Al-Qaeda vs. ISIS: Will the West be the punching bag?

The latest audio message by Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, which appeared on 10 September, can be best described as raising the battle flag against ISIS.

Zawahiri's exasperation over the so-called Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was quite evident in his audio message.

“We do not see Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi worthy of the Caliphate,” he said in the 45-minute audio message. Baghdadi came “by force and with explosions and car bombs,” rather than “the choice of the people,” Zawahiri added.

This message was Zawahiri’s first episode in what he called “The Islamic Spring” series, which the As-Sahab Foundation – Al-Qaeda’s media wing – has started broadcasting.

The message was probably recorded before June 2015, after Baghdadi refused to heed the advice of the chief of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – Nasir Abdel Karim al-Wuhayshi, alias Abu Basir, who was killed on June 16 – who was also Zawahiri’s deputy.

For Al-Qaeda to come back as the world’s leading ‘militant group’, the easiest way is to target its traditional enemies: the U.S. and the West.

Baker Atyani

Abu Basir had urged Baghdadi and Syrian militant factions – in a public letter published on 27 Feb., 2015 – to stop fighting and unite against the Assad regime.

9/11 is missing!

Zawahiri’s audio message, which came a day before the 14th anniversary of the deadly New York and Washington attacks, did not address 9/11. The Al-Qaeda chief’s prime concerns expressed in his audio message were very clear: ISIS and Baghdadi.

Zawahiri tried to reach out to global Al-Qaeda branches. He paid greeting to them all by name, and summarized what happened in the first half of 2015. He wanted to appear as a leader who exercised complete control over all the branches of Al-Qaeda, despite the fact that even when Osama Bin Laden was alive, it was difficult to control Al-Qaeda franchise branches as they expanded over the world. This was abundantly clear in the Abbottabad letters.

AQIS was the first move

Before Zawahiri’s public declaration of war against ISIS, he took a counter-step in South Asia by establishing Al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent (AQIS).

AQIS was a natural consequence of the death and outflow of senior Arab members of the organization. The vacuum was filled by South Asians. Al-Qaeda was trying to close the door on ISIS, and recruit from South Asia.

AQIS claimed responsibility for attacking a Pakistan Navy dockyard in Karachi in September 2014, and the killing of several Bangladeshi bloggers.

Bringing in Bin Laden’s son to speak to Al-Qaeda branches is a clear indication of the internal and external crisis faced by Al-Qaeda.

Baker Atyani

The Bin Laden legacy

In another Zawahiri audio message dated August 14, he introduced Bin Laden’s son, Hamza bin Osama Bin Laden, who must be in his mid-twenties now. In his first ever audio message – ‘Greetings of Peace to the People of Islam’ – Hamza sent his greetings and praises to Al-Qaeda branches across the world. The undated message was recorded before the death of AQAP’s Abu Basir.

Bringing in Bin Laden’s son to speak to Al-Qaeda branches is a clear indication of the internal and external crisis faced by Al-Qaeda. The Bin Laden legacy was used to give legitimacy to Zawahiri among both his own ranks and with ISIS.

“I greet with reverence the friend of my father, may Allah have mercy on him, and his companion on the path, the honorable … the Sheikh Emir Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Hamza Bin Laden was heard saying.

“On this occasion, following my father... I want to renew my [loyalty] to Emir al-Mumineen (leader of the Muslims) Mullah Mohammad Omar,” he continued, in reference to the late Taliban leader.

The message was recorded before the news of Mullah Omar’s death was announced in July 2015 (although he died earlier, in 2013). This signifies that the “Emir al-Mumineen” – which is equal to the Caliph – is not ISIS’ Baghdadi in the eyes of the younger Bin Laden, and suggests he does not recognize Baghdadi or his ‘state’.

Later on, after the news of Mullah Omar’s death was announced, Zawahiri swore allegiance to the new leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, describing him as “Emir al-Mumineen”.

Not good news!

Al-Qaeda confronting ISIS is seen as good news by those who think the groups will weaken each other, such as former CIA Director General David Petraeus. He has urged U.S. officials to use members of Al-Qaeda in Syria to combat ISIS.

But this declaration of war between Al-Qaeda and ISIS will work contrary to this popular presumption. For Al-Qaeda to come back as the world’s leading ‘militant group’, the easiest way is to target its traditional enemies: the U.S. and the West.

It is clear that Al-Qaeda is desperately trying to win in this competition with ISIS. And despite its current weakness, it will keep trying.

Baker Atyani is the Al Arabiya News Channel’s Senior International Correspondent. He is a veteran journalist covering conflict zones in Asia over the past 16 years, and is an expert on militant groups in the region. He has produced numerous documentaries, articles, and investigative stories – and was the last journalist to interview Osama Bin Laden before 9/11. He has been honored by the U.N. for his work, and by MCF and the Al Arabiya News Channel “Exceptional Courage in Journalism” awards.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:45 - GMT 06:45
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.