By Arsla Khan
Dr Aymal Al-Zawahiri became the chief of Al-Qaeda after the sudden killing of Osama Bin Laden (OBL) by Americans in 2011. Despite the fact that Zawahiri was a long time companion of OBL and a well-known jihadi figure of core Al-Qaeda, many experts were of the view that he would not be able to exert control over various Al-Qaeda branches, franchises and affiliates as OBL did. This analysis was based on the argument that Zawahiri lacks charisma and he is a new commander of Al-Qaeda who is on run due to the counter terrorism efforts of international community led by USA. This thesis is proving its truthfulness as Dr Zawahiri is engaged in tug of war among his own commanders and apparently his efforts to bring order in Al-Qaeda branches are not getting success.
Al-Qaeda’s leadership crisis became serious when Dr Zawahiri decided to abandon Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, his commander in Iraq due to his unwanted operations in Syria where Abu Muhammad al-Jolani was based with the mandate of core leadership of Al-Qaeda. But this tough decision did not end his woes, rather increased them. Subsequently, Dr Zawahiri’s peace emissary, Abu Khaled Al-Suri who was appointed to arbitrate Between Abu Muhammad Al-Jolani and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was also killed. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s return in Al-Qaeda is not imminent and his group has become a challenge for Al-Qaeda. His group has turned violent towards Al-Nusra and its propaganda campaign against core leadership of Al-Qaeda is even more deadly. Dr Zawahiri’s recent messages were aimed at neutralizing it. This indicates that Al-Qaeda is facing a strange challenge for the first time: a formal branch with belief in Wahabi/Salafi ideology claiming to be true representative of OBL.
Zawahiri’s current tensions with Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi have the potential to challenge his authority in other regional branches of Al-Qaeda as well. The leader of AQAP, Nasir Al-Wuhayshi, based in Yemen is the number two in the global Jihad of Al-Qaeda. He is maintaining a meaningful silence over the fighting between Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad Jilani loyalists and Zawahiri’s decision to dump Baghdadi. Al-Wuhayshi recently organized a big gathering of Al-Qaeda operatives and its video demonstrated his control and power for the world. Many journalists think that this show was also aimed at projecting him as a leader within Al-Qaeda. This view is further strengthened by the rumors among the Jihadi circles that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and Nasir Al-Wuhayshi are in contact and trying to maintain operational links. According to these sources, Dr Zawahiri is convincing Nasir Al-Wuhayshi to stay away from Iraq. Currently Al-Nusra in Syria and AQAP’s Yemeni jihadis are most active branches of Al-Qaeda under Zawahiri’s command. If he loses control on Al-Wuhayshi’s fighters, as indicated by these facts, it will be a big blow to Al-Qaeda’s global presence and operations.
Dr Zawahiri’s woes are compounded by many factors but weak leadership and concessions in winning more jihadis and affiliates are the main contributors of this situation. OBL was very strict in offering membership and affiliation with Al-Qaeda and only discipline jihadis who share his world view of global jihad were allowed to enter Al-Qaeda. But Dr Zawahiri adopted such groups and jihadis who are motivated by local politics and limited objectives. These elements are less interested in waging war against USA and Western countries. Moreover, cash strapped Al-Qaeda has little assistance to offer these groups. As a result, these groups are affiliated with the name of Al-Qaeda only and the Core leadership is unable to enforce its decisions and judgments over them. So, Al-Qaeda is becoming the victim of its own franchises and affiliates.
Dr Zawahiri’s Altercations with his own commanders and fighters clearly indicate his difficulties in managing the affairs of Al-Qaeda. To his utter contempt, Al-Qaeda operatives and media experts are openly criticizing his mismanagement of organization in Syria and Iraq on various online jihadi forums and websites. He was recently heard making clarifications in response to scathing criticism of Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the spokesman of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Similarly, in a recent message, Dr Zawahiri called Mahmoud Abbas a traitor and Hamas and Fatah his supporters. In return, Fatah spokesman Ahmad Assaf gave him the title of a Zionist. It is pertinent to mention here that Al-Qaeda got the help of Arab jihadis in the name of Palestine cause. Dr Zawahiri’s disagreements with Egyptian jihadis are already well-known. These statements and counter statements show anxiety of core leadership of Al-Qaeda in appealing the hearts of Arab masses and keeping Al-Qaeda intact. Moreover, Dr Zawahiri is avoiding appearance in videos and propagating his views through audio statements which also indicate his growing insecurities in wake of these developments.
Emphasizing on the same problems and issues, a recently released report of US State Department also concluded that Al-Qaeda is becoming weak and its core leadership based in Af-Pak region is losing control over its other branches and affiliates. According to this report, lack of finances rather than lack of access is mainly responsible for this. Many Arab fighters have already left Af-Pak region for their home countries due to the post ARAB Spring political crisis in Middle East and North Africa. Dr Zawahiri is staying with a handful of Arabs who are now more dependant on local militants. Since TTP is already suffering due to the infighting, Dr Zawahiri must be worried. As Afghan and Pakistani Taliban will become more involve in local affairs after the withdrawal of ISAF and NATO troops, situation will become more difficult for the core leadership of Al-Qaeda and Aymal Al-Zawahiri.