Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central out of the loop in Iraq & Syria

Last week, documents from the Sahel revealed the infighting inside al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Will McCants at Jihadica then discussed similar problems of dystfunction between al Qaeda affiliates in Syria.  Yesterday, al Jazeera confirmed McCant’s discussion by releasing more internal AQ documents showing the messy bickering inside al Qaeda by posting a letter from al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to the leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, aka AQ in Iraq) and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria annulling AQ in Iraq’s annexation of al-Nusra in Syria.  Zawahiri was not in the loop at all with regards to what Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (AQ in Iraq/ISI) was up to in his attempts to consolidate more power in the Levant.

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This doesn’t appear to be the first time that AQ in Iraq (ISI) have been on their own with regards to taking orders from AQ Central.  Zarqawi was scolded years ago for being off the reservation targeting Shia in Iraq. The gradual ‘Iraqification’ of the ISI has likely led to a more insular and self-directed AQ in Iraq.  The Abbottabad documents from the Bin Laden raid suggest that AQ in Iraq may have been the most distant AQ affiliate at the time of Bin Laden’s death.  As seen here in this quote from Bin Laden’s note to Attiya in April 2011:

SOCOM-2012-0000010-HT - Regarding the communications with the brothers in Iraq, please inform us on its progress and the reason for its scarcity.

So why would Baghdadi want to annex al-Nusra? Straight up, power & money. I assume Baghdadi recognized the rise of Nusra as a threat to his regional dominance in AQ ranks.  Likewise, forcing Nusra under AQ in Iraq’s wing would bring the best resourced AQ affiliate garnering the most international attention under his control.  I imagine far fewer Gulf donors want to pump money and weapons into Iraq as compared to Syria. Baghdadi was thinking about keeping his stake in a post-Zawahiri world. According to al Jazeera, Baghdadi’s preemptive power grab harmed Nusra in Syria.

 after Baghdadi released a video in April declaring the formation of the ISIL, many of al-Nusra’s fighters, especially non-Syrians, left to join the new umbrella group. “This was the most dangerous development in the history of global jihad,” an al-Nusra source inside Syria told Al Jazeera on Saturday. One al-Nusra fighter estimated that 70 percent of the group’s members left for the ISIL in Idlib province, with even higher defection rates in the Syria’s eastern regions. Aleppo, the bastion of al-Nusra, saw the least defections from its ranks, fighters said. But even then the city suffered from the divisions within the group.

So we now see Zawahiri scolding his regional Emirs.

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I’m guessing a Nusra dude must have passed this along to Al Jazeera to get word out to everyone that the two groups are separate, just in case Baghdadi doesn’t want to comply.  Poor Ayman, why won’t ISI (AQ in Iraq) listen to you? Why are they not consulting you?  I’m guessing several reasons.

  • AQ in Iraq has always been “On Your Own” (O.Y.O.) with respect to Zawahiri.  AQ Central has always been critical of the group’s conduct (See Attiya letter & Abbottabad doc SOCOM-2012-0000017) , so why listen to the grump if all he wants to do is play arm chair quarterback from Pakistan?
  • AQ in Iraq probably has its own resource pipeline:  Having fought for years in Iraq, they have cemented their own weapons and money pipelines from the Gulf years ago and sustain their own illicit mechanisms in country.  What does AQ Central provide them at this point?
  • Zawahiri doesn’t have good mechanisms to communicate with AQ in Iraq and the ISI.  The Abbottabad documents suggest there were many intermediaries trying to reach them.  Here again we see the regional affiliates not having routine contact with Zawahiri.

Another really interesting aspect of this is the naivety of al Qaeda foreign fighters.  Just a few months back, Omar Hammami was talking about the glory and just path of jihad in Syria where things are resolved appropriately.Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 10.15.41 AM

Yet, we now see that al-Baghdadi with AQ in Iraq (ISI) is pulling the same stunt as Hammami’s Shabaab nemesis Ahmed Godane – trying to seize more power by controlling a command relationship with Zawahiri and AQ Central.  Ahh Omar, it appears jihad is the same everywhere, this is what happens when you approach age 30, whether its jihad or office work you figure out its all – “same shit, different day.”  Even though al Qaeda doesn’t support Omar, at least his parents still do.

From a counterterrorism perspective, I see both some concerns and some opportunities.  If anything, I would imagine now more than maybe anytime since Bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri is desperately trying to plot his strategy and an attack to re-establish his prominence, authority and control over al Qaeda.  Zawahiri still has control in places I’m sure, but without a “quick win” where he can regain some clout his relevance to AQ affiliates will continue to wane.  Likewise, for the West, this internal al Qaeda fracturing is helpful as it prevents the groups from advancing forward productively.  However, it requires analysts to independently evaluate every aspect of many different groups.  Used to an established AQ playbook the past decade, analysts have likely gotten comfortable with how AQ would operate.  Now, the landscape is quite dynamic and much harder to anticipate as the regional and local aspects influencing each group vary so much – a significant challenge for the West.

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