It seems that the man who took over leadership of Al Qaeda after bin Laden and has spread Al Qaeda’s affiliates throughout Africa and the Middle East, is having trouble getting the various organizations to work together. In fact, several have had violent clashes, attacking each other trying to establish dominance.
The squabbling has gotten much worse lately, since Ayman al-Zawahiri began his tenure as head of the organization two years ago. Two of al Qaeda’s four main affiliates, al Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are bitterly, and sometimes violently, feuding for supremacy in North and West Africa. Another affiliate, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), has openly defied Zawahiri’s will in Syria.
Zawahiri should look no further than himself for blame. It is mostly a result of his decision to expand al Qaeda too quickly and too broadly.
The turmoil in the Arab world has created security vacuums that Zawahiri has tried to exploit by calling on local Al Qaeda affiliates to set up shop. As they move in, they often disagree about who should be in charge.
In Syria for example: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq (a front group for AQI) declared that his group was changing its name to the "Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS)", indicating his intention to play a bigger role in the Syrian civil war (“Al Sham” refers to Syria and its surrounding area).
The emir also claimed that AQI had already been fighting in Syria in the form of the Nusra Front, which he said was subordinate to him. Yet Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, the Nusra Front’s leader, refused to acknowledge Baghdadi as his leader; instead he pledged a direct oath of allegiance to Zawahiri.
In response, Zawahiri sent a private message ruling that both men had erred: Baghdadi by not consulting Jawlani, and Jawlani by refusing to join ISIS and giving his direct allegiance to Zawahiri without permission from al Qaeda central. Zawahiri also decreed that ISIS should revert to its old name -- and to its more limited focus. The Nusra Front would remain al Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria, an “independent branch” subordinate to the “general leadership.”
Had it all ended there, Zawahiri would have been slightly embarrassed by the public perception that he was not kept in the loop, but at least he would have successfully staved off a conflict. Baghdadi, however, had other plans. In a public message to Zawahiri after receiving the memo, he rejected Zawahiri’s message on religious and methodological grounds, saying that he had “chosen the command of my Lord over the command in the letter that contradicts it.” In the 25-year history of al Qaeda, no affiliate had ever publicly disagreed with the boss so brazenly.
The dispute between the Nusra Front and ISIS is not just about bureaucratic power; it is also about strategy and the future of al Qaeda’s global jihad. The Nusra Front, which wants to maintain its popular support among the Syrian people, has tried to get along with the other opposition groups in the country. The ISIS, on the other hand, has attacked fellow rebels -- including the Nusra Front -- and implemented draconian Islamic law in the towns that it has captured, both of which have alienated Syrians living in those areas.
This kind of infighting is not new to al Qaeda. During the Iraq war. When Zawahiri was al Qaeda’s number two, he chastised AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for alienating Iraq’s Sunni masses through AQI’s brutal campaign of beheadings and bombings. He argued al Qaeda should temper its violent excesses and work with the other Sunni insurgent groups to expel the Americans. The Nusra Front is taking an approach similar to the one recommended by Zawahiri in its fight against the Syrian regime. By contrast, ISIS is largely following the disastrous Zarqawi strategy. As a result the Nusra Front is turning away Sunnis in Syria because failed to learn from the mistakes in Iraq.
Similar squabbles have been seen in Yemen and in the Maghreb.
The question now is:
Will the "West” (specifically the U.S.) be able to turn any of this to advantage?
I don’t know, but given the current Administration in Washington’s track record, I seriously doubt it.
It would not require a great deal of effort to encourage the squabbling between the various factions, but my guess is that we will take a hands off approach and wait –wait until they get it all sorted out for themselves and it’s too late to turn any of this to advantage.
Anything made by man is going to break or wear out and need maintenace and repair. Just know it, be ready for it and live with it... You'll be able to save an ulcer or too for more important things -like worrying about what to do when the pub is closed.