Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a top Jordanian expert on jihadist groups, dissects Zawahiri’s message in the piece below. He is rather scathing about what he sees as Zawahiri’s desperate plea for relevance. I certainly do not have his level of expertise, but I am not sure I share his view of al-Qaeda’s decline – the issue may be that the autonomisation of various AQ groups, especially Jabha an-Nusra, AQAP and AQIM – has now made “AQ Central” less relevant. But it is true that Zawahiri comes out as defensive in this latest video. Because I’m tempted to make analogies with hip-hop on just about every topic, one might say that this mirrors the discourse in Dr. Dre’s return to gangsta rap in his (fantastic) album 2001, in which he bemoans that people Forgot About Dre and that would do well to remember that he is Still D.R.E.. Except, you know, Dr. Dre is effortlessly cool and Dr. Ayman, well, a loser.
Zawahiri and the Delusional Fight over Baghdadi’s Legacy
Hassan Abu Haniyeh, Arabi 21, 8 January 2017
It is indisputable that al-Qaeda under Ayman al-Zawahiri is nothing like it was under Osama bin Laden. In his lifetime, Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda was an icon for jihadists and a guiding model for global jihad. Every jihadist movement and organization strove to obtain its blessing and the honor of joining its structure and putting itself under its leadership. On the other hand, Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda lacks the legitimacy to represent global jihad.
Unlike Bin Laden, whose charismatic personality enabled him to preserve a cohesive bureaucratic organization and strong ideological discourse, Zawahiri has failed to maintain the group’s unity. There have been many defections during his reign, with increasingly dynamic rebellions and acts of disobedience, while his rhetoric has been plagued by contradictions, shifts, and disorder.
As the Islamic State group, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, faces a comprehensive, universal war and is occupied with repulsing the attacks of the international coalition led by the US (whom Zawahiri routinely describes as “Crusaders”), regional and local Shia forces (typically described by Zawahiri as “Persian Zoroastrian rejectionists [rafidah]”) and Islamic-Arab forces (which Zawahiri makes sure to accuse of blasphemy, apostasy and collaboration), Zawahiri has appeared in a new speech distributed by the As-Sahab Foundation under the title, “Message to our Ummah: To Other than God We Will Not Bow,” in which he attacks the Islamic State group and Baghdadi.
Zawahiri has been preoccupied with pushing back against what he calls a campaign of distortion, intimidation and demoralization waged against the “mujahideen.” Among those who have participated in this campaign, according to Zawahiri, are the “liars” of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He has accused Baghdadi of deception and slander aimed at distorting the image of al-Qaeda and its activities, and has stressed that the priority of jihad should be to strike America.
It seems that Zawahiri’s reading of the conditions of global jihad are extremely confused and wrapped up in a state of denial which has made him unaware that the age of al-Qaeda has ended and that the world is now living in the age of ISIS – which has become the preferred model for new jihadists. Zawahiri’s speech is based on a wishful reading that predicts the decline and demise of ISIS, whose mantle will then be taken up by a new iteration of al-Qaeda.
Zawahiri’s speech did not mention any feelings of solidarity or any desire to reconcile with the organization, and instead carried out a relentless campaign against the group and against Baghdadi, without mentioning the disintegration, weakness and collapse that has befallen al-Qaeda.
In an attempt to restore and revive al-Qaeda at the expense of the Islamic State, Zawahiri has fallen into the Islamic State’s trap. By opposing ISIS for standing its ground, his speech lapsed into self-contradiction.
Instead of emphasizing the difference between al-Qaeda’s discourse and that of the Islamic State, he identified with it at the same time that he claimed to oppose and criticize it. He said that the “liar” (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) has claimed that al-Qaeda does not denounce un-Islamic regimes as blasphemous, falls in line with the majority opinion, has praised (ousted Egyptian President) Mohamed Morsi, and has even called for Christians to share as partners in power. He added that Baghdadi’s followers have claimed that al-Qaeda does not practice takfir against Shias.
Thus, Zawahiri, instead of saying, “Yes, we affirm our differences with ISIS about these foregoing issues,” pretended that al-Qaeda had held these positions since its inception — and this is, without a doubt, completely untrue.
These issues and others have been matters of contention between al-Qaeda and ISIS from the time of Zarqawi’s network up to Baghdadi’s state. In particular, al-Qaeda entered into a new phase upon the killing of its founder, Osama bin Laden, in a US special forces operation in Pakistan in 2011, which coincided with the Arab Spring revolutions.
At that time, Al-Qaeda inaugurated a number of transformations to adapt to the new circumstances. With the failure of the democratic transition process, al-Qaeda’s positions became contradictory, and it began to focus on building alliances with Islamic revolutionary and jihadist forces, and changed its priority from confronting America to fighting local regimes.
Leaders in the most active branch of al-Qaeda, in Syria, announced through the Nusra Front that they would refrain from confronting or striking America or the West in any foreign operations and limit their priorities to fighting in Syria and building ties with local forces – an approach which was also followed by al-Qaeda’s branches in Yemen and the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Shabaab [in Somalia].
In his speech, Zawahiri attempts to revive the rhetoric of Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. “Message to our Ummah: To Other than God We Will Not Bow” — the title of his speech — belongs to a different era, when al-Qaeda saw itself as the vanguard of the Ummah.
However, Zawahiri’s fantasy of the Ummah belongs to an imaginary Ummah that does not see therein a representation of its aspirations regarding state and society. Even the groups closest to Zawahiri, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ahrar al-Sham movement, blame him for dividing and distracting the Ummah.
Even Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani broke ties with Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda and founded Jabhat Fateh al-Sham with his blessings and commendation from his aides, such as Abu Khayr al-Masri and Abu Faraj al-Masri, notwithstanding the fact that Zawahiri considered the calls for al-Qaeda to stay out of Syria “flimsy.”
In his speech, Zawahiri revealed the extent of the contradictions and divisions inside al-Qaeda and its branches. In response to calls for al-Qaeda to be kept out of Syria in order to free Syrian groups from the “terrorism” label, Zawahiri said: “It is as if pleasing America was the purpose or path to victory in jihad, and as if al-Qaeda has become criminal because it antagonizes America and its corrupt agents in our lands. It is as if America was not annihilating Muslims before and after al-Qaeda was established.”
It is as if Zawahiri was indicating his dissatisfaction with al-Nusra Front cutting ties with al-Qaeda, a fact that came to light as a number of leaders rejected this decision, such as Abu Julaybib, Abu Bilal, Abu Hamam and others.
Zawahiri, in his latest speech, does not appear to be more than an observer and ideological guide with no real connection to the al-Qaeda organization and its branches. He does not issue orders or instructions, but incites, hopes, and beseeches. He is directing speeches at an imaginary Ummah, calling for the revival of jihad to liberate the Muslim nation from occupation by the infidels, as he puts it, saying that America and its allies are the primary target and reciting so-called crimes committed by the US that have nothing to do with al-Qaeda’s mission, such as the eradication of five million Vietnamese, the dropping of an atomic bomb on Japan, the killing of 60,000 Germans in the firebombing of Hamburg during World War II, and so on.
Zawahiri, as if he was in an introductory college course on refuting conspiracy theories, deflected accusations from al-Qaeda, saying: “Those with (hidden) purposes have accused al-Qaeda of different forms of collaboration. They have said that we are agents of the Americans formed in Afghanistan during the Russian invasion. They have said that we are Saudi agents formed with their financing. The rafidah, the new Safavids, have accused us of being American and Israeli agents. Their propaganda tools, in pure lies, say that the attacks of September 11 were a Zionist conspiracy and that they were a pretext for an American attack on Iran (which has not happened) even after 15 years of attacks — rather, their relationship has strengthened and they have become allies against Muslims in Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, and Syria. The propaganda tools and servants of American bases in the Gulf have accused us of being agents of Iran working in their interests, and finally they warned against us because we are America’s enemies, and those who side with us inherit our crimes.”
Zawahiri, in his attempt to prove al-Qaeda’s legitimacy, falls into a historical ideological and moral dilemma. In attempting to delegitimize ISIS and Baghdadi, he says that the figure Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf al-Thaqafi was “a role model for veterans of Saddam’s army officer corps and his intelligence services, who awarded the caliphate to Ibrahim al-Badri [the real name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi], who used to kill his rivals in Kufa if they did not testify against themselves as infidels.” But Zawahiri himself, during the time of Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, never tired of deflecting accusations away from that same organization, singing the praises of ISIS and the same men, and attacking those who fought against the organization as members of the Sunni Awakening and collaborators.
I believe that, in his speech, Zawahiri revealed a major disruption affecting al-Qaeda with his leadership — not only because of his loss of legitimacy to ISIS, but first and foremost because of his dwindling legitimacy among al-Qaeda and its branches.
Among his followers and supporters, accusations have been mounting that he is unable to confront ISIS, hesitant in dealing with it, indecisive in his positions, unable to maintain al-Qaeda’s appeal and ability to galvanize, and of losing control over the organization’s branches, which pushed him to rehearse al-Qaeda’s guide for action, “code of conduct” and aims — most importantly to impose sharia, unite the Ummah, release prisoners, etc. — and emphasize that the principles had been developed after consultation with all branches in order to hold them responsible.
It seems that Zawahiri’s legitimacy has been lacking among al-Qaeda’s followers and supporters, even moreso than among other jihadists, at a time when it had been possible for Zawahiri to recover something of al-Qaeda’s appeal by summoning Osama bin Laden’s charisma by appointing his son, Hamza bin Laden, whom the United States recently placed on its terrorist watch list. In a speech last year, Ayman al-Zawahiri presented Hamza as “son of the lion of jihad,” before going on to call upon the youth of Islam to fight against the “Americans, Jews, and the rest of the West.”
However, Zawahiri has appeared unable to understand the transformations at work and unable to control al-Qaeda. The group, which had depended for its organizational structure and ideological aspirations on both Saudis and Egyptians, has now become, in the age of Zawahiri, basically Egyptian. Everyone was surprised by the announcement through the Nusra Front’s media platform, Al-Manara Al-Bayda, that Zawahiri’s deputy would be Abu Khayr al-Masri.
It is no small irony that the announcement was not made through the As-Sahab Foundation [al-Qaeda’s media production unit]. The Nusra Front’s step of breaking ties with al-Qaeda revealed how weak and fragile Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda has become, and showed the dispute among various wings, leaders, origins and nationalities. It is no longer possible to play the Bin Laden card or enforce the Saudi line.
Before that, it had been possible for Hamza bin Laden to become “the new face of al-Qaeda.” His latest speeches had revived the image of his father. Last July, his words were consistent with his father’s when he said: “Al-Qaeda will continue to carry out its attacks inside your country and abroad in response to the repression suffered by the people of Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and other Muslim countries.” He was decisive when he threatened America and the West and promised to avenge the death of his father, Osama bin Laden.
The bottom line is that, in his speech, Zawahiri appeared unable to comprehend the current transformations and was preoccupied with defending his choices, despite saying that al-Qaeda’s policies were not sacred writ. His concerns appeared largely narcissistic, as he was preoccupied with his own reputation and tried to place the blame on others — from the Islamic State and from his own group — for the organization’s dissolution and weakness. He took no notice of the campaign faced by ISIS, was unconcerned by the defeat of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, and other opposition groups and their expulsion from Aleppo, and did not touch upon the state of his crumbling branches in Yemen and the Maghreb, which are being dispersed and losing effectiveness.
The Ummah that Zawahiri claims to represent has disappeared and withdrawn into itself – and in that sense it is not very different from what Zawahiri himself has become. Are we waiting in anticipation for another speech? I think not.