TSG IntelBrief: Zawahiri’s Next Move?
April 10, 2015
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Al-Qaeda central in recent years has transitioned in large part from chief operator to chief motivator
• As Ayman al-Zawahiri seeks to adapt to events in Syria and Yemen, there may be compelling reasons for a more decentralized network and the release of affiliates from public—or overt—obligation to the Qaeda name
• There is considerable logic to such a move: it could enable local groups, otherwise disinclined due to the Qaeda name, to provide broader support
• Al-Qaeda members take their oaths of allegiance seriously and would need Zawahiri to release them from their direct linkage to the group; he would be smart to do so and capitalize on the regional sectarian conflict.
Sparked by exchanges between extremists in northern Syria, rumors are circulating that al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, plans to disband the group and release his supporters from operating under al-Qaeda’s banner. While it may be largely supposition, components of such an idea would be entirely logical. Al-Qaeda’s name is now becoming more of a hindrance to the objectives of bin Ladin than an accelerant for their achievement. Pushed by the fast-moving events where affiliates are located, its role continues to move toward chief motivator and away from chief operator.
Bin Ladin believed that al-Qaeda should be a vanguard force that would raise the consciousness of Muslims, in particular in the Middle East, to the way that their religion had been corrupted, and encourage them to act. He hoped that al-Qaeda attacks would lead to mass mobilization against the evil influences of non-Muslim powers and the corrupt regimes that they supported. He urged smaller groups to join together under his leadership and rise above their local struggles in a combined effort to achieve a more strategic objective.
Many members of the main al-Qaeda affiliates, such as Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, would argue that the consciousness-raising stage has been completed. The challenge they face now has more to do with establishing and mobilizing local and regional alliances than in making people aware of their presence and agenda.
The success of affiliates such as AQAP as well as that of the so-called Islamic State—which in previous iterations was an al-Qaeda affiliate—has brought this issue to a head. Unlike al-Qaeda, the Islamic State is an organized body with territory and troops; as a caliphate, it argues that all Muslims have a duty to join it as the only place where they can live in the full practice of their religion. It is not a vanguard; it is (in its view) the realization of a long-held dream and the fulfillment of ancient prophesies. Whatever other extremists may think of its leadership, they are strongly attracted both by the narrative of the Islamic State and by its power. It has achieved bin Ladin’s goal of transcending local grievances. Whatever Zawahiri may think of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate, he can reasonably argue that it would not exist without al-Qaeda’s foundational work.
If Zawahiri were to release the leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra and AQAP from the official Qaeda network, this would not denote failure on his part. He is not hung up on names. He dissolved his own Egyptian Islamic Jihad into al-Qaeda in 1998, and shortly before his death, bin Ladin himself had been thinking of ditching the Qaeda label for something more transcendent.
The violent extremist salafist/takfiri movement is concerned with objectives and motivation, not affiliation. With the possible freeing of Jabhat al-Nusra and AQAP from their public connection to al-Qaeda, almost all Zawahiri’s supporters would applaud him. Once de-coupled from the Qaeda name—and stigma—these groups might received increased funding, cooperation, and support otherwise unrealized. Imagine if AQAP retrenched itself simply as a local group aligned with and supporting other Yemeni tribal factions against Iranian-backed aggressors. In this scenario, Zawahiri would then have passed on a legacy, rather than frittered it away pretending to control something that has already moved beyond him. This possible maneuver does not mean the affiliates reject extremism; it would simply be a way to increase local power and viability.
As for the smaller affiliates such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent and al-Shabab in Somalia, there is little downside if they were to be released from association with their parent body. Despite joining al-Qaeda as a way to expand, these groups have failed to inspire mass support or rise much above their local agendas, and they are badly crippled by internal divisions. If they have a global role, it may be more as feeder groups for the more effective bodies around them, than as separate expressions of the global movement.
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