EXPLORING AQ’S JULY 2014 STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS CAMPAIGN
By Michael S. Smith II
Early in 2014, al-Qa’ida’s General Command disowned the entity now known as the Islamic State due to its leader’s insubordination. Months later, this leader was named the world’s new caliph by his followers. According to the Islamic State, the establishment of a caliphate helmed by Caliph Ibrahim (formerly known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) serves to nullify all pledges of loyalty sworn to leaders of other elements striving to resurrect this very model of governance. Indeed, in accordance with the fundamentals of Islamic law, Muslims must pledge allegiance to the caliph. Put simply, this is a power play of unprecedented proportions in the history of the Global Jihad movement. In which al-Qa’ida has long served as the functional leader. Or has it?
Al-Qa’ida’s response to this situation has thus far been anything but direct. Although known for his verbose addresses, al-Qa’ida emir Ayman al-Zawahiri has yet to issue a statement either in favor of, or in opposition to al-Baghdadi’s power grab. (The only message from al-Zawahiri released since the Islamic State declared it has established a caliphate was the sixth installment of “Days with the Imam,” a series focused on Usama bin Laden.)
Still, implicit in the communications distributed by al-Qa’ida’s chief media organization, as-Sahab, is al-Qa’ida’s rejection of Caliph Ibrahim’s efforts to make subordinates out of al-Zawahiri and the rest of the jihadis part of al-Qa’ida’s global network.
On two occasions — first, with the release of a video featuring footage of bin Laden discussing Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar; next, in the opening text of a newly launched bulletin, titled al-Nafeer — communications distributed by as-Sahab have reminded jihadis of just who al-Qa’ida leaders have historically considered to be the true leader of Muslims. This, by way of reminding audiences that al-Qa’ida’s leaders have pledged bayat to Mullah Omar, the so-called “Emir al-Mu’minin” — a title historically reserved for the caliph.
Meanwhile, there may be considerably more to the picture of what al-Qa’ida is attempting to engineer via these strategic communications.
Not only do these messages bring into focus al-Baghdadi’s duplicitous actions by highlighting his rejection of the authority vested in Mullah Omar by al-Qa’ida leaders whom al-Baghdadi ascended in the ranks of jihadist spheres by pledging loyalty to. These messages also suggest al-Qa’ida leaders are trying to engender within jihadist spheres contrasting perceptions of themselves and Caliph Ibrahim, with al-Qa’ida’s leaders, thus their followers portrayed as noble servants of Muslims who aspire to reestablish a caliphate, and al-Baghdadi, on the other hand, cast in the light of a power-hungry usurper of the authority wielded by an iconic figure like Omar.
In addition, by highlighting that al-Qa’ida leaders are not seeking power over the umma with reminders they have pledged bayat to Omar, al-Qa’ida’s leadership is denying Caliph Ibrahim the means to reasonably portray their unwillingness to place their imprimatur on the Islamic State’s “caliphate” as evidence of their own ambitions to attain the power he now claims to wield.
Given such, Caliph Ibrahim will be forced to explain why al-Qa’ida leaders’ notions that (a) an Islamic emirate was already in existence prior to the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate, and that (b) the leader of this emirate, Mullah Omar, is the Emir al-Mu’minin have, in fact, been wrong. That, or, faced with al-Qa’ida’s recent communications, Caliph Ibrahim will be making this argument by way of continuing to demand that all Muslims pledge loyalty to him.
With respect to perceptions in jihadist spheres, the danger here for al-Baghdadi is manifold. Making this argument — either directly, or by default of his actions — will almost certainly serve to highlight his treachery. Concomitantly, his deeds serve to cast aspersions on the legacy of the great “martyr” Usama bin Laden, as al-Baghdadi/Caliph Ibrahim is effectively calling into question the judgment bin Laden exercised when he endorsed Omar’s use of the title Emir al-Mu’minin, and pledged fealty to him. Not to mention bin Laden’s concurrent assertion that the caliph needn’t be descended from the Quraysh tribe, which al-Baghdadi claims to be, but Omar is not. (Put in context, bin Laden’s commentary regarding the tradition of caliphs being descended from the Prophet’s tribe strongly suggests that, by calling Omar the Emir al-Mu’minin and pledging bayat to him, bin Laden was basically calling Omar the caliph. This, while pledging to use al-Qa’ida’s network of warriors to expand the caliphate.)
In pledging loyalty to both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, al-Baghdadi joined them in recognizing Omar as the one and only Emir al-Mu’minin, a title al-Baghdadi now claims for himself by virtue of his utilization of the title caliph. Thereby, as highlighted in al-Qa’ida’s strategic communications campaign launched in the wake of the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate, al-Baghdadi has broken his pledge of loyalty to more than just al-Qa’ida emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. Indeed, it is al-Baghdadi’s efforts to legitimize his revocation of the pledge of loyalty to Omar provided by al-Baghdadi and all members of the al-Qa’ida network — by default of their pledges of bayat to al-Qa’ida’s emir — that is central to the case al-Qa’ida appears to be making against al-Baghdadi/Caliph Ibrahim.
While al-Qa’ida has long been perceived by many onlookers as the functional leader of the Global Jihad movement, this situation also brings into focus that al-Qa’ida’s leaders wish for their organization to be viewed as a mere facilitator of the reestablishment of a caliphate — not an enterprise whose leaders aspire to rule it. Indeed, as noted in its charter, al-Qa’ida is an “Islamic group” whose “only mission” is jihad. While its members may “perform other Islamic duties,” jihad “will take precedence.” Accordingly, al-Qa’ida is waging jihad in pursuit of the “victory of the mighty religion of Allah.” This victory will be achieved vis-à-vis “the establishment of an Islamic Regime and the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate.”
Pursuant to the proclamations of al-Qa’ida’s founding emir, as highlighted in the video recently released by as-Sahab, it would seem this very Islamic Regime was established in Afghanistan by Mullah Omar, to whom bin Laden subordinated himself, thus al-Qa’ida when bin Laden pledged bayat to Omar. Further, as evinced by al-Qa’ida’s communications following the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate, it is almost certainly the case that al-Qa’ida’s leaders regard Mullah Omar as the true leader of the Global Jihad movement, with al-Qa’ida functioning as an agent of it.
The question is: Is Omar prepared to relinquish his title?
Ostensibly, he is not. For it is unlikely al-Qa’ida’s chief media wing would be posturing defiance in the face of demands for support from a newly installed caliph whom Omar intends to back.
Then again, al-Qa’ida’s leadership may also be working to encourage Omar not to support al-Baghdadi’s claim that he has established a caliphate by reassuring Omar he has the support of al-Qa’ida’s international network. This, while perhaps dually trying to motivate jihadis to assassinate al-Baghdadi by portraying his actions as an affront to Sheikh Usama’s legacy.