries. In so doing, bin Laden “set in motion…a widespread awakening in different parts of the Muslim world” that continues to this day. Al Qaeda often refers to bin Laden as the “reviving sheikh” for his role in spreading the jihadist ideology and Zawahiri employs similar language, remembering his fallen comrade as “an Imam among the Imams and revivers of Muslims.”
“This then is the way of Osama bin Laden (may Allah have mercy on him), and this is the way of al-Qaeda after him: confronting the head of global disbelief first, while working at the same time on Jihad against the local client regimes, because the war is eventually a single war, and it is not detached except in the imagination of someone who does not have a correct perception of the situation,” Zawahiri says.
Throughout his message, Zawahiri holds up the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda as a model for jihadists around the globe.
The video contains archival footage of Osama bin Laden from 1998, when he called on Muslims to support the Taliban’s cause. Zawahiri lauds Mullah Omar for rejecting America’s demand to turn over bin Laden. And he reminds viewers that Omar’s successor as the Taliban’s emir, Mullah Mansour, publicly thanked Zawahiri for his oath of allegiance in Aug. 2015. Mansour accepted Zawahiri’s fealty “fully knowing the price of this decision,” meaning Mansour knew the negative ramifications of being associated with the al Qaeda leader.
On its face, the new video may seem like standard jihadist fare. But there is more to the story. Zawahiri uses the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship to critique the jihadists and Islamists in Syria, who have been divided by infighting and rivalries for months. In particular, Zawahiri argues that the jihadists in Syria cannot hide from the Americans.
Zawahiri warns jihadists in Syria that they can’t deceive America
Zawahiri argues that some in Egypt and Syria cannot avoid a showdown with the US. Others have tried — and failed — to acquire power by placating the Americans, Zawahiri claims. So the men fighting to topple Bashar al Assad’s regime shouldn’t try to follow suit.
“Today we once again come across those who want to escape from facing the reality and seek to repeat the same failed experiment, believing that they will reach the seat of power – whether in Cairo or Damascus – by deceiving America, which cannot be deceived as they wish to deceive it,” the al Qaeda leader says.
Although he briefly discusses Egypt, Zawahiri clearly has Syria at the top of his mind. To understand why, some background is necessary.
The jihadists in Syria have engaged in a raucous debate since 2015. They are attempting to build a stable, Taliban-style state that can withstand the opposition of multiple adversaries. This is no easy task. Their longterm state-building effort in northwestern Syria, where they control much of the province of Idlib, could fail for any number of reasons.
The project is led by Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), an organization which is ostensibly “independent.” HTS grew out of Al Nusrah Front, which was openly loyal to al Qaeda’s senior leadership until last year. In July 2016, Al Nusrah’s leader, Abu Muhammad al Julani announced that his group would no longer be affiliated with any “external” (foreign) entities. Julani, who was dressed like bin Laden as he read his statement, did not explicitly renounce his bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri. Indeed, Julani explicitly thanked Zawahiri for his leadership. But Julani’s somewhat ambiguous phrasing was intended to disassociate Al Nusrah from al Qaeda. Al Nusrah was rebranded as Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS) and then merged with several other entities to form HTS in January.
Julani’s plan was to unite the opposition to Assad under a single banner. This could not be achieved, it was widely argued in jihadist circles, unless al Qaeda was no longer viewed as a leading force on the ground. The so-called unity initiative had been in discussions for months. Julani had proposed a version of it in early 2016, but it failed at the time to gain any real momentum. More than a year after Julani made his announcement, and eight months after HTS was formed, the project still faces significant hurdles.
HTS is the largest and strongest insurgency organization in northwestern Syria, as the former Nusrah has absorbed a number of smaller factions. But HTS has failed to achieve a complete unity with other factions. Some of its founding members, which initially agreed to merge with Julani’s organization in January, have since left the HTS formation. Others, such as the remaining factions in Ahrar al Sham, never agreed to merge in the first place. (A large number of Ahrar al Sham figures and units did join HTS, but some held out and reformed the group.)
HTS is also riven by internal rivalries and leadership squabbles. One prominent al Qaeda-linked jihadist ideologue, Sheikh Abdullah Muhammad al Muhaysini, recently left HTS after it became clear that others within the group had it out for him.
On top of these internal problems, several powerful foes are either gunning for HTS now, or may in the near future. The jihadists clearly fear that America, or other state actors, will eventually move against their nascent state in Idlib beyond the periodic airstrikes that currently target them and also fall on civilians.
It is with this background in mind — HTS’s failure to absorb all other insurgent groups, its internal rivalries and other problems — that Zawahiri addresses the jihadist scene in Syria.
“The employees of the American State Department visit those who have agreed to come to terms with them, promising carrots while wielding the stick,” Zawahiri says. Some factions in Syria have reportedly engaged in talks with the State Department, which has warned rebel groups that if they join HTS they will be considered part of al Qaeda’s network.
“The financiers too mobilize with their deception and traps, saying, ‘We want to help you, so do not give us any trouble,’” Zawahiri says. As FDD’s Long War Journal previously reported, this was one of the reasons offered for the unity initiative, as some jihadists and Islamists recognized that the amount of external support they could receive was limited as long as Al Nusrah was openly associated with al Qaeda.
Then Zawahiri addresses the issue of the bay’ah (oath of allegiance), a grave matter in jihadist circles. Some of Julani’s detractors have accused him of breaking his bay’ah to the al Qaeda master.
Zawahiri begins this important discussion by pointing to Abu Muhammad al Adnani’s statement on the bay’ah. Until his death in Aug. 2016, Adnani was the Islamic State’s spokesman and also oversaw some of its key operations. The Islamic State’s predecessor organizations had been part of al Qaeda’s network. But after Baghdadi’s self-declared caliphate rose to prominence, Adnani and others argued that they didn’t really break their own fealty to Zawahiri. The Islamic State’s men claimed that they hadn’t sworn a full oath of allegiance, but instead had offered only a limited statement of support.
According to Zawahiri: “Thus Adnani exclaims, ‘The oath of allegiance was an oath of respect and appreciation; we obeyed them in external affairs and disobeyed them in our internal affairs!’”
Zawahiri is referring to Adnani’s May 2014 explanation of his organization’s relationship with al Qaeda. Adnani claimed at the time that his group had refrained from operating in Egypt, Iran, Libya, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia out of deference to al Qaeda’s wishes. Adnani said that while the Islamic State’s predecessors had avoided external operations in these countries, they had ignored Zawahiri’s directive when it came to operations inside Iraq by continuing to indiscriminately target Shiites.
This is what Zawahiri means by “external” vs. “internal” affairs. Zawahiri then accuses others of trying to inappropriately modify the bay’ah as well, calling it an “oath of necessity,” or “an oath binding in a specific jurisdiction only,” or saying it contains both “constants and variables.”
None of these modifications to the bay’ah are appropriate, Zawahiri says.
He then offers his starkest warning yet, saying that “violation” of the oath of allegiance is “forbidden.”
If Zawahiri is addressing Julani with these words, then he doesn’t approve of his course in Syria — at least not now, after Julani and his men have failed to deliver a unified jihadist project in Syria. Zawahiri would not have raised the issue of the bay’ah if it were not a sore point. Still, his critique is likely aimed at multiple parties.
US officials reject the idea that Julani truly broke from al Qaeda, citing the presence of veteran al Qaeda operatives in HTS-controlled areas of Syria. The State Department has repeatedly referred to Nusrah as al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, even after it changed its name twice. In May, the State Department offered a reward of up to $10 million for information regarding Julani’s whereabouts. State said Nusrah “remains” al Qaeda’s “affiliate in Syria.”
Regardless, the debate over Al Nusrah’s bay’ah has continued. And Zawahiri is clearly not pleased with how the jihadists’ program in Syria is being implemented.
“As for us, we shall fulfill our oath; we shall neither wear down nor give in,” Zawahiri says. He then lists the reasons some have offered for failing to fulfill their oaths, rejecting all of them.
Zawahiri enumerates the reasons offered: “Those who wish to absolve themselves say, ‘We want to avoid bombings…we want to flee from being designated as terrorists…the financiers have made it conditional upon us to wash our hands of those disliked by America, lest we too are designated as terrorists…we do want the aid being extended to the refugees to be cut off…we will not be able to unite if we retreat into our shells…”
Indeed, some of the parties who decided against joining HTS cited the possibility that they would be designated by the US as terrorists if they did so.
The result of all this is “regionalism,” Zawahiri says, meaning that the jihadists think they can avoid the worst consequences of their war by limiting themselves to a particular geography. Along these same lines, in April, Zawahiri warned against the “nationalist” agenda in Syria.
“And so regionalism gradually becomes a slogan which people do not hesitate to raise, as if the West and the East, the Crusaders, Rawafidh, secularists, Russian atheists and Chinese haven’t already united against us!” Zawahiri says.
Briefly recounts al Qaeda’s role in the anti-Assad insurgency
The al Qaeda leader complains that “some” are “grumbling”: “Do not give the Americans any anxiety regarding us, as if they are not aware that America has been anxious about us and enraged at us for five decades!”
Zawahiri argues that America will come calling anyway and it isn’t al Qaeda’s fault.
“Is it al-Qaeda which has provoked America (in Syria)?” he asks. He then answers his own question: “Al-Qaeda, with the blessing and favor of Allah, fully supported the Jihad of our people in al-Sham [Syria] right from day one, extending a helping hand and opening its heart for all Mujahideen in al-Sham, the land of Ribaat and Jihad.”
Zawahiri also mentions al Qaeda’s efforts to limit the damaging effects of the Islamic State’s rise in Syria.
“It was al-Qaeda which selected the honorable Sheikh, Abu Khalid al Suri (may Allah have mercy on him) as its representative to solve the biggest problem that had arisen in al-Sham,” he says. “Is this what necessitates its expulsion? Or the demands of America and its agents dictate so?”
Some have tried to distance Abu Khalid al Suri from al Qaeda, but his dossier was thick with ties. Abu Khalid, who was a senior figure in Ahrar al Sham, had served as Zawahiri’s chief representative in Syria until he was killed by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men in Feb. 2014. Abu Khalid fiercely opposed Baghdadi after failing to reconcile the Islamic State with other anti-Assad actors, including Al Nusrah Front.
Praises unity in Mali
Zawahiri’s displeasure with the state of the jihad in Syria can also be seen in the way he praises al Qaeda’s project in Mali.
In March, several pre-existing groups formed “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims,” which operates in Mali and the surrounding countries. As FDD’s Long War Journal noted at the time, this project differed from HTS in that its leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, openly reaffirmed his allegiance to al Qaeda. Zawahiri sees Ghaly’s unification effort as a success — unlike HTS.
“So let us all be a fortified wall, from East Turkistan to the Islamic Maghreb, and from the Caucuses to Central Africa,” Zawahiri says, imploring jihadists to stay committed to a global, not regional, cause.
“May Allah bless the lions of Islam in Mali, who have raised the morale of the Mujahideen and sincere Muslims,” Zawahiri says. “They have solidified their ranks, like a fortified wall, and increased the robustness and cohesion of the front of the Islamic Maghreb.”
“We ask Allah to make them steadfast, fill their hearts with patience, help them in every possible way, and open the doors of fortune for them until they are able to repeat the feat of the battle of Zalaqah for the third time in history, with the permission of Allah,” he continues. “Since unity is the way to victory, therefore dismantling the Jihadi assembly has been among the principle goals of America and its client regimes in the Islamic and Arab world.”
America and its allies “seek to unravel its bonds, break its mutual links and turn the Jihad of the Ummah into a regional jihad and then sow discord among the Mujahideen in each region, so that they splinter into different groups, fail to achieve their shared goals and their strength eventually dissipates,” Zawahiri warns.
Tellingly, Zawahiri sees Ghaly’s “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims” as a success in this regard, as it has unified the jihadists’ ranks and supposedly thwarted their enemies machinations.
Tensions in Zawahiri’s critique
There is a tension between Zawahiri’s critique and his own previous guidance. It is well known, for instance, that Zawahiri ordered Al Nusrah Front not to directly attack America “so that the real battle is not confused.” First and foremost, he wanted Al Nusrah to be perceived as an anti-Assad force. Other al Qaeda actors in Syria, including those who worked with Al Nusrah, likely have plotted against the US. But Zawahiri did not want Al Nusrah to be blamed for any anti-Western terrorism — at least at first. This guidance reflected al Qaeda’s own understanding that a direct confrontation with America from Syrian soil would likely further jeopardize their efforts within the insurgency. This is roughly the same position that Zawahiri is now criticizing.
Al Qaeda also sought to obstruct its hand in the Syrian insurgency from the beginning. In 2013, Zawahiri even chastised Julani for openly announcing his al Qaeda links.
In May 2016, Zawahiri stressed that the unity of the mujahideen was a matter of “life and death.” So much so that organizational “affiliations” should not be “an obstacle” to achieving this goal, Zawahiri insisted. “We in al Qaeda have not accepted pledges of allegiance except those given gladly, nor have we forced them upon anyone,” Zawahiri said at the time.
Today, however, Zawahiri apparently has a different view.
There is likely much we don’t know about the jihadists’ infighting in Syria. But Zawahiri clearly does not think their efforts to unite their ranks have fully succeeded.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.