Two months ago, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI – al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate) announced its merger with Jabhat al-Nusra – the dominant Syrian jihadi militia fighting to overthrow the Assad regime. While the merger didn’t come as a surprise to most analysts of al Qaeda, the regional consolidation did come as quite a surprise to one person in particular-–al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. It turned out Zawahiri and al Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan were not consulted when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi decided to annex the rising Syrian jihadi group. Baghdadi’s power play resulted in mass defections from al-Nusra with foreign fighters fully migrating to join the ISI. Subsequently, last week, Zawahiri allegedly released a statement dissolving the union of the two al Qaeda affiliates and returning al Qaeda’s Levant to its previous state-–a Syrian al Qaeda affiliate in al-Nusra and an Iraqi affiliate in the ISI.
The thought that Baghdadi had announced the merger without getting Zawahiri’s approval was quite surprising and a bold move by the Iraqi affiliate leader. However, this week Baghdadi did something no other al Qaeda affiliate leader had publicly done to date – he outrightly defied Zawahiri. In a message attributed to Baghdadi and showing up on social media sites, the leader of the ISI claims:
“As for the message that was attributed to Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri, may Allah preserve him, we have … several shariah and method-based issues [with it], and the worshiper was given the choice between the command of His Lord and the command that opposes Allah’s command,” al Baghdadi says, according to SITE.
Baghdadi seems to suggest that Zawahiri’s interpretation of Sharia and the situation in the Levant are both flawed and that he and al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch will choose their own direction on how best to move forward.
Both Zawahiri’s letter and Baghdadi’s rebuttal should be approached with caution. As al Qaeda has degenerated so has the ability of outsiders and analysts (such as myself) to know for certain whether internal al Qaeda messages leaked to the outside media are truly authentic. But, reactions to the Zawahiri and Baghdadi notes suggest that jihadis perceive them to be real. While it is surprising to see a public rebuttal by a subordinate al Qaeda leader, it is not surprising that the ISI was the first to resist Zawahiri in such a way. Years ago, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi found disagreement with al Qaeda Central over strategy and at the time of Bin Laden’s death, the Abbottabad documents showed a communication gap between headquarters in Pakistan and the Iraq affiliate.
One year ago when writing “What if there is no al Qaeda? “, I began wondering when Zawahiri would lose control of the decentralized, global organization he inherited noting several signs of what might lead to a loss in his authority.
Zawahiri’s communications likely take weeks to reach their recipients. Zawahiri probably directs little money to affiliate groups and, if he commands anything, he’s likely limited to routing veteran al-Qaeda survivors from Pakistan to other safe havens. From the perspective of al-Qaeda affiliates, there is little incentive to continue seeking direction from a buttoned-up Zawahiri.
Today, Zawahiri must be quite concerned as he has major command and control issues on two other fronts aside from Iraq. Al Shabaab in Somalia, since formally merging with al Qaeda, has been in a state of near collapse with Ibrahim al-Afghani, a high-level Shabaab operative, publicly pleading for Zawahiri to relieve Shabaab’s emir Ahmed Godane. This public plea coincides with Godane and Shabaab’s betrayal and hunting of American foreign fighter to Somalia Omar Hammami-–a public dispute that has likely harmed Shabaab’s international support.
Meanwhile, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) after successfully seizing northern Mali for almost a year saw the defection of its most celebrated operative, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who broke with AQIM and sought to set up his own organization and independent relationship with Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central. In internal documents discovered by the Associated Press, AQIM notes:
“we have only gotten a few messages from our emirs in Khorasan”
I believe Zawahiri must do several things to reassert his authority if he intends to hold al Qaeda together as a global organization. Zawahiri needs to: 1) execute a spectacular attack to re-establish his credibility, 2) increase and speed up communication between he and his subordinates, 3) regain control of resource distribution as most affiliates are currently self-financed, and 4) fire somebody – nothing demonstrates power more than removing subordinate leaders. However, I’m not certain Zawahiri has the capacity to do any of these four things. Additionally, I wonder if Zawahiri’s efforts to reassert communication and control in the coming weeks and months will increase the chances the West might finally detect and interdict one of the last great culprits of the 9/11 attacks. (Let’s hope this comes true.)
Like last year, I’m trying to focus on:
“when these terror groups [al Qaeda affiliates] compete and when they cooperate. Knowing when terror groups compete will help the West construct an environment around threat groups replicating the conditions most prone for destructive interference. “
The disaggregation of al Qaeda may now open the door for new counterterrorism interventions beyond military targeting. Are there ways, for example in Syria and Iraq, where the U.S. can shape conditions such that groups like al-Nusra and the ISI compete rather than unify? Can the provision of military and foreign aid or the introduction of new proxies create rifts by which he U.S. can weaken al Qaeda’s grip in the Levant? Likewise, can the U.S. influence foreign fighters in Syria to suggest that fighting the Assad regime does not equate to later attacking the U.S. on behalf of al Qaeda?
Lastly, while al Qaeda may be degrading globally, the West should not mistakenly believe that jihadi violence will necessarily decrease. On the contrary, competing al Qaeda affiliates may actually increase their attack tempo in an effort to assert themselves as the new leader post-Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central. More successful attacks will likely lead to more media attention, more recruits and more resources. As I noted last year in “What if there is no al Qaeda?”, the U.S. may now be encountering many different regional terror groups. Some will require direct engagement and elimination. Some indirect engagement and disruption. And others may only require monitoring and little to no engagement. Ultimately, in a post-al Qaeda-era (much like the post-Soviet-era), analysis, planning and decision-making will in many ways become more difficult rather than less difficult.