Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri
Blind Eagle, Brian Fairchild:
On September 4, 2014, al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri announced the creation of a new al Qaeda organization called – Qaedat al Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent (QJIS). The mission of the new affiliate is to consolidate the jihad movement in Kashmir, Bangladesh, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and India, an area that has heretofore been an operational backwater for al Qaeda. This new al Qaeda organization is headed by Asim Umar, a former Pakistani Taliban commander, which may be the key to understanding this new development, and an indicator that Zawahiri is planning to attack the United States, and has the capability to do so.
The announcement comes at a time when Zawahiri’s ideological and operational leadership over the international jihad movement is being fundamentally challenged in an actual jihadi civil war between his Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Clashes between the Nusra Front and ISIS began in early 2013, but increased when al Baghdadi publicly claimed that the Nusra Front was part of ISIS and would be merged with it. Al Nusra’s commander Abu Muhammad al Jawlani, however, refused to merge, and the dispute became increasingly violent. Jawlani subsequently appealed to Zawahiri to arbitrate the conflict. Zawahiri sided with al Nusra, and ordered al Baghdadi to dissolve ISIS and return to Iraq.
Al Baghdadi, however, dismissed Zawahiri’s ruling, routed al Nusra from the Syrian city of ar-Raqqa and took control of 80 percent of its foreign fighters. ISIS then swept through Syria and Iraq taking control of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in the first few days of January 2014. In February 2014, as a direct result of his insubordination and the brutality of his campaign, Zawahiri officially and publicly disowned ISIS. In response, al Baghdadi disdainfully stated “I have to choose between the rule of God and the rule of Zawahiri, and I choose the rule of God”, and he continued his conquest. He took Mosul in early June, and then, on June 29, 2014, he announced the creation of the Islamic “caliphate” naming himself as the new leader of all Muslims and calling for all jihad groups to obey him and gather under his banner, and he changed the name of his organization from ISIS to the Islamic State.
Al Baghdadi’s creation of the “caliphate” is central to understanding the degree to which he has undermined Zawahiri’s prestige and authority because it brings to fruition the goal that Zawahiri himself explicitly defined as vital for the success of the jihad movement, as illustrated in the following quote from his book Knights under the Prophet’s Banner, published in 2001:
- “Armies achieve victory only when the infantry takes hold of land…the mujahid Islamic movement will not triumph against the world coalition unless it possesses an Islamist base in the heart of the Islamic world. All the means and plans that we have reviewed for mobilizing the nation will remain up in the air without a tangible gain or benefit unless they lead to the establishment of the state of caliphate in the heart of the Islamic world.”
That the prized “caliphate” was established by the very man he disowned is a tremendous loss of face to Zawahiri, and illustrates that this internecine war is not just a spat between jihad groups. It is, fundamentally, a battle for the ideological leadership and operational direction of the entire international jihad movement. In addition to the vital requirement to create a “caliphate”, Zawahiri believes that maintaining Muslim public support is paramount to the survival of the jihad movement, and thus, he rejects any actions that he believes would lose this support, such as rigidly forcing Sharia law on Muslims, conducting sectarian war against the Shia, and the public slaughter of prisoners. Al Baghdadi, on the other hand, doesn’t care about Muslim public opinion, believes Muslims have no choice but to live under strict Sharia law, he actively foments sectarian war between the Sunni and Shia, and he frequently uses the slaughter of prisoners as a tactical and strategic weapon.
At present, al Baghdadi’s Islamic State, flush with money, manned by a flood of foreign fighters, bolstered by a string of military successes, and having realized the dream that Zawahiri has always called for – the establishment of the “caliphate”, is winning the civil war.
But Zawahiri’s problems do not stop there. Not only is the Nusra Front losing, but there is also growing factionalism within the group that limits Zawahiri’s influence over it – one faction wants to rapidly increase the number of foreign fighters into the ranks without preconditions (i.e. accepting Zawahiri’s beliefs), while the other wants to limit such an expansion in order to ensure that all within the Nusra Front comply with Zawahiri’s policies; it also plans to establish an Islamic emirate in Syria to compete with al Baghdadi.
It gets worse for Zawahiri. Nothing succeeds like success, and al Baghdadi’s string of successes has caused dissention and desertions in the ranks of Zawahiri’s heretofore loyal and key affiliates – al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). After the August 2014 American airstrikes against the Islamic State, AQAP pledged solidarity with it and vowed to conduct mass casualty attacks against the US in retaliation. Since July 2014, the loyalty of AQIM’s leadership is reportedly split between Zawahiri and al Baghdadi.
Every success by the Islamic State, every pledge of allegiance by a jihad group to al Baghdadi, and every defection of a fighter from an al Qaeda affiliate to the IS, pushes Zawahiri further and further into irrelevancy within the jihad movement and on the world stage. With all these challenges against him, it is surprising that the best response he could muster is the anemic announcement of a new affiliate that will work the backwaters of the jihad. The timing of the announcement, too, is interesting. Why now? In the context of all his tribulations, neither the announcement nor its timing make much sense, unless there is another reason for the announcement, and another role for the new affiliate to play.
Certainly, as he contemplates ways to regain his leadership, it is not lost on Zawahiri that another successful attack on the American homeland, especially if that attack coincided with the anniversary of the historical 9/11 attacks perpetrated by him and Osama bin Laden, would restore his reputation and leadership. For such a gambit to work, however, he would have to be able to claim credit for the attacks, and thus they would have to be conducted according to his direction and by an al Qaeda organization that he controls, which may be precisely why he announced the creation of QJIS at this particular moment.
The other al Qaeda organizations don’t meet this standard:
- The leadership and operational capability of “core” al Qaeda has been significantly degraded over the years by incessant US drone attacks.
- AQAP’s recent declaration of solidarity for Zawahiri’s Islamic State nemesis, and its independent threat to launch mass casualty attacks against the US, demonstrates his lack of control over this jihad group.
- The major split in AQIM’s leadership over whether to support him or the Islamic State, removes AQIM as an operational platform for a Zawahiri attack scenario.
- Al Nusra is factionalized and is out-gunned and out-manned by ISIS, and is fighting on three fronts: against the Assad regime, the Islamic State, and other opposition groups.
The only group Zawahiri has unquestioned control over at the present time is the one he just created – Qaedat al Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent (QJIS). But, does this new affiliate have the capability to conduct such an attack? The intelligence indicates that it is likely that QJIS has the capability because it was created from numerous jihad groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but, most significantly, from elements of the Tehrik-e Taliban (also known as TTP or Pakistani Taliban), a professional and experienced jihad group that Zawahiri is close to and has worked with for years. Significantly, the man he installed as the new leader of QJIS is a former Pakistani Taliban commander named Asim Umar, who Zawahiri has groomed for the position over the past couple of years. In 2013, Umar went on the record supporting Zawahiri’s desire to attack the US by proclaiming to his Muslim audience:
“Rise! Awaken! Participate in this global jihad to give a final push to the collapsing edifice of America.”
The Pakistani Taliban is experienced and operationally competent, and has an especially close relationship with Zawahiri and “core” al Qaeda. On September 1, 2010, the State Department described the close relationship when it declared the Pakistani Taliban and two of its senior leaders as Specially Designated Global Terrorists:
- TTP and al-Qa’ida have a symbiotic relationship; TTP draws ideological guidance from al-Qa’ida, while al-Qa’ida relies on TTP for safe haven in the Pashtun areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border. This mutual cooperation gives TTP access to both al-Qa’ida’s global terrorist network and the operational experience of its members. Given the proximity of the two groups and the nature of their relationship, TTP is a force multiplier for al-Qa’ida.
Most significantly, the Pakistani Taliban, in cooperation with Zawahiri, has already conducted operations against the US. It controlled and trained the double-agent that conducted the 2009 suicide bombing of the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, and it trained and directed Faisal Shahzad to conduct the Times Square bombing on May 1, 2010.
Zawahiri certainly has the intent to attack the United States as documented in the Summer 2014 issue of his official jihad magazine, Azan, which stated:
- The reestablishment of the Khilafah (Caliphate) in the Muslim world is only achievable once America has been degraded to the point when it can no longer meddle in the affairs of Muslims.…Due to the attacks by the Mujahideen…and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US is now on a slippery slope to collapse…The strategy of attacking US interests has worked and needs to continue for the foreseeable future until its strength has been reduced to a state in which it will be unable to support the Tawagheet (corrupt Muslim regimes) that rule the Muslim lands.
Absent specific actionable intelligence, it is impossible to state with certainty when any terrorist attack will occur. The above analysis, however, documents Zawahiri’s increasingly poor strategic situation and his humiliation by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and reveals that an attack on the United States, on or near the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, would likely counter al Baghdadi’s challenge to Zawahiri and reverse the degradation of his leadership and relevancy. It also reveals that it is likely Zawahiri has the capability to conduct and take credit for such an attack via the creation of QJIS and its absorption of Pakistani Taliban elements. Another factor not included in the above analysis that likely motivates Zawahiri to attack, is the likelihood that al Baghdadi is planning such attacks (see the detailed report on this topic). If al Baghdadi successfully conducts attacks in the United States while Zawahiri sits on the sidelines, Zawahiri’s demise as the leader of the international jihad movement will be assured.
 Zawahiri, Ayman, Knights under the Prophet’s Banner, London al Sharq al Awsat, 2001, p. 63
 Azan Magazine, The Rise and Fall of America, Summer 2014, p. 13
 Azan Magazine, p. 15
Brian Fairchild bio.