Fiction and Friction in the World of Al Qaeda
WASHINGTON -- In a recent statement released on Jihadist websites, Ayman al-Zawahiri—Osama bin Laden’s longtime companion and currently the leading custodian of the Al Qaeda brand—called on Syrians to unite in their struggle against the Assad regime, and to steadfastly adhere to the goal of an Islamic state. Zawahiri’s statement was the latest in a long series of speeches and writings seeking to reclaim the illusion of leadership, and to reverse the considerable irrelevance in which Al Qaeda found itself in the aftermath of transformative events in the Arab region. On April 10, in a declaration widely viewed as a response to Zawahiri’s call, the amir (commander) of the “Islamic State of Iraq,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the merger of his shadowy organization with al-Nusrah Front, the radical faction active in the ranks of the Syrian uprising against the Damascus regime.
According to the declaration, all prior names, flags, and insignia will be retired and replaced by the label of the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.” The term “al-Sham” is a classical Arabic geographic reference sometimes understood as coinciding with modern Syria, but more often equated with a greater span, that of the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine—evidently subsuming Israel). At face value, the sequence of announcements demonstrates the continuing coherence of Al Qaeda as a global network. Such a conclusion is, however, unwarranted. In fact, the severe schism between Al Qaeda Central and its most prominent franchise, the Islamic State of Iraq—both in methodology and operations—has now come to the fore. Notably absent from al-Baghdadi’s statement was a reference to Zawahiri’s call. In fact, much of his discourse focused on underlining that al-Nusrah Front is the incarnation of the Islamic State of Iraq in the Syrian battlefield.
Baghdadi portrayed his announcement as merely a declaration of a so-far hidden fact. This was not an organizational merger—the two organizations being already fused. It is a re-branding aimed at “elevating” the status of the effort by “ascending from the lesser to the greater.” One day later, the leader of al-Nusrah Front, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, issued his own statement. Al-Jawlani praised his Iraqi counterpart, recognizing the role of the “Islamic State of Iraq” as the incubator of the Syrian jihad. Far from confirming al-Baghdadi’s proclamation, however, al-Jawlani embarrassingly reveals that al-Nusrah was not consulted prior to the merger announcement. He delicately questions the timing of this “otherwise laudable” motion, and declares that al-Nusrah Front will retain its separate identity and leadership. Over-bidding al-Baghdadi, al-Jawlani “ascends to the even greater” by pledging allegiance to Zawahiri as the leader of the global jihad.
Tensions between Al Qaeda Central and the Islamic State of Iraq date back to before the death of bin Laden, to whom the precursors of the Islamic State of Iraq had declared their loyalty, and largely stemmed from the criticism that Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, had directed to the Iraqi franchise for its particularly harsh methods (such as indiscriminate bombing of markets in Shi’i areas), and which he deemed counter-productive, even if theoretically permissible. Rather than showing any presumed strength within the Al Qaeda network, the declaration of unity between the Iraqi and Syrian franchises and the confusion that it ensues exposes the lack of communication and rivalries within this network. The Islamic State of Iraq is evidently not a state and holds no permanent territorial control. It has nonetheless fancied itself as the kernel of the next caliphate.
Al-Baghdadi’s premature declaration was a reaction to the perceived infringement of Zawahiri on his “territorial” claim, al-Nusrah’s Syria. His action seems to have backfired. Both the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Nusra remain serious threats in their respective settings. Their reliance on self-propelled jihadists—young men and women who pay their way traveling from their remote homelands to volunteer as jihadists and human bombs in Syria and Iraq—extend their threat considerably. As the last exchange between their leaderships reveal, these organizations are far from having the operational robustness that is often attributed to them. Al Qaeda has suffered severe setbacks in the past two years. Decades of attempted mobilization of the Arab masses on its part had yielded no results, while the desperate act of one Tunisian street seller in December 2010 ignited a transformational sequence of historic proportions, with regimes toppling and new paradigms emerging. Ideological formulations close to Al Qaeda may be today more blatant, and groups expressing sympathy, such as Ansar al-Shari’ah, more vocal. But against the backdrop of a far more open political expression across ideological lines, Islamism has lost its discursive dominance and is often on the defensive. Within Islamism, the share of jihadism has also receded.
As jihadism’s prime ideologue, Zawahiri has been painfully aware of these trends, and has been striving almost hopelessly to reposition Al Qaeda as an organization more reflective of the popular will and more responsive to local demands. The latest imbroglio on the fictional unity between his network’s Iraqi and Syrian franchises exposes the frictions that stand in the way of a coherent proposition.
Hassan Mneimneh is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.