August 21, 2015 | Quote

Al Qaeda Is Losing the Battle for Jihadi Hearts and Minds

Terrorists usually try to stay in the news, but Ayman al-Zawahiri has seemed an exception. Al Qaeda’s leader has gone almost a year between public statements before breaking his silence last Thursday. The archterrorist’s remarks, however, were as underwhelming as they were overdue. Zawahiri declared his loyalty to Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the new Taliban leader, but otherwise his communiqué contained little of interest.

Much has occurred in the world of jihad since Zawahiri’s last public statement in September 2014: the death of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who was widely considered to be al Qaeda’s second in command and had close personal ties to Zawahiri and his predecessor Osama bin Laden; the deaths of two other al Qaeda heavyweights, likely in U.S. airstrikes; the continued rise of the Islamic State as a direct threat to al Qaeda’s leadership of the global jihadi movement; the decision by Saudi Arabia to intervene in the Yemeni civil war; and, of course, the revelation that Taliban leader Mullah Omar has apparently been dead for the past two years.


Yet Zawahiri addressed none of these issues in his message. Although he recited a long list of fallen comrades whom he praised as martyrs, he strangely didn’t include Wuhayshi or any of the others who have died this past year. He did, however, make sure to explicitly include Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, the group that is now known as the Islamic State, and Zarqawi’s successor Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, on his list of glorious martyrs (right after bin Laden himself, in fact) in what analyst Thomas Joscelyn correctly notes was a pointed dig at the Islamic State, which has split from al Qaeda and rejected Zawahiri’s authority. By including Zarqawi and his successor on the list of vaunted al Qaeda martyrs right after bin Laden, Zawahiri is claiming the AQI leaders as his own, making it clear that despite their differences, Zarqawi and Muhajir were members of al Qaeda who died for al Qaeda’s — and thus Zawahiri’s — cause. The message to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers in the Islamic State is clear: You have betrayed the cause for which your founders gave their lives.


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Al Qaeda