Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri. File photo
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As-Sahab, al-Qaeda’s propaganda arm, has released the second episode in Ayman al Zawahiri’s “Brief Messages to a Victorious Ummah [worldwide community of Muslims]” series. In the first episode, Zawahiri criticized the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and compared its members to chickens.
Zawahiri focuses on Afghanistan in the second episode, which is subtitled, “Be Not Divided Among Yourselves.” He calls on Muslims to support the Taliban and to reject the Islamic State, which seeks to “split the ranks of the mujahideen” in the country.
Zawahiri says that all Muslims and jihadists around the globe should “rally around the emirate,” meaning the Taliban, which refers to itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. He lists a number of legendary jihadists who supported the Taliban and says others should do the same.
The Islamic State frequently accused al Qaeda’s leaders of being “deviants” and argues that al Qaeda has fallen into a state of “nonbelief.” Zawahiri challenges Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and his men to provide proof of al Qaeda’s supposed ideological lapses. The al Qaeda master also warns all of the Islamic State’s followers that they risk being found “complicit” in the “crimes” ordered by the group’s leadership.
Zawahiri’s vocal support for the Taliban is not surprising. Fifteen years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Taliban and al Qaeda remain closely allied.
In mid-August 2015, As-Sahab released an audio message from Zawahiri in which he swore bay’ah(allegiance) to Mullah Mansour.
Mansour was named as the Taliban’s emir after the group conceded that Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s first leader, died sometime in 2013. Zawahiri explained that his oath to Mansour was just like bin Laden’s pledge to Mullah Omar prior to 9/11. Al Qaeda has emphasized this theme multiple times since then.
Within hours of Zawahiri’s pledge to Mansour, the Taliban emir publicly accepted Zawahiri’s oath in a statement released on the Taliban’s official website.
On May 21, 2016, Mullah Mansour was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan as he was returning from a stay in Iran.
Mansour was eulogized by jihadists around the globe, including al Qaeda’s regional branches. On May 29, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Al Nusrah Front released a statement of condolences for Mansour, praising his jihad against the “Crusaders.”
Then, in June, Zawahiri swore his fealty to Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, who was named as Mansour’s successor.
Al Qaeda’s branches technically owe their loyalty to Mullah Haibatullah as well.
In al Qaeda’s hierarchy, the regional branches — AQAP, AQIM, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Shabaab in Somalia and Al Nusrah Front — swear allegiance to Zawahiri. These groups are then responsible for waging jihad in their designated regions on behalf of al Qaeda. (Al Nusrah Front recently rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al Sham, or the “Conquest of the Levant Front.” The move was directed by al Qaeda’s senior leadership.)
Therefore, al Qaeda’s regional branches are loyal to the Taliban’s emir by virtue of their bay’ah(allegiance) to Zawahiri.
Although al Qaeda’s jihadists are, strictly speaking, Mullah Haibatullah’s subordinates, history shows that the Taliban leader has little say over al Qaeda’s operations outside of Afghanistan.
At less than six minutes long, Zawahiri’s latest statement is mercifully short. Zawahiri is known for his long-winded lectures mixing Islamic history with contemporary jihadist issues. But in the “Brief Messages to a Victorious Ummah” series and other recent messages, As-Sahab has kept Zawahiri’s statements comparatively brief. Zawahiri’s message was advertised on As Sahab’s new Telegram channel on Aug. 19. The same Telegram channel released the video earlier today.
Reporting by: Thomas Joscelyn