In the undated message, Zawahiri advises his fighters to remain patient and focus on a protracted conflict in Iraq and Syria. The message comes as Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad continues to consolidate gains on the battlefield with the support of Russia and Iran.
The message continued by saying Sunni jihadists have been targeted for their efforts to spread the Islamic “wave” and they should be prepared to fight the crusaders and their allies, the Shi’ites and Alawites. At this time, Al Qaeda does not officially claim ownership of any faction fighting Assad or the Islamic State. But with the continuously changing landscape on the battlefield, which groups still claim loyalty or report to Al-Qaeda, if any?
Al Qaeda has been present throughout the Syrian Civil War through its Syrian branch formally known as Jabhat al-Nusra. Perhaps as an indicator of the tumultuous nature of the war, allegiances and alliances within the jihadist groups in Syria have shifted periodically, and Nusra was no exception. After Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that Jabhet al-Nusra was being absorbed by the newly emerging Islamic State in Iraq (a precursor to ISIS) in 2013, Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani rejected the claim and insisted allegiance to Al Qaeda.
Speculation emerged in 2016 that Nusra and Al Qaeda had formally split after al-Julani changed the group’s name to Jabhet Fateh al-Sham and claimed “no affiliation to any external entity” possibly in a bid to gather greater international support and legitimize their campaign in Syria apart from Al Qaeda. However, the name change did not change the position of the United States in labeling the group a terrorist organization affiliated with Al Qaeda.
In early 2017, yet another merger of jihadist groups occurred, with the remnants of Nusra as the dominant component in the alliance. The new group, consisting of five insurgent organizations within Syria, is called Hay’at Tahrir al Sham.
Now it appears Al Qaeda and the Islamic State may be in talks to form sort of working relationship.
Zawahiri has been a central figure in Al Qaeda since its founding. Formally subordinate to Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri has always lacked the charisma of his former boss. Despite this, he has managed to remain in control of Al Qaeda and avoid assassination for years.
Image courtesy of the BBC