How Zawahiri Lost al Qaeda

Global Jihad Turns on Itself

An Islamist rebel poses in Aleppo, Syria, October 2013.
An Islamist rebel poses in Aleppo, Syria, October 2013. (Molhem Barakat / Courtesy Reuters)

Like any sprawling organization, al Qaeda has seen its fair share of bureaucratic infighting. But the squabbling has reached fever pitch since Ayman al-Zawahiri began his tenure as head of the organization two years ago. Two of al Qaeda’s four main affiliates, al Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are bitterly, and sometimes violently, feuding for supremacy in North and West Africa. Another affiliate, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), has openly defied Zawahiri’s will in Syria. If Zawahiri wants to assign blame for the lack of order, he should look no further than himself: the squabbling is largely a result of his decision to expand al Qaeda too broadly.

Paradoxically, one major reason that al Qaeda affiliates are not getting along is the great many opportunities before them. The turmoil in the Arab world has created security vacuums that Zawahiri has sought to exploit by calling on his local affiliates to set up shop. As they move in, they often disagree about who should be in charge.

Syria is a case in point. On April 9, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq, a front group for AQI, declared that his group was changing its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), indicating his desire to play a greater role in the Syrian civil war. (“Al Sham” refers to Syria and its surrounding area.) The emir also claimed that AQI had already been fighting in Syria in the form of the Nusra Front, which he said was subordinate to him. Yet Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, the Nusra Front’s leader, refused to acknowledge Baghdadi as his leader; instead he pledged a direct oath of allegiance to Zawahiri. In response to the spat, Zawahiri sent a private message ruling that both men had erred: Baghdadi by not consulting Jawlani, and Jawlani by refusing to join ISIS and giving his direct allegiance to Zawahiri without permission from al Qaeda central. Zawahiri also decreed that ISIS should revert to its old name -- and to its more limited focus. The Nusra Front would remain al Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria, an “independent branch” subordinate to the “general leadership.”

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