Since Ayman al-Zawahiri was elected to be the new leader of al-Qaida in the aftermath of the elimination of the mythological leader Osama bin-Laden, he has faced a series of internal and external challenges. First, he had to preserve his personal survivability and the wholeness of the organization, to entrench his personal leadership in his own organization and to preserve the premiere status of al-Qaida at the head of the global jihad camp. Despite the severe criticism Zawahiri encountered in recent months from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) who is challenging his leadership and disputing his aptitude to lead the struggle to restore the glory of Islam, it doesn’t appear at this stage that he is a realistic candidate to replace him.
The conflict that emerged within the global jihad camp over a year ago with the unilateral declaration of the leader of the organization “the Islamic Nation in Iraq” (ISI) al-Baghdadi that he is unifying his organization with Jabhat al-Nusra, which operates in Syria, under a new umbrella organization that would be called “the Islamic Nation of Iraq and al-Sham” (ISIS), inciting al-Julani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, against him.
Al-Julani rejected the imposed unification and in parallel declared his loyalty to the leader of al-Qaida.
Al-Zawahiri attempted to mediate between the warring sides but to no avail. The dispute deteriorated into military conflicts between the fighters of the two organizations in Syria and to unprecedentedly venomous attacks from al-Baghdadi’s people against al-Zawahiri, carried out on the websites of the global jihad. Once al-Zawahiri’s efforts to restore order had failed, he removed his support from the Iraqi organization as a partner of al-Qaida and declared Jabhat al-Nusra to be the representative of al-Qaida in Syria.
The echoes of the internal conflict extended far beyond the borders of Syria and brought responses of support and reservations from the fighting parties from the organizations and supporters of the global jihad.
In his efforts to contain the escalating conflict, to maintain the unity of his line and primarily to defend his position as the leader of the global jihad al-Zawahiri recently published several tapes wherein he presented his version, which was meant for the ears of his supporters and critics as one, against the backdrop of his decision to expel the ISIS organization from its membership in the coalition of organizations which partner with al-Qaida. In his comments, he quoted the declarations of support and loyalty that al-Bagdhadi had made for his leadership and seniority on several occasions in the past, as opposed to the claims of heresy that he and his spokesmen had now directed toward him.
Al-Zawahiri blamed al-Baghdadi for inciting a fitna (brotherly war) which constitutes a severe and unforgivable sin in Islam, and cast the responsibility for thwarting the efforts to fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad at al-Bagdhadi’s doorstep. Through this, al-Zawahiri endeavored to highlight his image as a restrained and responsible leader as required by his elevated status and as an expression for his desire to maintain the unity of the line, and thus also instructed the people of Jabhat al-Nusra, who answered to him, to unilaterally cease the combat against ISIS so as to not contribute to the continuation of the “fitna.”
Through this, he expressed his abhorrence for the internal war and emphasized even more the severe sin of the leader of the Iraqi organization. Even though the leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra responded positively to his orders, in actuality the combat between the members of the organization didn’t cease and it continues sporadically in the areas of fighting in the north and northeast of Syria.
At this stage it is unclear toward which direction this internal conflict could develop, however the clear interest of al-Zawahiri is to prevent its expansion to additional regions and organizations from the global jihad camp. It is clear to al-Zawahiri that the continuation of the verbal collisions and military clashes among global jihad factors in Syria could damage his standing and cause an irreparable tear in his camp.
This is likely the reason for his aggressive tone against his critics on the one hand and the pragmatic approaches he’s taking on the other.
In any case, the level of independence and autonomy held by leaders of the partners of al-Qaida in administration and decision-making in their organizations in the combat arenas in which they operate is significant and is expected to continue as in the past.
As such it seems that the estimates made in the media regarding the end of al-Zawahiri’s hegemony and that of al-Qaida in the global jihad camp and the ascent of the leader of the Iraqi organization are premature.
Either way, the main beneficiary of the internal conflict in Syria is President Assad, who views with satisfaction the unexpected assistance weakening the opposition against him, because of the all-out war being waged in its ranks.
Israel too, which has been monitoring for an extended time the disposition of global jihad factors on its borders with Syria and Lebanon, is very interested in the results of this internal struggle in Syria. It is clear to Israel that, without any connection the degree of unity or separation that will develop in the Jihadist ranks, it will continue to constitute a preferred target for attack by the entirety of the factors of the global jihad.
The writer is a senior research fellow and head of the INSS Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict.