Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Zawahiri’s Latest Message: Please Listen To Me Jihadis, Stop Bickering

Zawahiri’s Latest Message: Please Listen To Me Jihadis, Stop Bickering

While it’s not uncommon to see Ayman al-Zawahiri wagging his finger in a quarterly or semi-annual propaganda video spewing the usual anti-American rhetoric, it is unusual to see al Qaeda leaders issuing guidance and directives to subordinates in publicly available guidelines.  As-Sahab Media, an al Qaeda media outlet, recently released Zawahiri’s “General Guidelines for Jihad” in both Arabic and English. Zawahiri has issued public edicts to followers before, but this latest installment feels quite different and its delivery and content suggests several changes and tensions that may be afoot inside al Qaeda global organization. 

First, let’s explore why Zawahiri would issue public rather than private guidance to the global jihadi community. Normally, al Qaeda might broadcast strategic vision publicly, but reserve directives and corrective guidance via secure communications.  The most famous intercept of these private communications comes from Zawahiri’s 2006 scolding of abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi for counterproductive violence against Shia in Iraq.  In addition, the Harmony documents provide countless other examples of al Qaeda’s internal directives and squabbles.  More recently some private communications to jihadi groups in Syria have allegedly surfaced showing dissatisfaction between Zawahiri and al Qaeda in Iraq’s emir abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  Al Qaeda, like most any terrorist organization, normally delivers these messages in private for several reasons:

  1. Airing internal squabbles publicly hurts the organization’s popular support and certain leader’s authority,
  2. Public messaging can reveal strategy and orders to adversaries (counterterrorists) enabling their efforts to defeat the terrorist organization, and
  3. Such messaging can, at times, severely reduce the security and success of al Qaeda affiliates.

In short, this message went public because Zawahiri’s guidance isn’t being followed. Al Qaeda Central messages and directives either can’t get to affiliates or they are being ignored.  Both scenarios are problematic for the terror group.

Second, the content of Zawahiri’s guidelines goes beyond grand vision instructing individual jihadis on what exactly to avoid.  Previous messages, whether from Bin Laden, Zawahiri or even Anwar al-Awlaki, have given rather broad suggestions to jihadis such as go to “Jihad in country fill in the blank” or “Do-Jihad-At-Home”. But Zawahiri’s latest guidelines suggest something more specific.  Today, he doesn’t seem to be speaking to the global jihadi movement as a whole but instead communicating directly to jihadis enmeshed in affiliates engaged in battles across North Africa and the Middle East.  Zawahiri writes, 

We call upon the heads of all groups and organizations that work under Qaidatul Jihad Organization (al Qaida) and all our supporters and sympathizers to spread these guidelines amongst their followers, whether in positions of responsibility or ordinary individuals; for this document contains no hidden secrets, rather it is a general policy guideline.

I can’t recall one paragraph in any al Qaeda document that reveals as much as this one.  Zawahiri claims this “is a general policy guideline” yet the instructions provide targeting guidance down to the individual country and unlike in other public al Qaeda guidance spends far more time telling jihadis what not to do rather than what to do.  Strategic vision documents usually discuss what to do broadly rather than what not to do specifically.  These guidelines in general represent a public scolding of al Qaeda affiliate leaders and tries to redirect the energies of affiliates and their followers to focus on attacking the far enemy (the U.S. and the West) while in the near-term avoiding local near enemies to include Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Ismailis, Sufis and most importantly Sunnis.  Zawahiri seems to suggest that after killing off far enemies, jihadi’s can then return to killing local adversaries.

So why would Zawahiri publicly begin mixing strategic vision with actual guidelines for executing action?  For this, Dr. Jacob Shapiro’s new book The Terrorist’s Dilemma provides some excellent perspective and suggests that Zawahiri and al Qaeda globally is suffering yet again from agency problems. More simply, al Qaeda affiliates can’t get along.  Shapiro notes that agency problems arise when three conditions exist:

  1. A principal needs to delegate certain actions or decisions to an agent
  2. The principal can neither perfectly monitor the action’s, nor punish him with certainty when a transgression is identified, and
  3. The agent’s preferences are not aligned with those of the principal.

Since 9/11, al Qaeda Central under Bin Laden and now Zawahiri has spent so much energy to maintain their security that they’ve sacrificed their operational control over affiliates.  With each passing year holed up in Pakistan, al Qaeda Central has delegated nearly all actions to their agents located in affiliates around the world.  However, with Bin Laden’s death and al Qaeda Central’s loss of grip on resource distribution, al Qaeda Central’s delegation has been accompanied by a loss of an ability to monitor the actions of affiliates and punish those that get out of line – namely al Qaeda in Iraq, now the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), and its leader abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The most prescient example being Qaeda affiliates in Syria fighting with each other as well as other Sunni groups, thus undermining efforts to overthrow the Assad regime.  Local al Qaeda affiliates have their own interests in Syria, have their own resource streams separate from al Qaeda, and Zawahiri remains separated from them by great distance.  Hence preference divergence and agency problems for Zawahiri.

So if you are Zawahiri, what do you do to rein in your global terror organization at a time of great opportunity in Syria and Egypt? First, Zawahiri empowered another affiliate, AQAP in Yemen, and its leader, Nasir al-Wuhaysi, elevating him to second-in-command of al Qaeda strengthening a subordinate more proximate to Syria and Egypt and increasing Wuyashi’s authority vis-à-vis other al Qaeda affiliates. Second, maybe Zawahiri pushes jihad in Egypt aggressively.  By expanding al Qaeda operations in the Sinai, a campaign of personal preference, Zawahiri won’t directly pull from Syrian al Qaeda affiliates, but will increase the options of foreign fighters and donors diluting the Syrian share of support.  Third, maybe Zawahiri executes a spectacular attack outside of Syria to restore interest and support in al Qaeda globally.  The initially thought to be Shabaab attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya was most certainly al Qaeda inspired. But as more evidence mounts this attack may ultimately turn out to be more AQAP/AQC directed.  If true, this could help Zawahiri re-assert al Qaeda’s prominence for doing the big and spectacular.  Fourth, Zawahiri in his latest guidelines skips over his subordinate leaders and speaks directly to his followers in local affiliates.  Zawahiri writes,

We call upon the heads of all groups and organizations that work under Qaidatul Jihad Organization (al Qaida) and all our supporters and sympathizers to spread these guidelines amongst their followers, whether in positions of responsibility or ordinary individuals.

Essentially, he says, “if you are not hearing my guidance from your leaders, take it directly from me.”  By going public and speaking to the individual member in Syrian affiliates, Zawahiri now forces subordinate leaders with divergent preferences (Baghdadi) to adhere to his guidance or reveal themselves publicly to their members as being defiant of al Qaeda’s global leader. 

Some have suggested the rifts amongst al Qaeda groups in Syria (ISIS and al Nusra) are overblown, but I can’t believe Zawahiri would issue such public guidance unless he was concerned.  Not only has he expressed his concerns in his guidelines, he has followed up with audio messages this past weekend noting:

fighters must “rise above organizational loyalties and party partisanship” and unite behind the goal of setting up an Islamic state.”

In Syria, locals overtaken by ISIS swear bay’a, the oath of allegiance to al Qaeda in Iraq’s emir, abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, and not to al Qaeda’s global leader Zawahiri. Likewise, al Qaeda in Iraq (aka the Islamic State of Iraq [ISI/ISIS]) was the only al Qaeda affiliate not to affirm its allegiance to Zawahiri after Bin Laden’s death. There must be dissension in the ranks.

For those countering al Qaeda, I continue to advocate that we keep affiliates competing rather than cooperating. Zawahiri is publicly telling us this is a problem for al Qaeda, let’s help keep this a problem for Zawahiri. 

Effective counterterrorism analysis should identify when these terror groups 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. In contrast, understanding when disparate terror groups cooperate will help analysts detect the emergence of larger groups able to execute global terror attacks on a routine basis. – “What If There Is No Al Qaeda?” – 2012