Syrian Jihad: The Weakening of al-Qaeda's Leadership
By Rita Katz and Adam Raisman
In an unexpected and unprecedented turn of events, al-Qaeda members and jihadists from all over the world who embrace the ideology of global jihad are now doubting the group's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and calling for his removal.
While the Syrian Jihad has been of paramount concern to world governments, with hundreds of foreign fighters pouring in to participate in the fighting, the country has also been an arena for internal strife and bloody battles between the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda's former branch, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Members of al-Qaeda and jihadists together blame Zawahiri for mismanaging the conflict in Syria and enflaming sedition, and advocate new leadership.
Under Zawahiri's command, al-Qaeda assigned the al-Nusra Front to be its arm in Syria, and disavowed the ISIL, telling jihadists that it does not acknowledge its founding and rejects its activities. Shortly after al-Qaeda clearly delineated its position, on February 23, 2014, Zawahiri's representative in Syria, Abu Khalid al-Suri, was killed in a suicide bombing in Aleppo. This was the watershed moment for the conflict. The al-Nusra Front and their supporters accused the ISIL of perpetrating the act and demanded they submit to arbitration by an independent Shariah body, while the ISIL denied having any connection. Representing al-Qaeda's core leadership, Adam Gadahn (AKA Azzam the American) spoke first on the issue, noting that jihadi factions in Syria blamed a "group that is known for its extreme nature and radical behavior," which infuriated pro-ISIL supporters, believing that Gadahn was referring to the ISIL.
After Zawahiri made a similar accusation in a speech released on April 4, 2014, those same jihadists quickly attacked him, questioning his wisdom and demanding his removal. While the entire situation is unprecedented in the contemporary jihad, it is unfathomable that jihadists not only express such vitriol towards the leader of al-Qaeda, but on an al-Qaeda-affiliated password-protected forums, the house for al-Qaeda for a decade, to brand him a disbeliever and seek a replacement. The assault on Zawahiri became so fierce, that administrators of the top-tier jihadi forum Shumukh al-Islam deleted all the posts in the discussion thread for the speech, "Eulogy for the Martyr of Sedition Abu Khalid al-Suri," and locked it. A few hours later, the forum went down for "maintenance".
As some jihadists cursed Zawahiri and others questioned his authority, in a separate discussion, a Shumukh al-Islam user, "Ta'ir al-Nawras," representing the views of the many members who were angered by Zawahiri's message, demanded that Zawahiri be stripped of his leadership position and that it be given to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) chief Abu Baseer Nasser al-Wuhayshi:
Let us gather in this topic signatures that demand allegiance to Sheikh Abu Baseer al-Wuhayshi, emir of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and assistance of Sheikh Usama bin Laden, may Allah have mercy on him, as the general emir for Qaedat al-Jihad Organization, and to transfer the General Command of the organization from Khorasan to the Arabian Peninsula, and isolate Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri, may Allah preserve him, bless him, and reward him on behalf of the Islam and the mujahideen all over the world.
"Ta'ir al-Nawras" and many others, complained that it is Zawahiri's distance from the Syrian arena, coupled with his alleged lack of wisdom and capability that make Wuhayshi the more capable leader:
Sheikh Abu Baseer, may Allah preserve him, is closer to the course of events in the Islamic world, and he is wiser, more cunning, and more capable to deal with it. He was one of the assistants of Sheikh Usama, may Allah have mercy on him, hand e was enabled to restructure the al-Qaeda branch in the Arabian Peninsula. He strengthened it, and made it a difficult number, and one of the most powerful branches of the organization in the world, superior even to the Central Command. The branch of the organization was enabled under his leadership to reach the United States of America with several operations, among which was the invasion of Umar al-Farouk, may Allah release him.
Also, the command of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is stronger and has better capabilities, and the experiences of its leaders are better, and the efficiency of its personnel is higher.
On the al-Minbar Jihadi Media forum, whose membership is firmly rooted in the pro-ISIL camp, jihadists sharply rebuked Zawahiri and the speech, with one calling it a new "explosive device on the footsteps of Adam Gadahn," and another declaring, "the organization in Khorasan and its idols are done as other than them were done..." A third jihadist stated that the "enemies of Allah" could not achieve against their targets in Syria what "Qaedat al-Sham," meaning the al-Nusra Front, and its "traitor allies, O Zawahiri" could do.
Still, there are some jihadists who hope to calm the situation and restore order. One forum user, "Nasa'im al-Kheir," illustrates the views from the other side, explained that while Zawahiri made "mistakes" in his handling of the Syrian conflict, it does not allow Muslims to attack him and brand him a "disbeliever". He wrote:
Although we disagree with the Sheikh, may Allah the Almighty preserve him, on the issue of al-Sham [Syria] and what happened in it, and it is a huge dispute, it does not contest the religion of the Sheikh and the authenticity of his method. Who are we to question the religion of the Sheikh, let alone speak of his mistakes and imperfections?
Similar to "Ta'ir al-Nawras" in his post, "Nasa'im al-Kheir" also pointed out Zawahiri's isolation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, far away from Syria, as a reason for his faulty judgment:
The mistakes of the Sheikh are mistakes that happen with any commander, and we still excuse him (if we excuse he who fell into the disbelief by ignorance). So it is the foremost excuse for the Sheikh that he is away from the reality in al-Sham and the truth is absent from him.
For that, saying disbelief towards the sheikh is a notorious calamity and a huge disobedience, and for that you must fear Allah, O tweeter about the sheikh, the wise man of your Ummah [Muslim community], may Allah the Almighty preserve him...
As the conflict rages and jihadists further entrench themselves in separate camps, al-Qaeda will remain marginalized in Syria until it is able to broker a solution. The sedition has impacted the jihadists and al-Qaeda on many fronts: from the disputes on the jihadi forums and social media to as far as the battlefield, with the ongoing bloody fights between the two sides. The jihadi generation raised on the unquestionable leadership of Usama bin Laden, the fiery speeches of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the brazen actions of al-Qaeda's branch in Iraq for nearly a decade is finding it difficult to accept a leader who is far from the battlefield in question and unable to exercise authority or connect with his followers. Pro-ISIL jihadists view the group as holding the birthright of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and not the al-Nusra Front, and accept its positions as truth and those who oppose them as the enemy, including Ayman al-Zawahiri and Adam Gadahn.