TSG IntelBrief: Zawahiri Speaks, But Who Will Listen?
August 14, 2015

Zawahiri Speaks, But Who Will Listen?

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released an audio message on August 13, swearing allegiance to the new but disputed head of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour

• The release was expected, as Zawahiri had to prove he was alive in light of the duplicity surrounding former Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s 2013 death

• The impact of Zawahiri’s pledge to Mullah Akhtar is unclear, as both al-Qaeda and the Taliban are increasingly divided, and the Islamic State well-positioned to gain

• Attention now focuses on the Islamic State, which has not officially made mention of the death of Omar, the global jihadist movement’s rival ‘Leader of the Faithful.’

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The leader of al-Qaeda did not really have a choice in releasing an audio message about the death of former Taliban leader and amir al-mu’mineen, Mullah Omar, nor did he have much choice in pledging allegiance to his replacement, Mullah Akhtar Mansour; Ayman al-Zawahiri needed to prove to an increasingly skeptical support base that he was indeed still alive. A written statement would not be proof enough, given the two years of deception by close supporters of Mullah Omar, who died in 2013 but still released ‘statements.’ Furthermore, Zawahiri is known to be somewhat pragmatic; he knew he had little choice but to continue his group’s ties to the Taliban, given that the alternative would be to pledge bayat to his archrival Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the so-called Islamic State. Yet it is difficult to overstate how damaging the two years of lies surrounding Mullah Omar’s death have been to Zawahiri’s already damaged image. Pledging bayat to Mullah Akhtar means pledging allegiance to someone who not only lied about the death of Mullah Omar but also released statements in his name—including positive mention of the possible peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Online supporters of the Islamic State wasted little time mocking the announcement, saying Zawahiri had basically pledged bayat to the Pakistani intelligence service—a reference to the widely assumed ties between Mullah Akhtar and his deputies Maulavi Haibatullah Akhunzada and Mullah Sirajuddin Haqqani to Pakistan. The new Taliban leadership is certainly aligned with al-Qaeda as well as Pakistan, but it does not even have the full backing of its own group; Mullah Omar’s sons dispute the selection of Mullah Akhtar. In effect, Zawahiri’s statement is that of a divided al-Qaeda pledging allegiance to a divided Taliban, while a united and growing Islamic State seeks to poach disillusioned members and supporters from both groups.

The impact of Zawahiri’s statement remains to be seen. The most important al-Qaeda affiliates—Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—released a joint statement last week mourning the passing of Mullah Omar but made no mention of the new ‘Supreme Leader.’ This makes sense, as the affiliates are pledged to Zawahiri, who in turn is pledged to Mullah Akhtar. This division of bayat—and the recent drama that has surrounded it—provides the Islamic State with its most significant chance to further weaken al-Qaeda in the eyes of the global jihadist movement.

Now that Zawahiri has made his stance clear, the focus will likely shift to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. With all the attention over the silence of Zawahiri, it is important to note that Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Leader of the Faithful, has made no statement about the death of Mullah Omar, his rival to that title. Neither has his official spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani. Just as Zawahiri had little choice but to make an audio statement, so too does Baghdadi need to prove he is both alive and in charge. The deception over the death of Mullah Omar has in effect marked the end of the written statement as a credible means of communication for the leaders of the world’s most hunted groups. The growing sentiment is that if there is no audio or video, there is no trust in the message. This is inconvenient for these leaders, given the intense pressure that is on them, and the risks involved in sticking one’s head up to make a statement—but this is the reality of terrorism leadership in 2015.

There is a great deal of meaningful movement in the global jihadist movement, with al-Qaeda affiliates taking advantage of chaos in Yemen and Syria, and the Islamic State continuing to terrorize the region. All the while, both groups continue to spread the ideology of bin Ladinism across the globe, calling for ‘lone wolf’ attacks wherever possible. Zawahiri’s statement of allegiance to Mullah Akhtar answered only one question, leaving the future of the larger movement to be answered in the coming months and years by shifting battles and alliances.

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