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Ayman al-Zawahiri on Jihadist Infighting and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
On April 18, a jihadist social media user tweeted links to two parts of an Al-Sahab Establishment for Media Production interview with al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. Entitled “Reality Between Pain and Hope,” the interview’s first part was 54 minutes and 15 seconds, while the second part was 28 minutes and 45 seconds. Since the interview was first posted by a social media user rather than Al-Sahab, this appears to be a leak, similar to the recent leak of an unpublished Adam Gadahn video criticizing the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) following the death of al-Qaeda emissary Abu Khalid al-Suri.
Given analysts’ focus on recent jihadist infighting in Syria, it is worth noting Zawahiri’s comments on the matter, and on ISIS more broadly. ISIS was, of course, famously expelled from al-Qaeda in a pronouncement that the jihadist group issued in early February.
Zawahiri on Jihadist Infighting
In the interview, Zawahiri is asked about infighting among jihadist groups in Syria. His response is thunderous yet non-specific about which individuals or factions are responsible for the problems. Zawahiri blames the infighting on “the control of whims, ignorance, and injustice over some people,” and further suggests that jihadist factions in Syria may have been infiltrated, perhaps by intelligence services or else just by “misguided advice” and “bad incitement among the mujahedin.”
Asked about al-Qaeda’s efforts to end the infighting, Zawahiri renews the organization’s demands for addressing these disputes. At the time ISIS was expelled from al-Qaeda, they had been ordered to undergo arbitration with other mujahedin factions. While paying lip service to the arbitration process, ISIS in fact refused to comply. Zawahiri renews his calls for arbitration, stating that jihadists should refer their dispute to an independent sharia commission capable of obliging the conflicting factions to submit to its rulings.
Zawahiri implies that there could be severe consequences for factions who refuse to submit to arbitration. He says that all mujahedin and supporters of jihad should “take a stance of promoting virtue and preventing vice against all those who delay the work of this commission, ignore responding to it, or do not abide by its decisions.” In referring to the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, Zawahiri makes clear that he is speaking of drastic measures: the withdrawal of legitimacy and financial and moral support from factions who fail to submit to arbitration. “Stripping off the legitimacy is a very serious thing,” Zawahiri says. He points to Algeria, where “the legitimacy was revoked from the militant Islamic group”: Zawahiri is referring to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which al-Qaeda played a role in helping the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) splinter group to supplant. After GIA’s legitimacy was stripped from it, Zawahiri says, “it vanished.”
Though Zawahiri’s words are clearly intended as a warning to ISIS, he denies that he is speaking of them. “I do not address here an organization in itself or a group in particular,” Zawahiri says. Instead, he claims that his statement is a general one meant for all the mujahedin and their supporters. Indeed, he includes himself among the emirs whose commands should not be followed if their orders transgress God’s dictates. “Neither al-Zawahiri nor al-Jawlani [Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader] nor al-Baghdadi [ISIS’s leader] will protect you from God’s punishment if you wage aggression against your mujahedin brothers,” Zawahiri says.
Zawahiri says that jihadists joined the fight in Syria to “make the word of God supreme and to make the word of the infidels humiliated,” and thus they should be wary of being used by commanders “in their disputes over powers, ranks, positions, or gains.”
Zawahiri’s comments on jihadist infighting point to possible approaches al-Qaeda may adopt in dealing with ISIS, including the potential for a strategy of delegitimizing its leadership and drying up its funding streams. There is evidence to suggest that al-Qaeda has already been following this approach, but Zawahiri’s language and prioritization of arbitration and cohesion among the mujahedin also leaves open the possibility of a cooperative relationship or reconciliation with ISIS emerging. (Since a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering is occurring, my analysis in this piece doesn’t attempt to determine probabilities, but instead to understand the thrust of Zawahiri’s message.)
On the Split with ISIS
The interviewer asks Zawahiri about the justifications for al-Qaeda’s expulsion of ISIS. Zawahiri articulates two rationales. First, he notes that al-Qaeda is focused on the U.S. and its allies, while being cautious to shed Muslim blood. “We avoid the operations where impermissible blood may be shed in the markets, mosques, and residential areas and even among the jihadist groups,” Zawahiri says. He notes that the purpose behind al-Qaeda’s issuance of a general guidance for jihadist action was to unify the ummah, and taking Muslim blood can thwart that goal. “It is not possible to unify the ummah if we have the image of a tyrant and a usurper of its rights,” Zawahiri says, thus implying that this is ISIS’s image.
Zawahiri’s second rationale for expelling ISIS is that it failed to abide “by the fundamentals of teamwork.” Asked to explain this point, Zawahiri points to ISIS’s declaration of states without getting permission in advance and its failure to submit to the arbitration process.
Zawahiri emphasizes the need for al-Qaeda to maintain its image in order to propagate its message, describing the jihadist group as “a message before it is an organization.” Noting that al-Qaeda’s goal is to serve as a role model for the ummah, Zawahiri warns that the ummah won’t trust them if it “finds that we fight over spoils of war before achieving empowerment.” Further, al-Qaeda’s enemies will exploit such failures. As evidence of this, Zawahiri refers to Hizballah leader Hasan Nasrallah’s statement “in which he justifies fighting to support the criminal regime in the Levant” on the basis that Nasrallah “seeks to protect the people in the Levant against the crimes of the takfiris.”
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. The author or volume editor of thirteen books and monographs, he holds a Ph.D. in world politics from the Catholic University of America and a J.D. from the New York University School of Law.