In a June 15 audio message, a man identified as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, did something no leader of an al Qaeda franchise had ever done: He publicly defied a directive from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the al Qaeda core organization.
As we have noted for many years, the al Qaeda core has struggled to remain relevant on the physical and ideological battlefields. We’ve also discussed since 2005 the internal frictions between the core and some of the more independent franchise commanders, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq until his death in June 2006. If al-Baghdadi’s revolt goes unchecked, it very well might spell the end of the concept of a global, centrally directed jihad, and it could be the next step in the devolution of the jihadist movement as it becomes even more regionally focused.
Origins of Conflict
The roots of the current tension between al-Baghdadi and al-Zawahiri extend back to 2004, when al-Zarqawi’s Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad group became al Qaeda in Iraq, and the relationship between the organizations has been tenuous ever since. Unlike al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is headed by Nasir al-Wahayshi, who was close with Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda core, the jihadist leadership in Iraq has never really toed the al Qaeda “corporate line.” The jihadist leaders in Iraq, including al-Zarqawi, saw a need to adopt the al Qaeda brand name to help with recruitment and fundraising, but they never fully embraced al Qaeda’s philosophy and vision and frequently ignored the core’s guidance. One key reason for these differences is that al-Zarqawi’s group had its own identity and philosophy, which was greatly influenced by Jordanian jihadist ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. They attempted to place a veneer of al Qaeda over that initial Tawhid and Jihad foundation, but it was never a solid fit.
The current manifestation of the tensions between al-Baghdadi and al-Zawahiri erupted April 8, when al-Baghdadi released an audio message in which he announced that his organization had subsumed the Syrian jihadist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Baghdadi named the new, expanded organization the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and reportedly moved to Syria’s Aleppo governorate to take charge.
Two days after al-Baghdadi’s announcement, it became apparent that he had not coordinated with Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, and that the union of the organizations was more akin to a hostile takeover than a friendly merger. In his own audio message, al-Golani acknowledged the assistance that Jabhat al-Nusra had received from the Islamic State of Iraq in the struggle against the Syrian regime, but he stated that he had not been consulted about the merger and learned about it only through the media. Al-Golani then repledged his allegiance to al-Zawahiri and noted that his organization would remain independent from the Islamic State of Iraq. This message was clearly an appeal for al-Zawahiri to mediate.
Following al-Baghdadi’s announcement of the merger and al-Golani’s rejection of it, many Jabhat al-Nusra fighters deserted al-Golani to join the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. This had a significant impact on Jabhat al-Nusra, and a spokesman for the group told Al Jazeera on June 8 that al-Baghdadi’s takeover was “the most dangerous development in the history of global jihad.”
Al-Zawahiri’s ruling on the matter came in a letter released June 9 in which he urged the leaders to stop feuding. The letter noted that al-Baghdadi had erred in declaring the merger without consulting the al Qaeda leadership and that, like al-Golani, the core leaders had heard of the merger only through media reports. Al-Zawahiri also noted that al-Golani was wrong to publicly announce his rejection of the merger and to publicly reveal his group’s affiliation with al Qaeda. He also declared that the Islamic State of Iraq was to be confined to the geography of Iraq and that Jabhat al-Nusra was to remain in charge of Syria. Al-Zawahiri instructed both groups to cease fighting and to support each other with fighters, arms, money, shelter and security as needed.
Al-Baghdadi’s response to al-Zawahiri’s admonition was sharp and quite clear. In the audio message released June 15, a man who appears to be al-Baghdadi rejected al-Zawahiri’s order, stating that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant would remain and that he and his followers would not compromise or back down as long as they live. Regarding the instructions in al-Zawahiri’s letter, al-Baghdadi said he had been forced to choose between God’s command and an order that contravened it. Al-Baghdadi said he chose the order of God over those of al-Zawahiri. This was clearly a shot at al-Zawahiri’s legitimacy and authority — and a very public one.
The al Qaeda core leadership has been isolated and in hiding since 2001. The leaders’ efforts to avoid blunders in communications security that could bring them to the attention of the massive U.S. signals intelligence operations meant that they needed to be largely unplugged from rapid means of communication. AP recently released internal al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb documents in which the group’s leaders lamented the fact that they have received only a few communications from bin Laden and al-Zawahiri since pledging allegiance to al Qaeda in 2006, despite their many letters to the core group seeking guidance.
It is difficult to lead an organization remotely, and it is even more so when you do not have regular and sustained communications with your subordinates. Such an environment compels individuals on the battlefield to become autonomous and self-reliant, especially when the higher headquarters is not in a position to offer subordinate units much in the way of funding, training or assistance. This situation does not leave the headquarters with much leverage over battlefield commanders, and that lack of control was quite apparent even in the 2005 letter from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi — it was filled with far more pleas and persuasion than commands and consequences.
It is also important to remember that like Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad, all of the al Qaeda franchise groups were created from existing regional militant groups and have their own distinct leadership personalities, histories and philosophies. These groups have also been involved in combat for years and they all face unique conditions and concerns in the areas where they operate. These factors serve to separate them from the leaders of the core group in Pakistan, as does the normal disdain that soldiers who spend years on the front line tend to have for people assigned in the rear echelons and whom they consider to be out of touch with conditions in the trenches.
As to the authenticity of these recent communications, it is quite possible that they are elaborate fabrications by intelligence agencies attempting to cultivate divisions within the jihadist movement. However, the time that has elapsed without any sort of public denunciation of the messages suggests that they are likely authentic. Their tone and content also seems genuine, and the fact that they were released publicly underscores the difficulties al-Zawahiri and the al Qaeda core has had communicating directly with the various jihadist franchise groups.
Despite the long-standing weakness of the al Qaeda core group, to this point the franchise groups have been careful to publicly maintain a facade of paying homage to the core leadership. Al-Baghdadi’s breaking from that policy may be attributed to the absence of bin Laden, who has been dead for more than two years. Bin Laden was highly regarded in the jihadist world and had maintained an almost mythical status. It had become difficult for jihadists to show disrespect for him, even when some jihadists felt he was no longer relevant or was cowardly for hiding. Though al-Zawahiri was in many ways the architect of al Qaeda’s transnational jihadist vision and philosophy, he is prickly and irascible — traits that tend to alienate colleagues and subordinates. He has no peers in the jihadist realm, but he nonetheless is not regarded as highly as bin Laden was.
Al-Baghdadi did not rise to his current position by being foolish. With Iraqi government forces hunting him (and U.S.-led coalition forces before that), he has been forced to shrewdly negotiate the maze of Iraqi sectarian politics to stay alive — and to ensure the continuing viability of his organization. It was largely due to his savvy leadership that the Islamic State of Iraq had the resources and foresight to back Jabhat al-Nusra’s efforts in Syria. Therefore, al-Baghdadi must have judged that he had the support of his Iraqi subordinates and a sizable number of the Jabhat al-Nusra fighters before making his move to absorb the Syrian group. His decision to openly defy al-Zawahiri was also likely made carefully. Since al-Zawahiri’s letter was released publicly, al-Baghdadi appears to have decided that his response must be public — and he apparently concluded that open rebellion would not undermine his position with his supporters.
With al-Baghdadi reasserting his intent to assume greater regional influence, he could be assuming an important position in the long-term sectarian struggle that seems to be underway across the region. At the same time, moving to Aleppo could expose him to some sort of operation from U.S. assets in the region — especially if he is seen as an ascendant regional jihadist threat.
It will be important to watch how the global jihadist movement views al-Baghdadi’s rebellion. Will they rally around al-Zawahiri and label al-Baghdadi as a rogue, or will they ignore the slight and write al-Zawahiri off as a marginalized old man with no power? It will also be interesting to see what effect this has on al-Baghdadi’s followers in Iraq and Syria. Will they continue to follow him in his new organization, or will they abandon him for a different leadership appointed by the al Qaeda core?
Al-Baghdadi has the opportunity to become the most influential and dynamic battlefield commander in the jihadist realm. His areas of operation in Iraq and Syria provide opportunities for growth and expansion that a location such as Yemen simply would not. Al-Baghdadi’s influence on the dynamics of the jihadist movement will need to be watched carefully.
For years, we have been saying that franchise groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have assumed leadership of the global jihad on both the physical and ideological battlefields. But while the devolution of the jihadist movement, the growing irrelevance of the al Qaeda core and the tensions between the core and the franchises have been evident to observers for some time now, it is still quite significant to see these facts being acknowledged openly — and defiantly — by the leader of a major jihadist franchise organization.