August 5, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Zawahiri’s Mullah Omar Problem

• The news of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s 2013 death has not only seriously shaken the movement he founded, but also threatens to divide al-Qaeda

• There has been no word from al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri on the announced death of his Supreme Leader; there similary had been no word following the June 2015 death of his second-in-command, Nasir al-Wuhayshi

• Both the fraudulent renewed bayat pledge to a long-deceased Mullah Omar in 2014, and the inability to communicate with the people he ostensibly commands, has pushed Zawahiri to the margins of relevancy

• The Islamic State is seizing on Zawahiri’s silence to press for al-Qaeda members to join their group instead, pointing out that Zawahiri may be dead as well and—for all intents and purposes—he might as well be.


The fallout from the news of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s 2013 death, and the subsequent dishonest coverup—complete with fraudulent statements issued by a dead leader—continue to roil not just the Taliban, but the global jihadist movement as well. The Taliban appear to be splintering, as a faction led by Omar’s sons is objecting to the the selection of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor as the new head of the Taliban, and the new amir al-mu’minin (Leader of the Faithful). The head of the Taliban political office in Qatar, Syed Tayyab Agha, quit his position on August 3, declaring that the selection of Mansoor, who is in Pakistan, was a ‘historic mistake’ for the Afghanistan-focused group.

Who ultimately assumes the mantle of amir al-mu’minin of the jihadist movement will have consequences far beyond the Taliban. While there are several contentious issues between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, the largest and most public was the refusal of the Islamic State to follow the al-Qaeda pledge of loyalty (bayat) to Mullah Omar, as both Usama bin Ladin and current al-Qaeda-leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had done. Members of the Islamic State have instead pledged bayat to their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, arguing that they had never seen Mullah Omar, nor had he any impact on their lives. This division of allegiance, more than anything, has split the two groups that share the ideology of bin Ladinism. It does not help that statements from April 2015 condemning pledges of bayat to Baghdadi, purporting to come from Mullah Omar, were obviously fake.

Zawahiri, who had stressed the importance of the original bayat to Mullah Omar as a reason to stay with al-Qaeda as recently as July 2014, has not released a statement on the death of his sworn Leader of the Faithful—a sign that he is either under great pressure or extremely worried about security. Zawahiri also made no announcement after the June death of al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, a well-respected and long-time al-Qaeda member from the pre-9/11 era. This means the leader of al-Qaeda has not responded to either the death of the group’s ultimate leader, nor that of its most capable deputy.

Zawahiri's absence has not gone unnoticed by supporters of the Islamic State, who have taken to social media to mock the al-Qaeda leader for keeping up the fiction of allegiance to a dead man. By their reasoning, there is no longer a difference of opinion over allegiance to divide the two groups and they are pushing al-Qaeda members to pledge bayat to Baghdadi. Since the Taliban announced that Mullah Mansoor would replace Omar as the Leader of the Faithful, it remains to be seen if al-Qaeda members will follow through. There is little in the way of precedence to guide these already warring groups, and Baghdadi’s claim to the position is made stronger given the two-year cover-up undertaken by supporters of Mullah Omar—a cover-up that makes both the leadership of the Taliban and al-Qaeda look equally dishonest and fearful.

At some point in the near future, Zawahiri will have to release a statement, and it will have to be a verifiable audio or video tape to have any impact, given the understandable lack of trust in attributed statements. Likewise, a statement given by an official spokesman will not do, since Mullah Omar evidently gave several annual Eid addresses from the grave—all delivered by his spokesman. If he is unable to publicly address the most significant losses for the group since bin Ladin (and one can argue that Omar’s death is organizationally of more consequence than that of bin Ladin), then Zawahiri risks sliding into total irrelevance within the global jihadist movement. A leader who cannot communicate with his followers and his many wavering supporters is as good as dead in terms of organizational loyalty and competition for recruits.

The subterfuge surrounding the death of Mullah Omar has dealt Zawahiri a serious blow, calling into question both his character and his connections in the minds of many; he either was not aware his leader was dead, or he did know and intentionally perpetrated a deception against his followers. The ties that have bound the core of al-Qaeda for years are unraveling, and it is uncertain if Zawahiri will be able to intervene.


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