Al Qaeda grows as its leaders focus on the 'near enemy'

Al Qaeda's new leader is putting more of a focus on the "near enemy" than Osama bin Laden. It is part of a realignment of the jihadist movement.

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The influence of Ayman Al Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of Al Qaeda in May 2011 after the latter was killed in a US special operation in Pakistan, has been shaken in Syria, where one of the most serious rifts among jihadists in recent memory has taken place.

On April 9, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq), announced that he was rebranding his organisation by giving it a new name: the Islamic State in Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS). According to Al Baghdadi's recorded message, the ISIS would now include his organisation in Iraq and its branch, the influential jihadist group in Syria known as Jabhat Al Nusra. Al Baghdadi stated that Al Nusra was a branch of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which his organisation funded to wage jihad against the regime of Bashar Al Assad in Syria.

The following day, Abu Muhammad Al Jolani, the leader of Al Nusra, responded to Al Baghdadi with his own audio message by refusing - albeit respectfully - the rebranding or merging of his group under ISIS. Instead, Al Jolani pledged allegiance to Al Zawahiri to be associated with Al Qaeda central instead of being under the authority of the branch's leadership. The jihadist sympathisers on the internet were divided over the row between the two parties. According to unconfirmed reports, Al Zawahiri supported Al Nusra and ordered that Al Baghdadi's claimed union with Al Nusra be dismantled. However, in a rare incident, Al Baghdadi rejected Al Zawahiri's order.

Syria is increasingly becoming a hotbed for jihadist movements and Al Zawahiri devoted a sizeable portion of his latest speech to urging young Muslims to join the jihad in that country. Al Zawahiri will not offer to relinquish his influence over jihadist movements in the Arab world. By contacting Al Qaeda affiliates, he is trying to flex his muscles to regain influence over jihadists in Syria and to show his importance as the emir of Al Qaeda as a trademark of jihadism. This is important for the unity of the movement, which plays a major role in attracting individuals to the Salafi-jihadist push around the world. Moreover, when Al Zawahiri appointed as his deputy Abu Basir Nasir Al Wuhayshi, the leader of the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, he was not only confirming that Al Qaeda's ideology is decentralised but that its day-to-day management is too. This could ease pressure on the group in Afghanistan and Pakistan and, more importantly, make its leadership structure more elusive. Not for nothing does the US consider AQAP the strongest offshoot of Al Qaeda.

Although attacking the West is still a priority for Al Zawahiri, he is mainly interested in expanding the jihadists' presence and increasing their acceptance in Arab countries: the so-called near enemy.

Aiming to understand the strategic determination of Al Qaeda after the killing of bin Laden, I have analysed more than 200 speeches and examples of printed material written by bin Laden and by Al Zawahiri between 2000 and 2011. The findings showed that bin Laden was fond of the idea of fighting against "the far enemy" ("crusaders" and "Jews") in 70 per cent of his speeches and appearances, with 20 per cent of the content consisting of general advice and instructions to jihadis, and only 10 per cent directed at toppling local regimes of the near enemy ("apostate" regimes in the Muslim world).

Unlike bin Laden, Al Zawahiri is focused more on the near enemy; in fact, half of his speeches were focused on that topic. In contrast the far enemy was the focus of only 15 per cent of his speeches.

Al Zawahiri's inclination towards the "near enemy" could be explained by his background as a leader of a national-jihad group before it adopted a global jihad ideology in the early 1980s in Afghanistan; however, the Arab countries are currently presenting an opportunity for jihadists. In addition to Syria, Al Zawahiri is aiming to exploit the frustration felt by Islamists from what they describe as a coup in Egypt. On August 3, he said that "what happened [in Egypt by ousting Muhammad Morsi] is the biggest proof of the failure of democratic means to achieve an Islamic government".

Al Zawahiri's influence has also been marked in Sinai, a troubled area and a fertile ground for militants, and where newly-emerging jihadist groups have pledged their allegiance to him. Other places in the Arab world that represent an opportunity for the near-enemy thinking of Al Zawahiri include Libya, Somalia and the borders between Tunisia and Algeria.

American authorities announced recently that intercepted communications between Al Qaeda leaders revealed plans to attack western targets in the Middle East and North Africa. Leaks from unidentified US "informed sources" claimed that Al Zawahiri was communicating with the leader of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Those same sources also revealed that Al Zawahiri was communicating in "virtual space" with other leaders of groups affiliated with Al Qaeda in various places. These developments highlight the influence he has over salafi-jihadists, no matter that some observers of jihadists' activities have questioned this influence many times.

Al Zawahiri does not need to focus on attacking the West - at this stage, at least.

Murad Batal Al Shishani is a London-based political analyst specialising in Islamic groups, the Middle East and the North Caucasus

On Twitter: @muradbatal