Zawahiri’s Pledge to the Taliban will Test al-Qaeda’s Cohesion
After much questioning whether al-Qaeda (AQ) would pledge to the Afghan Taliban's new leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri swore allegiance to the new chief on August 13, promising to him, "We are your soldiers and your supporters and a brigade of your brigades." This pledge, produced by AQ's as-Sahab Media Foundation and titled, "A Biography of Faithfulness," will serve as test of AQ's leadership strength and the ties to its affiliates.
Before analyzing the impact that the speech might have on AQ and its groups, two important points about the audio and its release attract attention. First, the audio of Zawahiri's voice confirmed that he is alive, as this is the first release from Zawahiri in nearly one year (the last being the September 2014 announcement of the establishment of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent [AQIS]).
Second, this audio speech was released differently than other as-Sahab productions, which are usually released onto jihadi forums, the first usually being the Fida'a forum. This speech, however, was released onto Twitter by an account created solely to release it. The only other message from Zawahiri released on Twitter was in an interview from April 18, 2014.
Now to the consequences.
The ties between AQ and its affiliates are not always stable, as we learned in the group's split with what would become the Islamic State (IS). That said, this speech might be a large step toward AQ's demise.
Though Zawahiri announced AQ's pledge to the new Taliban leader, none of AQ's affiliates did so.
Though Zawahiri announced AQ's pledge to the new Taliban leader, none of AQ's affiliates did so. An August 5 joint eulogy for Omar by AQ affiliates al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Nusra Front (al-Qaeda in the Levant) praised him, but did not make any mention of Mansour—let alone pledge to him. (Also notable was that the neither the Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement nor al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent [AQIS] signed onto the eulogy).
It is possible that AQ affiliates were waiting for AQ leadership's decision before proceeding with their pledge. If this is the case, we should then see a new message(s) in the near future from all AQ's affiliates confirming their pledge to the new Taliban leader.
Yet, despite the fact that the message was released on August 13, it was dated August 1—just two days after the Afghan Taliban's July 30 confirmation of Omar's death. This is notable considering that the joint statement by AQIM, AQAP, and Nusra Front was released four days later on August 5, which could have given enough time for the AQ affiliates to learn about Zawahiri's pledge. Even if this disconnect is not the result of any sort of defiance or disagreement, it would at least appear that the AQ affiliates lack direct communication with their leadership.
The speech also begs other questions. For one, it said nothing about the Afghan Taliban's two-year delay in confirming Omar's death—no justification, excuse, or hint of let bygones be bygones. Might this pose the possibility that Zawahiri did know about Omar's death and agreed to the cover up?
The pledge of Zawahiri to Mullah Mansour is going to complicate and possibly further weaken AQ's position. The way the Taliban handled the death of Omar has angered much of the jihadist movement—not only in the organization's covering it up, but also its lying to the people by continuing to issue messages attributed to him after he died. The most recent of these messages was one released on July 14, 2015, justifying peace talks and calling for financial donations.
Since these messages were exposed as false, many have attacked the Taliban from inside...
Since these messages were exposed as false, many have attacked the Taliban from inside, including its own political office, which tweeted those in it had no idea that their leader was dead, and that they were not involved in deceiving the group's followers. Furthermore, Mansour, the new leader, has been challenged by much of the Taliban's leadership, reportedly including Omar's family. Hence, contrary to Omar's wide support by the Taliban, AQ, and its affiliates, the new leader is not seen this light.
Many have been wondering, if Zawahiri didn't know about Omar's death, how can he pledge to work with a leadership that lied to the people for two years?
There is no doubt that this pledge is going to be an important test for AQ and its affiliates. How the affiliates will respond will be determined by the strength of AQ's leadership. If indeed AQAP, AQIM, al-Nusra Front, Shabaab, and AQIS will follow Zawahiri's pledge, it will clearly indicate their continuous support for AQ.
AQ is very fragile now. Any lack of synchrony from AQ and its affiliates will leave fighters and leaders within groups like the Shabaab (which has long been rumored to eye up a pledge to IS) and al-Nusra Front (which has increasingly become a crucial ally of moderate rebel forces in Syria) much more open to outside jihadi forces.
AQ, trying to revive itself, appealed to the Bin Laden brand of jihad by releasing an audio speech from Hamza bin Laden, a son of slain AQ leader Usama bin Laden, on August 13, 2015. In the audio release, entitled, "A Greeting of Peace to the People of Islam," bin Laden provided strategies for AQ affiliates and supporters around to the world; called on Muslims around the world to commit lone wolf attacks; and even addressed sedition in the jihadist movement by calling on
all groups to "unite our ranks and turn a blind eye to our disputes."
Notable is that it took as-Sahab almost two months to release the video. The transcript was ready for release on June 24, which means that it was recorded prior to June 2015, which might further indicate the problem of AQ's communication with the outside world.
Regardless, the appeal in this message is clear. There is no doubt that AQ is trying to rebuild and revive its reputation, and its leaders couldn't get anyone better than Hamza Bin Laden to help them. AQ needs someone who is loved and can inspire—someone who isn't weighed down by a negative reputation or has actively participated in any infighting between groups. That said, AQ most likely wants Hamza bin Laden, who has lived the life of jihad throughout the creation of AQ with his father, to become a (if not the) future leader of AQ. Such a move would be very powerful to revive the powerful brand: AQ = Bin Laden.
These recent events and factors make AQ's future very unclear, and its next moves will be crucial in sustaining it. It seems the only certainty one can take away is how important a name like Mullah Omar is, and just how much a man can take with him when he dies.