Zawahiri is Not the Loser People Think he is

Posted: 18th March 2017 by Tore Hamming in AQ Central, Bin Laden, Zawahiri

Al-Zawahiri will never become as charismatic and authoritative as Usama bin Laden, but less can do in times of great ordeal for al-Qaida as the Islamic State briefly overtook its position as the foremost Jihadi movement. Since 2015 Al-Zawahiri has proven to be a commanding and well-respected leader after a period when even his own within al-Qaida started to doubt and criticize him. Bin Laden himself was not always immune to criticism, but the critique of al-Zawahiri was nonetheless critical for the aging leader, who had been waiting for his chance to lead the movement for more than a decade. Some of this criticism, however, is misplaced or no longer applies.

Some, like the Jordanian scholar Hassan Abu Hanieh, have argued that al-Zawahiri does not control his affiliates as closely as al-Qaida Central used to. Perhaps this is true, but then again al-Qaida affiliates have always had quite some freedom of manoeuvre, thus fitting well with the original idea of being a vanguard rather than an actual organization. We know from public propaganda that differential-Qaida’s affiliates still see Zawahiri as the commanding authority. Affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and northern Africa continue to sing Zawahiri’s praises. Most recently the newly established Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimeen, or the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, composed of the Malian groups Ansar al-Deen and Masina Liberation Front in addition to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Saharan emirate, stayed loyal to Zawahiri. In the speech announcing the merger, its leader Iyad ag Ghaly said “On this blessed time we pledge allegiance to our honourable emirs and sheikhs Abu Mus’ab abd al Wadud (AQIM emir) and our wise sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri”.

Internal al-Qaeda correspondence between senior members also suggests that al-Zawahiri is still a respected leader. When the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia confided to Zawahiri that he might join the Islamic State and reform it from within, he left the decision up to al-Zawahiri and other respected jihadist scholars (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini). Similar respect for the Zawahiri is evident in a letter sent by the now late senior operative in Syria Muhsin al-Fadhli to Nasser al-Wuhayshi. Perhaps the best example, however, is when the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani in an interview broadcasted by Al Jazeera on 27 May 2015, explained that he had received orders from the al-Qaida leadership not to target the West and focus on the Syrian arena. Although Jawlani’s groups declared independence from al-Qaida, it is obvious that he is still remains in the fold of Zawahiri.

Further cementing Zawahiri’s position as number one in the hierarchy is the continuous reverence and praise he receives from senior ideologues affiliated with al-Qaida, who are extremely influential on the broader Jihadi masses. This was confirmed in a recent interview I conducted with Abu Qatada al-Filastini who confirmed Zawahiri is the sheikh to follow. In another interview with a student of Abu Qatada, I was told that Abu Qatada has stated that “if all people on earth go in one direction and Ayman al-Zawahiri goes in the other direction, I will follow the sheikh”.

Certainly, the initial passivity from al-Zawahiri in the immediate aftermath of the rise of the Islamic State was not a conscious move, but a sign of desperation as the al-Qaida leader did not know what to do. Along the way, however, he figured it out and his answer was to follow the strategic vision of a population-centric focus that was adopted by al-Qaida already before the conflict with the Islamic State started (and was mentioned as early as 2001 by al-Zawahiri himself). To follow the brutally violent, but nonetheless successful, approach of al-Baghdadi and his cadres was not the solution. This was a smart decision by al-Zawahiri as he now, a few years down the road, commands an al-Qaida that has probably never been stronger than it currently is.

  1. Bird says:

    West insists on this narrative (read “propaganda”): “, it is obvious that he is still remains in the fold of Zawahiri.”

    Why is it obvious? There has been not a single evidence given by Western government or analysts to support these claims. Western government would be wise to tone down their “al-Qaeda” propaganda lest they find themselves in a reality where they have no choice but to negotiate with HTS. In which case, it would be a huge embarrassment as people will perceive as negotiating with “al-Qaeda”, in fact, it may even be perceived as a United States military and political loss to al-Qaeda.

    Act wisely, and start naming things as they are. Syrians know that al-Qaeda no longer exists in Syria, might want to catch up to reality.

    • Michael says:

      If the pea brain leaders in the west had any sence their would start talks with HTS
      aka JFS aka al-Qaeda start giving them aid and supplies that would make them depend on the west just like Hamas.

      The US tried all it could to destroy and failed now Hamas is just like any Arab government only not insanily corrupt maybe thats why they refuse to open talks with them they need the Sisi,s & Assad,s of the world.

      In the end the US will open talks with al-Qaeda & Al Shabab just like they tried to destroy the Taliban no longer do we hear “We are going to destroy the Taliban” it not if but when Afghanistan falls to the Taliban the west will fall into line to open talks its the Neocons think tanks like Turkish Coup supporting FDD which stands for
      you cant make it up “Foundation for Defense of Democracies” cheering on Coup
      against a Democracy in Turkey.

      70% of Muslim world is under 30 years old the muslim world has changed Al Qaeda Al Shabab HTS and other Islamic groups have massive support while the western backed dictatorships depend on old relics in their 60s & 70s who represent no one but themselves we must end this war once and for all.

  2. شكرا لكم معلومات عن القاعدة