Hmmm: Zawahiri declares war on ISIS

Fourteen years after 9/11, plenty of readers expressed their unhappiness in our earlier anniversary thread with US policy for the War on Terror, and for good reason. Perhaps it might help to know that the West isn’t the only side divided on policy and fighting with each other on how to win. Yesterday, just before the anniversary of al-Qaeda’s attack on the US, AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri sent out a declaration of war — not against the US or the West, but against the so-called caliphate and the self-styled Caliph himself:


Just ahead of the fourteenth anniversary of al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the U.S., the leader of the terrorist group took aim in an angry speech at a mortal enemy — but not American “crusaders” this time. Rather, the object of his tirade was the leader of ISIS in a declaration of war that will “irreconcilably” divide the two terror groups in a way the U.S. may be able to exploit, experts say.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who replaced Osama bin Laden as the head of al Qaeda four years ago, in a new audio message accused ISIS top leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of “sedition” and insisted the Iraqi terrorist recluse was not the leader of all Muslims and militant jihad as “caliph” of the Islamic State, as al-Baghdadi had claimed 14 months ago in a Mosul mosque.

“It’s pretty interesting,” said former National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen. “Zawahiri until now has not been willing to openly condemn Baghdadi and ISIS. It highlights how deep the division is between al Qaeda leadership and ISIS. It suggests that the differences are irreconcilable.”

Had ISIS and al Qaeda realigned by joining forces, it “would be terrible,” said Olsen, an ABC News contributor.

It’s not a recently recorded message. Zawahiri pledges loyalty to Mullah Omar, so it had to be recorded before the end of July, when the Taliban finally acknowledged that their leader had reached thermal equilibrium in 2013. Reuters quotes analysts who think it may be from early this year. ABC’s analysts believe this could give moderate Sunni nations an opening to exploit in pitting both groups against each other, but they’ve been at that for a while already. In Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have skirmished repeatedly for territorial control, along with the much-less-effective “free Syrian forces” we’ve been trying to stand up against Baghdadi.


In some ways, though, this is a civil war. As I wrote in May, ISIS began as an offshoot of Osama bin Laden’s operations in Afghanistan, with his blessing and material support:

The group now known as ISIS began in in Afghanistan in 1999 as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, with encouragement and some resources from Osama bin Laden, long before the US invaded. Zarqawi took the organization to Iraq after the US invaded Afghanistan, but its mission was overthrowing the Jordanian monarchy and establishing a radical Islamic state there. When the US invaded Iraq, JTJ shifted its focus to the insurgency and became known as one of the most brutal and bloodthirsty groups in it, but at least initially they were more interested in fighting Shi’ite militias than the US.

Zarqawi publicly affiliated with al-Qaeda and changed JTJ’s name to al-Qaeda in Iraq, and sometimes publicly clashed with AQ over its brutality, before the US finally killed Zarqawi in a targeted bomb strike. The group had declared itself an Islamic State in western Iraq by then, but the Anbar Awakening and the alliance of Sunni tribes pushed them to the brink of destruction. Only much later did they return under a slightly different name — the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS — and only after the US had pulled completely out of Iraq, thanks to the Obama administration.

The declaration of an Islamic state in Iraq by Zarqawi recognized bin Laden as the overall leader of the Islamic jihad, but with Zarqawi as the local authority. AQ’s leadership accepted that at the time, but tensions arose almost immediately, particularly over Zarqawi’s brutal methods. At some point, Zawahiri distanced himself from AQI over those conflicts, but the dissension never broke ou into open declarations of hostility.


After the deaths of both Zarqawi and bin Laden, the local AQI group clearly decided that they didn’t need to keep up the relationship and declared that all Muslims now owed loyalty to the renamed group after they captured Raqqa and other territory. That was more than a year ago, though, which raises the question of why Zawahiri waited so long to reject the claim. Perhaps the AQ leader was negotiating with ISIS, or Zawahiri didn’t feel strong enough to take on Baghdadi. The gloves are off now, though, at least for as long as the two groups refuse to reconcile on leadership issues.

Or … maybe not. Zawahiri made ISIS an offer they probably won’t refuse:

“Despite the big mistakes (of Islamic State), if I were in Iraq or Syria I would cooperate with them in killing the crusaders and secularists and Shi’ites even though I don’t recognize the legitimacy of their state, because the matter is bigger than that,” al-Zawahiri said.

“We have endured a lot of harm from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his brothers, and we preferred to respond with as little as possible, out of our concern to extinguish the fire of sedition,” al-Zawahiri continues.

“But Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his brothers did not leave us a choice, for they have demanded that all the mujahideen reject their confirmed pledges of allegiance, and to pledge allegiance to them for what they claim of a caliphate,” he said.


Those who may be excited to exploit divisions can be forgiven for their enthusiasm and optimism, but we’d better wait to see those divisions play out in real life before taking them to the bank.

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