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Al Zawahiri Rejects Al Baghdadi’s Self-Proclaimed Caliphate; But Will Mutual Goals Bring the Two Jihadi Leaders Together?

Despite past strong ties between individual members and past operational cooperation, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri bitterly rejected the Islamic caliphate proclaimed by Islamic State (ISIS) leader and self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in a new audio message posted on the Al Qaeda-affiliated online forum Al Fidaa’ on September 9.

Most of the message, "Series of the Islamic Spring," was devoted to rejecting the Islamic caliphate and predicting an "Islamic Spring.”

Counterterrorism analysts told Homeland Security Todaythere’s definitely bad blood between the two leaders, but that depending on the jihadi struggle in Syria – which ultimately is seen as a stepping stone into Israel — the two groups will eventually put aside their differences and unite in their quest to liberate Jerusalem and conquer the Russian forces now moving into Syria to prop up Syrian President Bashar Al Assad — jihadi leaders remember Communist Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan.

“Al Zawahiri harshly criticized ISIS and its leader Al Baghdadi, whom he accused of rejecting all efforts to resolve the dispute between ISIS and Al Qaeda, and questioned his legitimacy as a caliph and his authority to announce his state and order the dismantling of all jihadi groups,” according to a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which monitors jihadi social media.

Al Zawahiri said, ‘We disapproved of this Caliphate which we do not regard as a caliphate on a prophetic methodology, but rather as an imposed Emirate without Shura to which people are not obligated to pledge allegiance; additionally, we don’t consider Al Baghdadi qualified for the Caliphate.’”

“Despite his disapproval for Al Baghdadi and his organization, Al Zawahiri acknowledged that ISIS has had many accomplishments as well as major mistakes, and noted that had he been in Iraq, he would have cooperated with ISIS to fight against the crusaders, the secularists, the Nusairis and the Safavids,” MEMRI’s translation said.

In his message, Al Zawahiri offered his condolences on the death of Al Qaeda Somalia affiliate Al Shabaab commander Sheikh Mukhtar Abu Al Zubair, and quoted from a letter he said he received from Abu Al Zubair in which Al Zubair criticized ISIS and asked Al Zawahiri to mediate a dispute between the jihadi groups in Syria.

“In addition to his fierce criticism of the Islamic State, Al Zawahiri talked about the importance of winning the war in Syria, which he considered a prelude to liberating Jerusalem; eulogized top leaders of groups affiliated with Al Qaeda and praised an operation carried out by Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) against the US and Pakistani navies,” MEMRI said.

In November, intelligence emerged indicating Al Qaeda and ISIS leaders had agreed to cease in-fighting and join forces to battle their common enemy, the West. Still, some counterterrorism authorities questioned the allegiance. But without reliable human intelligence inside either jihadist group, other counterterrorism intelligence sources said "it’s really difficult to understand what’s going on between them," as one said. "Without real intel, it’s all talk and supposition."

“Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri’s audio message is telling on several fronts, and is indicative of an ongoing struggle in the world of Islamic jihad,” said Homeland Security Today Contributing Writer Godfrey Garner, who retired from US Special Forces in 2006 having served two military tours and six civilian government related tours in Afghanistan. “To understand more completely, a cursory examination of the history of the relationship between Al Zawahiri and ISIS leader Al Baghdadi is helpful.”

Garner explained that, “When Al Baghdadi took his jihadist fighters into northern Iraq and changed the name to ISIS, reflecting his more global ambition, Al Zawahiri — as well as the rest of the world — took note. The world took note because of ISIS’ swift expansion and willingness to use torture and brutality, as well as the apparent strategic expertise of Al Baghdadi. Al Zawahiri took note because of the threat to his position as supreme commander of the most powerful Islamic terror organization in the world. In short, Al Zawahiri saw then, and sees today, a threat to his international leadership among Islamic terrorist organizations.”

“His response at that time was that Al Qaeda wouldn’t recognize ISIS’ legitimacy because Al Baghdadi was, ‘too brutal.’ This statement, coming from an organization that had encouraged and celebrated the atrocities of 9/11, renders it both ludicrous and moot. The fact is Al Zawahiri saw a threat in Al Baghdadi then and, evidenced by this most recent message, still considers him a threat.”

“Al Zawahiri has always been jealous of Al Baghdadi because so many see Al Baghdadi as the most appropriate successor to Osama Bin Laden,” Garner said, noting that, “Many in the extremist world speak of Al Baghdadi as the, ‘new Bin Laden.’ Al Baghdadi was a devotee of Bin Laden and fervently shares Bin Laden’s objective of a worldwide caliphate.”

“In actuality,” Garner said, “Al Zawahiri is right to perceive the situation as such. ISIS, not Al Qaeda, has taken the lead in fighting Bashar Al Assad in Syria. ISIS, not Al Qaeda, is at the forefront in defending those Assad has targeted for genocide. As a result, ISIS, not Al Qaeda, is receiving the lion’s share of terror funding. ISIS, not Al Qaeda, is being reinforced by recruits, many of whom were seen as moderates, anxious to join with any group willing to take the fight to Assad. And while Al Zawahiri stands on the mountain proclaiming his importance to the world, ISIS is growing. Al Qaeda is stagnant.”

Garner said, “Most analysts agree that at some point Al Zawahiri will give in and urge his Al Qaeda followers to join forces with ISIS, pursuing their common goals. Of paramount importance to both organizations is the defeat of Assad and victory in Syria, which will be seen as the final step before the ‘liberation of Israel.’ In the interim, Al Zawahiri will continue to stress his own importance and ISIS will continue to strengthen.”

“On a related subject,” Garner said, “Russia’s move to put boots on the ground in Syria will provide a huge boost to both ISIS and Al Qaeda. Al Zawahiri more than likely sees the writing on the wall and sees this as a perfect time to reassert his leadership role.”

Garner said, “Experts agree that a military force is victorious primarily as a result of the emotional strength and the feeling of justification the force carries onto the battlefield. This is especially true of Islamic fighting forces. Their strength has always come from their emotional commitment to the fight and their knowledge that they are martyrs for a ‘just cause.’”

The Taliban for instance, Garner said, “experienced a surge in successful operations and an increase in recruitment in Helmand Province and southern Afghanistan shortly after British forces moved into the area. A simple rallying cry around the perceived return of British imperialism to Afghanistan provided the stimulus.”

“Muslim fighters the world over remember the jubilation and pride felt by all when the last Russian troops fled north across freedom Bridge back into Uzbekistan,” Garner continued. “The Islamic world still celebrates the victory when a group of ragtag barefoot mujahidin defeated the ‘Great Bear.’”

So, “Russia’s sending troops to Syria provides the perfect fuel Al Baghdadi and Al Zawahiri both need to embolden their forces. The move will additionally serve as motivation for recruitment and increased economic aid to the terror groups.”

Garner further explained that, “Russia’s humiliating defeat at the hands of mujahidin forces is not so distant in history as to have lost its effect on young jihadists. Muslim fighters in the region will most assuredly be encouraged that it can be done again. Those who were too young to have been involved in that original effort will scramble to be part of ‘chapter two.’”

Thus, “Al Zawahiri and Al Baghdadi will use this development to rally their troops,” Garner said, pointing out, however, that “Al Baghdadi is much more adept than Al Zawahiri at using such events to fire up his followers and strengthen recruitment efforts. As ISIS grows and Al Zawahiri’s influence diminishes, these two groups will slowly move toward melding into one extremely dangerous army led by Al Baghdadi, who most experts see as a dangerously competent military strategist.”

Finally, Garner stated, “jihadists and fighters in the area, defending the victims of Assad’s genocide, have long been convinced that once Assad is toppled and victory has been declared in Syria, the defeat and annihilation of Israel will be a short, next step. Russian boots on the ground in Syria will certainly embolden them. As they continue to fight a brutal dictator, they now have the moral high ground in this struggle to defeat communism raising its ugly head once more in a Muslim country.”

In his message, Al Zawahiri addressing the mujahideen in Somalia, saying he approved their selection of Sheikh Abu Obaidah Ahmad Omar as commander of the group and urged him to empower the shari’a courts whose rules should be applied to all people regardless of their status or class. He also offered his condolences to Ansar Al Sharia in Libya on the death of their commander Sheikh Muhammad Al Zahawi.

The Al Qaeda leader also thanked the commanders of the two Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, Nasser Al Wuhaishi of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Abu Mus’ab Abd Al Wadoud of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), for their joint letter urging the mujahideen in Syria and Iraq to stop fighting each other.

MEMRI said, “It should be noted that the mention of Al Wuhaishi’s name was not followed by ‘may Allah have mercy on him,’ which suggests that the recording had been made before his death in June 2015.”

Al Zawahiri also congratulated Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) for targeting the Pakistani and the US navies, and thanked Abu Muhammad Al Daghistani, leader of the Caucasus Emirate, for including his name in his open letter to the Islamic ummah and Muslim scholars, among them prominent Salafi clerics Abu Muhammad Al Maqdisi, Abu Qatada Al Falastini, Hani Al Siba’i, Tark Abd Al Haleem and Abu Al Mundhir Al Shinqiti.




As previously pointed out, detainees know to have returned to jihad are those who’ve made it perfectly clear they have — the most savage of whom is the former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) Caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. While he wasn’t detained at GITMO, he was a detainee at the largest US run detention facility in Iraq, Camp Bucca near Umm Qasr, which was named in memory of FDNY Fire Marshal Ronald Bucca who was killed in the 9/11 attack.

Al Baghdadi was among prisoners the administration freed in 2009 as Obama wound down the US’s presence in Iraq.

Army Col. Kenneth King, the commanding officer of Camp Bucca when Al Baghdadi was released, has said he remembers Al Baghdadi saying, ‘I’ll see you guys in New York.’” King noted Al Baghdadi was aware many of his captors were reservists with the 306 Military Police Battalion based in Long Island, New York that included members of the New York police and fire departments.

Another released detainee back in the fight is Ibrahim Sulayman Muhammad Al Rubaysh, who JTF-GITMO twice determined should continue to remain in “detention under DoD control.” He was captured in 2001 and spent five years at GITMO before the Bush administration released him into Saudi custody on December 13, 2006 – only weeks after JTF-GITMO declared for the second time he should remain under DoD control. He escaped from the Saudis and now is AQAP’s spiritual leader, jihadi recruiter, and, some counterterrorism intelligence officials believe, Islamic State (ISIS) leader Al Baghdadi’s link to AQAP in Yemen.


Al Qaeda military operations commander Abd Al Hadi Al Iraqi, who has ties to recently released detainees Muhammad Ahmad Salam Al Khatib and Ahmad Abdel Qader Ahmad Hasan Abu Bakr Al Hadrami, is one of the 17 high-value detainees DoD said had been Al Qaeda’s liaison to Al Qaeda in Iraq – now ISIS.

In 2013, Rubaysh called for jihad against Americans, saying, “It is my duty to spur the Muslims to kill the Americans, to get them out of the Muslims’ land.”

Since then, the Department of State’s Rewards for Justice program has put a $5 million bounty on his head and designated him a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.


June 13, 2015

By: Anthony Kimery, Editor-in-Chief


A week after the one-year travel ban expired for the five “high risk” former top Taliban- and Al Qaeda-linked Guantanamo detainees who were exchanged for captured US Army Sgt. Robert Bergdahl, giving the Taliban jihadists the right to return to Afghanistan and rejoin the jihad against the West and America, the Obama administration Friday released another six “high risk” Yemeni Al Qaeda operatives to Oman in a move that has infuriated both Republicans and Democrats, as lawmakers ruminate new restrictions on further transfers.


Yemen is home to Al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The latest transfers were made in spite of the fact Obama’s own intelligence advisors confirmed one-third of released detainees have re-engaged in jihad.

“No one I know of, including JTF-GITMO analysts, believed these six should have been released,” one of the counterterrorism officials stated, adding, “personally, I expect to see all of them back in Al Qaeda’s, or ISIS’ ranks, in short order … much like we’ve seen with the earlier release of the Al Qaeda-linked “Taliban 5.”

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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