Zawahiri’s Counter-Caliphate

September 5, 2014
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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.

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4 thoughts on “Zawahiri’s Counter-Caliphate

    1. Mark,

      By way of addressing your question and Sharma’s below – AQ is falling apart. Zawahiri has been a disaster as an ideological leader and as a “defender of the narrative.” I’m not sure what discussions between UBL and Zawahiri led to Z’s rise, but they must have been interesting. Zawahiri is probably one of those special characters that has the ability to project confidence and capability when addressing one person or even a small group, but he fails extending that to a larger construct. I’m sure we can see some parallels with leaders here at home.

      Anyway, the answer – AQ is on the tail ends of a generational changeover. It was a weakened period to begin with as we closed Iraq and were leaving Afghanistan. The TB has positioned themselves to easily take over Afghanistan again once our troops are out so Z had to try and draw some connection – some hierarchical lines between AQ and TB. In this way AQ could try and capture some of the victory that the TB really had the only legitimate claim to. Jamaat al Nusrah and ISIL split tore a large portion (estimate 80%) of AQ legitimacy in the remaining high value conflict zone and now al Nusrah leader is um… disaffected with AQ as well. Remaining AQ ‘affiliates’ have generally either 1) declared for ISIL or 2) announced a straddle-the-line strategy. That’s fairly understandable since AQ has always been somewhat of a marketing and financing group rather than an organisation. We’ve had a wrong headed approach to AQ for a long time expecting that we could fight a AQ like we used to ‘counter-IEDs’. AQ was a tool for expansion. A tool for marketing and narrative management. Zawahiri is a failure at both. Once ISIL captured enough territory and resources to stand on their own, Bakr began managing his own narrative and his own marketing.

      If we allow ISIL to strip the remaining strength from AQ, we may be able to strike AQ off the books permanently. Since ISIL is geographically bound, we may be able to deal with them in a very different way than we have or could have dealt with AQ. We can actually bomb territory, but bombing a concept or trademark is inherently difficult/impossible. The hitch is that Bakr seems to be a lot better at managing his tactical, operational, and strategic visions.

      At the end of the day, we don’t whack Zawahiri because he’s essentially fighting for us. His weak, trivial, and disjointed leadership and his statements about Umar are reaping successes for us we would be hard pressed to claim on our own. AQ will not survive the generational shift – not in any meaningful way. Ten years from now AQ will be the ME equivalent of the Red Brigades and Zawahiri/bin Laden will go the way of Geronimo – violent extremists that couldn’t survive the tide of times – to steal a bit from Shakespeare.

  1. Why does the USA not go after Zawahiri just like it did for Bin Laden. Zawahiri bears equal responsibility for the 9-11 attacks and the US cannot be slacking after getting Bin-Laden

    The US Government should right away put massive pressure on Pakistan and its ISI to reveal the whereabouts of Zawahiri and conduct and operation to wipe him and his associates out.

    It is absolutely vital, Pakistan cannot come up with the same statement like it did for Bin-Laden: We do not know if he is in Pakistan…

    Pakistan could fool the US once, not twice.

    This is the height of lunacy that the USA is doing nothing to pursue Zawahiri.