Iraq News

Al-Zawahiri tries to poach extremists from rival factions

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

In an audio message posted online on April 23rd, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri appears to be making an attempt to restore al-Qaeda's primacy. [Photo via social media]

In an audio message posted online on April 23rd, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri appears to be making an attempt to restore al-Qaeda's primacy. [Photo via social media]

In his most recent audio message, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri appears to be making a play for the disenfranchised members of other extremist groups fighting in Iraq and Syria, experts told Diyaruna.

Al-Qaeda's media arm, al-Sahab Foundation, posted al-Zawahiri's latest audio message on social media on April 23rd.

In his message, the al-Qaeda leader calls on the mujahideen to unite and wage guerrilla warfare against the "Crusader enemy and its allies", warning them to prepare themselves for a long war waged by the West "against Islam".

Experts told Diyaruna that al-Zawahiri's message indicates he is trying to rebuild al-Qaeda by pulling together remnant fighters as al-Nusra Front (ANF), the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) and their allies face mounting losses.

"Al-Zawahiri’s new speech is merely a desperate media appearance at a time when the role al-Qaeda has played in the past is receding," said terror group specialist Maj. Gen. Wael Abdul Muttalib, a retired Egyptian military officer.

It is an attempt to show that al-Qaeda still wields influence in Syria, he told Diyaruna, with al-Zawahiri clearly trying to steer his followers and direct the course of the battle.

A blatant bid for control

The speech is clearly directed at extremist remnants with a connection to al-Qaeda, such asANF and ISIS, "in an attempt to take advantage of the current situation and weakened state of jihadists in Syria", Abdul Muttalib said.

With it, al-Zawahiri aims to press fighters from other extremist groups to return to al-Qaeda’s fold and abandon their current leaders, he added.

Al-Zawahiri’s call for guerrilla warfare is "just a grandstand play for the terrorist community, to give them the illusion that he is still the living image of a supreme leader of jihadists", Abdul Muttalib said.

The guerrilla war he spoke of would be impossible to wage effectively on the ground in light of the nature of the battles that are currently under way, he said.

This is because there is wide-scale deployment of moderate opposition forces operating in co-ordination with coalition warplanes that monitor any suspicious movements on the ground, he explained.

"The areas that are being liberated from ISIS are first totally encircled and besieged and then stormed from all sides in a way that does not allow any counter or retaliatory attack," Abdul Muttalib said.

Al-Zawahiri downplayed the importance of holding ground in an attempt to "justify the successive losses suffered by the terrorist groups and portray them as tactical retreats rather than retreats forced by combat defeats", he added.

Frustration among extremists

Al-Zawahiri's speech may be paving the way for ANF leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani to retract the split from al-Qaeda and announce his return to the fold, said Al-Azhar University professor and political researcher Abdul Nabi Bakkar.

In his message, al-Zawahiri intimated that the split "did not benefit the armed Islamist factions in Syria", he told Diyaruna, adding that it might prompt al-Joulani to ask other Tahrir al-Sham factions to join ANF or al-Qaeda.

"ANF’s popular base is shrinking because of the agreements [al-Joulani] struck with the Syrian regime that called for surrendering some areas and transporting their residents to the Idlib region; a move seen by Syrians as a cave-in by al-Joulani and proof of the falsity of the promises he made in the past," he said.

Extremist fighters, and foreign fighters in particular, are frustrated by this move, he said, "so this message and similar messages are an explicit invitation to them to return to al-Qaeda’s fold".

In his message, al-Zawahiri attempts to portray al-Qaeda as the mother group that has not made any concessions, and to insist that the battle is a battle for the entire Muslim nation, Bakkar said.

Al-Qaeda continues "to insist on distorting the teachings of Islam and the image of Islam", Sheikh Rajeh Sabri of Egypt's Ministry of Religious Endowments told Diyaruna.

"Al-Zawahiri's calls will only bring Muslims more bloodshed and wars," he said.

They will cause further suffering to the Syrian people, "who only aspired to obtain their most basic civil rights and are being taken advantage of in the name of religion by terrorist groups", he added.

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The reputation of Islam has been blackened under the hands of these extremists.