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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.”
Had the scuffle ended there, Zawahiri would have been slightly embarrassed by the public perception that he was not kept in the loop, but at least he would have successfully staved off a conflict. Baghdadi, however, had other plans. In a public message to Zawahiri after receiving the memo, he rejected Zawahiri’s message on religious and methodological grounds, saying that he had “chosen the command of my Lord over the command in the letter that contradicts it.” In the 25-year history of al Qaeda, no affiliate had ever publicly disagreed with the boss so brazenly.
The dispute between the Nusra Front and ISIS is not just about bureaucratic power; it is also about strategy and the future of al Qaeda’s global jihad. The Nusra Front, which wants to maintain its popular support among the Syrian people, has tried to make nice with the other opposition groups in the country. By contrast, ISIS has attacked fellow rebels -- including the Nusra Front -- and implemented draconian Islamic law in the towns that it has captured, both of which have alienated Syrians.
In this regard, the squabble resembles a similar debate that took place within al Qaeda during the Iraq war. In 2005, when Zawahiri was al Qaeda’s number two, he chastised AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for alienating Iraq’s Sunni masses through AQI’s brutal campaign of beheadings and bombings. Instead, he argued, al Qaeda should temper its violent excesses and work with the other Sunni insurgent groups to expel the Americans. The Nusra Front is taking an approach similar to the one recommended by Zawahiri in its fight against the Syrian regime. By contrast, ISIS is largely following the disastrous Zarqawi strategy. Previously in these pages, I speculated that AQI would turn away Sunnis in Syria if it failed to learn from its mistakes in Iraq; I never anticipated that the organization would split because one half, the Nusra Front, learned from those mistakes and the other, ISIS, did not.
A similar struggle has unfolded in al Qaeda’s North African franchise, AQIM, albeit in private. As in Syria, many of the conflicts there have to do with who should call the shots in the new fronts for jihad.
In 2011, Zawahiri publicly called on Muslims to travel to Libya to join the rebel coalition fighting the Qaddafi regime. But the leaders of various AQIM brigades did not see eye-to-eye about how to answer the boss’s call. The leader of one brigade, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, decided to send fighters under his control into Libya in direct defiance of AQIM’s emir, who had given that duty to someone else. In an October 2012 memo, AQIM’s leaders chastised Belmokhtar for attempting to strike out on his own, claiming that they alone were responsible for the decision to bring jihad to Libya. The note read, “The leadership of the organization was the first to push for taking advantage of the events in Libya. It didn’t just push and urge, it went further and made decisions and instructions for the forming of teams and bands that were sent into the heart of Libyan territory.”
Like a business executive who feels that he would do better answering directly to the CEO rather than endure the small minds of his middle management, Belmokhtar pledged allegiance directly to Zawahiri. This was too much for AQIM. “Do you consider it loyalty,” its leadership scoffed, “to revolt against [the] emirs and threaten to tear apart the organization with no acceptable legal justification?” Belmokhtar shrugged and went his own way.
Zawahiri could be excused for failing to anticipate the organizational disputes that would arise from his call for jihad in the Arab countries undergoing violent transitions. But he should have known better than to publicly acknowledge al Qaeda’s merger with the badly run al Shabaab organization in Somalia. When the merger was announced in early 2012, it looked good on paper, because al Shabaab controlled most of Somalia. It also stood out among al Qaeda affiliates for attracting Western fighters who could be sent on missions into Europe.
But Zawahiri should have heeded the warnings of his predecessor, bin Laden. In 2010, bin Laden made clear that he thought it would be a mistake to publicly announce a merger with al Shabaab because its leaders were bad at governing and because they harshly implemented Islamic law in the territory they controlled, which did them no favors with the local Somali population. Bin Laden did not want to own the mistakes of his subordinates. Zawahiri urged his boss to reconsider -- to no avail -- and tried to blunt the advice that bin Laden received from other lieutenants who wanted to limit the size of al Qaeda, lest it get out of control. Zawahiri ultimately got his way: nine months after bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda publicly accepted a pledge of loyalty from Ahmed Abdi Godane, al Shabaab’s leader.
Soon after, however, al Shabaab lost its grip on most of Somalia. According to an exposé written by an American jihadi who had been fighting under al Shabaab’s banner, Godane used the merger with al Qaeda to silence his critics within his group’s ranks. As a result, al Qaeda affiliation, rather than unify the various jihadist elements in Somalia, ended up dividing them. The infighting has become so heated that a former close confidant of Godane’s wrote a letter to Zawahiri calling on him to do something before the Shabaab leader entirely ruined the organization. Either Zawahiri has not listened or he is unable to do anything about it.
As the political scientist Jacob Shapiro observes in his new book, The Terrorist’s Dilemma, all terrorist groups suffer from infighting for one basic reason. If they want to achieve their goals and to avoid being captured or killed, leaders of secretive violent organizations have to give their commanders in the field some measure of autonomy. When the field commanders become too independent, the leadership attempts to rein them in through various bureaucratic measures.
Without a doubt, Zawahiri is trying to rein in his unruly affiliates. What is striking is that Zawahiri created much of the problem himself by trying to expand al Qaeda too broadly. The one affiliate that Zawahiri did not push into a new arena of jihad, the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has, unsurprisingly, avoided infighting. Zawahiri has now allegedly appointed AQAP’s leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, as al Qaeda’s ”general manager” and thus his eventual successor. Zawahiri had little choice but to promote from the ranks of AQAP, given the current disarray across the rest of al Qaeda.
Zawahiri could still pare back his organization. He could amicably part company with al Shabaab in Somalia and sever ties with AQI. The open defiance of the latter would certainly merit such a response. But al Qaeda’s leadership has historically preferred to admonish wayward affiliates rather than cut them loose. During the Iraq war, Zarqawi severely damaged al Qaeda’s global reputation by mismanaging his organization. Yet al Qaeda’s leadership preferred to privately scold him rather than cut him loose. Better to have an affiliate behaving badly, al Qaeda central figured, than to have no affiliate at all. As the case of al Shabaab shows, bin Laden at least learned to publicly deny al Qaeda’s ties to unruly affiliates when he could, despite Zawahiri’s objections.
Zawahiri’s knack for creating factions and his unwillingness to part with them when they misbehave could help al Qaeda’s opponents blame the entire organization for the atrocities committed in its name. Over time, perhaps the bloody collage will dampen enthusiasm for joining al Qaeda and even horrify its members. But in the near term, Zawahiri’s poor management is not necessarily a boon to the United States and its allies. The various factions of a once-unified al Qaeda could compete with one another over which group can mount the biggest attack on the West. Whatever the case may be, Zawahiri’s inability to manage al Qaeda’s sprawling organization offers a preview of the infighting to come after his inevitable death.