May 6, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Challenge to Al-Qaeda From Within

• Ayman al-Zawahiri faces from the head of ISIS a direct challenge to his authority as leader of the global jihad
• ISIS is unlikely to back down, and Zawahiri is left with few options to reign it in

• Currently ISIS looks to be stronger than al-Qaeda, and some al-Qaeda affiliates are not declaring clear support for Zawahiri

• The dispute makes al-Qaeda weaker, but does not necessarily reduce the threat of terrorist attacks.

Challenge to al-Qaeda Core's Authority

Just when al-Qaeda and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, seemed to be recovering from the challenge of the Arab Awakening and regaining international attention, another problem has emerged.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, have mounted a defiant challenge to the authority of Zawahiri and the vanguard role of al-Qaeda.

ISIS and its predecessor groups have been a problem for Zawahiri since the earliest days of their association with al-Qaeda, when the group operated under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Although Zarqawi called his organization al-Qaeda in Iraq, with Usama bin Ladin’s blessing, he used the Qaeda name to obtain support rather than as an expression of solidarity with bin Ladin’s global objectives. His brutal tactics against fellow Muslims and his attacks on hotels in Amman, Jordan, in 2005, including on a wedding party, drew criticism from Zawahiri, who was concerned about alienating public support. But Zawahiri’s criticism was tempered by his awareness that he had little actual control over Zarqawi, who headed the most active branch of al-Qaeda and attracted many foreign fighters. The same has now happened, under more serious circumstances, with ISIS under Baghdadi.


Weak Central Control and Public Disobedience

Baghdadi’s independence from the Qaeda leadership did not much matter until Syria became an important new area of conflict for al-Qaeda to exploit. Until then, Zawahiri might issue the occasional disapproving remark about attacks on market places and mosques, but he needed all the support he could get, and Iraq remained an important center of activity. With the engagement of ISIS in Syria, and the formation of Jabhat al-Nusra, Zawahiri saw a new opportunity for al-Qaeda. At that point, his other main affiliates—al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al-Shabab—were at best biding time. So too was he.

Zawahiri’s hope was that Jabhat al-Nusra would establish a leadership role in the Syrian rebellion without its obvious affiliation with al-Qaeda, just as AQAP had tried to do with Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen. So when Baghdadi declared in May 2013 that Jabhat al-Nusra was part of ISIS, and Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader countered by asking Zawahiri to declare it an independent branch, Zawahiri had two problems on his hands. But even if he was annoyed that Jabhat al-Nusra had told the world it was part of al-Qaeda, he was still more agitated with ISIS, not only for claiming ownership of Jabhat al-Nusra, but also its unprecedented and very public refusal to back down upon Zawahiri’s order to do so.

ISIS’ defiance of Zawahiri, its brutal tactics in Syria and Iraq, and its focus on fighting other rebel groups for control of territory, rather than the Syrian regime, have all sown discord within the extremist movement, and not just in Syria. As other groups have called on Zawahiri to bring ISIS to order, and have claimed that Baghdadi took an oath of loyalty to al-Qaeda, Baghdadi has acted increasingly defiant, declaring that al-Qaeda had taken the wrong path and that he would now be the leader that everyone should follow. By emphasizing that he is in charge of an Islamic Emirate, albeit a self-proclaimed one, he has also challenged the role of Mullah Omar as overall Amir al-Mu’manin, or leader of the faithful.


Picking Sides

Theoretically, Zawahiri could just declare Baghdadi an apostate, as Baghdadi has for his enemies in Syria, but there is a distinct downside: it would not change Baghdadi’s behavior, nor would it reduce his support. Furthermore, it would increase dissension and infighting among al-Qaeda affiliates and other extremist groups. It would also leave al-Qaeda without any presence in Iraq, though Jabhat al-Nusra has threatened to open a branch there. Zawahiri’s authority—or lack of it—would be exposed and the movement as a whole would suffer. As a result, Zawahiri has continued to call on Baghdadi to bring his dispute to a court of sharia scholars for arbitration. Baghdadi has shown no interest in doing so.

Both sides are now trying to shore up support outside Syria and Iraq. Zawahiri has had leaders of AQAP speak in his favor, though others have supported Baghdadi. Likewise with al-Shabab, though it is plagued by internal disagreements. Zawahiri has had a more unambiguous endorsement from al-Murabitun, a group in the Sahel under the control of Mukhtar Bilmukhtar that has broken away from AQIM, but this may be more an expression of its disagreement with AQIM, which has a long history of association with the Iraqi group, than of strong commitment to Zawahiri.

On the other side, Baghdadi has had the endorsement of nine commanders from a range of countries who are all operating in Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central Asia. Though little known outside their own circles, these commanders have upped the ante by saying that they switched their allegiance from Mullah Omar to Baghdadi, rather than their taking sides in an internal al-Qaeda dispute.

Although Zawahiri has issued another directive to Baghdadi to stick to Iraq, arguing, legalistically, that Baghdadi is his subordinate, and has told Jabhat al-Nusra to stop fighting Baghdadi, the chance of any reconciliation between the two groups is unlikely—and less significant now that the dispute has gone global. Baghdadi is brutal and ambitious and he will not give up control over parts of Syria, which give him both legitimacy there and strategic depth for his operations in Iraq. The leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups in Syria that oppose Baghdadi can have no confidence that ISIS would observe its side of any truce.

One of Zawahiri’s closest advisers and colleagues in Syria, Abu Khalid al-Suri, a co-founder of the third largest extremist group in the country, Ahrar al-Sham, and designated early on by Zawahiri as the arbiter between ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra, was murdered by ISIS in late February.

Already, Zawahiri has been forced to become more overtly sectarian in order to increase his appeal in Syria, but his supporters are showing some impatience with his reluctance to condemn Baghdadi rather than follow his current tactic of asking him politely to obey. With no likelihood of Mullah Omar asserting his leadership, Zawahiri is left with diminishing options and his other affiliates remain on a downward trajectory, just as ISIS appears ascendant. Unless the dispute is resolved, al-Qaeda’s leadership will be compelled to remain in its safe haven in Afghanistan/Pakistan, operationally emasculated, at risk from drones, and unable to do anything effective to retain al-Qaeda’s position as the leader of the global jihadist movement.


Quest for Relevance and Authority

As Zawahiri himself has said, the strength of al-Qaeda is as an idea, not as an organization, and the rift with ISIS shows yet again the intrinsic weaknesses of this form of extremism. When an affiliate ceases to exist purely as a terrorist group and starts to control territory, then sooner or later, disputes over tactics, leadership, and legitimacy emerge.

Zawahiri has always struggled for relevance and authority. The dispute with Baghdadi highlights his lack of both. But Baghdadi will find it no easier to lead the movement, even if he wants to. When these leaders talk of re-establishing the caliphate or declaring an Islamic Emirate, they are merely trying to dress their politics in religious garb. No doubt this attracts recruits in the short term, but it can never attract mass support. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily reduce the risk of attacks elsewhere; the weaker the group, the more it may try to demonstrate its capability and reach by reverting to external terrorism.


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