October 6, 2017

TSC IntelBrief: Al-Qaeda and the Global Jihadist Movement

While the so-called Islamic State reels from losses in Syria and Iraq, al-Qaeda continues to portray itself—with justification—as the true leader of what it sees as the global jihadist movement.

• On October 4, Al Qaeda released a new video message from its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, stressing the global nature of the jihadist movement.

• In the relatively short message, Zawahiri denounced the ‘regional’ nature of some groups, saying all fights were part of the larger war.

• He stated the U.S. was trying to regionalize the global movement and ‘sow discord among the mujahideen in each region’.

• Al-Qaeda is seeking to return to its roots as the ‘reviver’ of a global fight as its affiliates once again are being heavily targeted.


While the so-called Islamic State reels from losses in Syria and Iraq, al-Qaeda continues to portray itself—with justification—as the true leader of what it sees as the global jihadist movement. On October 4, 2017, the terrorist group released a new 28-minute video message from its chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, entitled ‘We Shall Fight You Until There Is No More Persecution.’ It contains more than the usual amount of ‘keep up the good fight’ motivation along with strategic advice for beleaguered and not-so beleaguered jihadist groups, around the world. 

Zawahiri states, as he has before, that Usama bin Laden unified the movement by focusing not just on the ‘near enemy’ but the ‘far enemy’— the United States—as well. It was a costly move, said Zawahiri, but one that ‘set in motion ... a widespread awakening in different parts of the Muslim world.’ 

Zawahiri also stressed one of al-Qaeda’s most consistent strategic and ideological points—that even the locally focused fights where the group’s offshoots are engaged are part of an overall global war. As such, he said, avoiding infighting and maintaining unity are paramount; a rather pointed reference to the terrorist group’s erstwhile affiliate in Syria. Zawahiri went on to praise al-Qaeda’s Mali affiliate for providing an example of unity that its other groups should follow. (That group was likely responsible for the October 4 Niger attack where three U.S. Delta Force operators were killed, while serving as part of a long-standing mission to target al-Qaeda in the area.)

As in a previous message from bin Laden’s son and likely heir, Hamza bin Laden,  Zawahiri again urged jihadist groups to avoid making deals with the enemy, particularly the United States. He warned that while distancing themselves from the larger movement might seem like one way to avoid the full wrath or focus of the U.S. and its partners, it would only end up deceiving the faithful instead. Zawahiri had supported al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (now an umbrella group calling itself Hayat Tahrir al Sham/HTS) in May 2016, when it announced it had broken away from al-Qaeda to focus on Syria. Zawahiri’s recent change of heart is likely because trying to shed the al-Qaeda label to build local support and blunt massive international pressure hasn’t worked for HTS. Instead, HTS is under the most pressure it has ever faced, while suffering as much damage from infighting and defections as from external enemies like the Assad regime, Russia, and the U.S. 

Zawahiri further insisted that working with the U.S., for whatever reason, would backfire on any group that tried it, pointing to the Palestinian Authority as a prime example of an organization that gave up everything and got nothing in return. For Zawahiri, ‘you will never be liberated from the clutches of humiliation, subjugation, oppression and corruption unless you engage in an enduring jihad.’ He added that there was no point in trying to avoid being designated a ‘global terrorist’ by the U.S., so groups might as well start acting like one while cooperating locally to avoid splintering the global movement bin Laden revived.

The honeymoon period for al-Qaeda, in which the so-called Islamic State absorbed most of the counterterrorism focus while al-Qaeda's affiliates grew stronger, is coming to an end. Its affiliates in Yemen and Syria are now under growing pressure. Al-Qaeda’s years-long approach of localizing conflicts worked to a degree—but it now appears Zawahiri is seeking to consolidate the terror network and return the group to its heyday as the vanguard of a global movement. 

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