The other day, al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the establishment of a new al-Qaeda affiliate, “al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.” What struck me about the announcement was not so much the creation of a new al-Qaeda franchise in the subcontinent—al-Qaeda has long had ties to the region and the affiliate’s new leader Asim Umar is already a known al-Qaeda insider—but rather the way Zawahiri framed the group’s creation. In his introductory remarks, Zawahiri stressed that the new group was, like al-Qaeda, under the authority of the “Islamic Emirate” ruled by the “commander of the faithful” Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban. He then proceeded to heap praise repeatedly on the “commander of the faithful.” Why would Zawahiri spend so much time hailing Mullah Omar as the commander of the faithful when introducing a new al-Qaeda franchise, something he has never done before?
It must be al-Qaeda’s competition with the Islamic State, which declared the reestablishment of the caliphate in June. Since that time, al-Qaeda has been promoting Mullah Omar as the counter-caliph. As Cole Bunzel documented, al-Qaeda’s media wing released an old video of Bin Laden in July explaining his decision to give his oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar as commander of the faithful, a historical title of the caliphs. A questioner asks Bin Laden if his oath implies that he considers Mullah Omar to posses the “supreme imamate,” the prerogative of the caliphs, which Bin Laden affirms. Later that same month, al-Qaeda released a newsletter that begins with a renewal of the oath of allegiance to “Commander of the Faithful Mullah Muhammad Omar” and “affirms that al-Qaeda and its branches in all locales are soldiers in his army, acting under his victorious banner.”
As Bunzel points out, Bin Laden and the newsletter do not explicitly call Mullah Omar the caliph. Neither does Zawahiri in his statement yesterday. But it is certainly implied. This is a marked break with a 2008 statement by Zawahiri, who rejected the notion that Mullah Omar is the caliph. Then, he said Mullah Omar was only the commander of the faithful in Afghanistan.
Plainly, Zawahiri now holds up Mullah Omar as the counter-caliph to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to blunt the Islamic State’s chief recruiting pitch and criticism of al-Qaeda: it has brought back the caliphate and al-Qaeda hasn’t. But why the ambiguity? Why not go all the way and declare Mullah Omar the caliph? I can think of two reasons: First, Mullah Omar may not want the job (has anyone asked him? Is he definitely still alive?). Claiming to rule Afghanistan is much more modest than claiming to rule the entire Muslim world, which would alienate potential allies like some of the Gulf states. Second, many jihadis have criticized Baghdadi and the Islamic State for declaring the caliphate too soon. Al-Qaeda would be subject to the same criticism if it aped the State (and Zawahiri would not even control the caliphate he declared). Better to walk the ambiguous middle way for the time being between forthrightly declaring a counter-caliph and having no caliph at all.
Will McCants (@will_mccants) is director of the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.