Al-Qaeda Leader Breaks His Silence

Briefing Note

Al-Qaeda Leader Breaks His Silence

15 Sep 2015

Two audio messages from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the elusive leader of al-Qaeda, have been released in the space of a week. 

In two audio messages released by al-Qaeda in the space of a week, the group's elusive international leader Ayman al-Zawahiri addresses the impact that ISIS is having on the group, and looks to reassert the group's objectives of pursuing the far enemy. The subject matter and attitude conveyed in the two audio recordings suggest that the group is feeling the heat from its noisy jihadi rival ISIS, and is looking to reaffirm its standing in te global jihadi movement.


Zawahiri condemns the actions of ISIS' leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as having an adverse effect on the jihadi cause and creating "fitna" (discord). He points to the al-Qaeda official affiliate in east Africa, al-Shabaab, which was reportedly contacted by ISIS in an effort to convince the group to join the so-called caliphate. Although al-Shabaab remains affiliated to al-Qaeda, for Zawahiri to address the issue indicates concern about the ISIS threat to al-Qaeda's affiliates. The creation of ISIS' regionalised 'provinces' was also cited by Zawahiri as a contributing to the division and discontent among different jihadi groups. Although at least one of the recordings appears to have been made before the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar was announced, the deaths of the former leader of the Taliban and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the former leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in 2015 reinforce the sense of the al-Qaeda network being substantially weaker. 

Attacks on ISIS' legitimacy demonstrate a degree of vulnerability.

He goes on to criticises the very existence of ISIS by claiming that the selection process by which Baghdadi became 'caliph' was not according to the "Prophetic tradition." Furthermore, Zawahiri states that no Muslim should feel compelled to pledge allegiance to the "faction."

Both of these attacks on ISIS' legitimacy demonstrate a certain degree of vulnerability on al-Qaeda's part. By painting the group's actions as both un-Islamic and the source of discord in the Muslim community (the opposite of a what a caliphate is intended to do), Zawahiri aims to undermine the religious foundation on which ISIS depends for its appeal within the jihadi community.


Oddly, this effort to discredit ISIS and condemnation of its activities is accompanied by an apparent willingness on Zawahiri's part to collaborate with the group. A shared hatred for "Crusaders" and "Shias" appears to be enough for Zawahiri to relent on his convictions as he calls for all "mujahideen" (an implicit recognition that he regards ISIS fighters as engaged in a genuine jihad) to "help each other."

Al-Qaeda still differs from ISIS vastly on operational strategies and recent successes. A shift in rhetoric from al-Qaeda to suggest collaboration in defeating common enemies indicates that the group's leadership is feeling weak, vulnerable, and in need of some assistance.

Further evidence of al-Qaeda's vulnerability in the face of ISIS lies in Zawahiri's emphasis on the need and virtue of attacking al-Qaeda's long-standing target, the 'far enemy.' The lure of ISIS for jihadis from around the world to make their way to its territory in Syria and Iraq, is in effect starving al-Qaeda of potential to carry out attacks on foreign soil.

Zawahiri's target audience in his call for 'lone jihad' attacks is the very people who are being attracted by ISIS: radicalised young Muslims seeking to pursue a path that leads to martyrdom. Zawahiri insists that jihadis should stay in their home countries and move the battle "to the heart of the homes and the cities of the Crusader West," pointing out that those seeking martyrdom need not travel anywhere. Instead, their objective can be achieved in their own home countries, simultaneously alligning with al-Qaeda's pursuit of attacking the 'far enemy.'

Zawahiri calls on those attracted to ISIS to carry out domestic attacks.

To reinforce his call, Zawahiri cites a number of previous al-Qaeda claimed attacks on Western targets. The Charlie Hebdo attack by the Kouachi brothers, the Tsarnaev brothers' attack on the Boston marathon, and the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 are all presented as examples of al-Qaeda's activities abroad.

Citing these large-scale atrocities is an attempt to reinvigorate al-Qaeda's brand of jihad in the face of ISIS-dominated headlines and the group's international appeal to jihadis. The admonition from Zawahiri for jihadis to stay at home is both an attempt to hamper ISIS' flow of recruits, and an advertisement for recruits to al-Qaeda.

Zawahiri's two audio messages demonstrate ISIS' effect on the one-time giant of global jihadi. Despite the acknowledged differences between the two groups, the suggestion they could work together hints at an attempt at pragmatically joining forces with the movement's new dominant force. Nevertheless, the mixed message given by the simultaneous attack on ISIS' legitimacy suggests that an alliance between the two groups is a long way off.


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