Since the May 2011 death of Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaeda group—which is now led by bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri—typically has been seen as a complex of overlapping “franchises” that together make up the core of a global jihadi movement.
But this is no longer true. The former Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda has now superseded bin Laden’s network to become the more important driving force behind the global jihad in its current guise as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. The key to understanding current jihadi dynamics is not which group Zawahiri is prepared to bless or banish but which forces tolerate or fight the ISIL.
It is time to forget about Zawahiri, because it is now the ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who is the most important inspiration for global jihad.
The continued focus on what is often referred to as the al-Qaeda senior leadership (AQSL), meaning the high command under Zawahiri and bin Laden’s remaining close associates, is understandable even though it is misleading.
Al-Qaeda was first founded in Pakistan in 1988 with a pyramidal hierarchy, cemented by pledges of absolute allegiance to bin Laden as its undisputed commander, or emir. When the American Federal Bureau of Investigation declared bin Laden the most wanted man on earth in 1999, this focus became irresistible, and it would only intensify after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
The U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 split the jihadi community into two surviving halves: bin Laden and the remnants of AQSL escaped to Pakistan and went underground, but other high-profile jihadis moved east to Iran and eventually to Iraq—among them the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had always preserved the autonomy of his own Afghanistan-based outfit, al-Tawhid wal-Jihad.
While the world was still following the hunt for bin Laden, Zarqawi was quietly building a new organization, first in Iraqi Kurdistan and then, after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, in the rest of the country. Zarqawi reversed bin Laden’s priorities and strove to consolidate a solid local insurgent capacity before exporting his jihad abroad.
It took a long time for bin Laden and his deputy, Zawahiri, to grasp the importance of Zarqawi’s game changer. Bin Laden was obsessed with the campaign that his al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had just launched in Saudi Arabia. But the “Saudi jihad” proved to be a failure, forcing bin Laden to appoint Zarqawi as commander of al-Qaeda in Iraq, as al-Tawhid wal-Jihad was rebranded in late 2004.
There was no love lost between bin Laden and Zarqawi, and Zawahiri positively loathed the Jordanian’s assertion of independence. The AQSL leaders feared blowback from Zarqawi’s mass killings of Shia Muslim civilians—but their biggest worry was that they would be sidelined in the Pakistani periphery while Zarqawi occupied center stage as the insurgent leader in Iraq.
Zarqawi was in fact able to attract foreign volunteers to the Iraqi jihad in numbers that dwarfed the global outreach of AQSL in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In addition, he was the force behind the “globalizing” of Algeria’s jihad; without the Iraqi foreign-fighter magnet, Algerian radicals would have stuck to their fifteen-year-long struggle with the local regime, but Zarqawi’s call for unity paved the way for their transformation into al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
When Zarqawi was killed in June 2006, the AQSL assigned an Egyptian commander, Yusuf al-Dardiri, as his successor in Iraq. But the resentment against outsiders was so strong in Iraq that Dardiri had to hide his Egyptian identity behind an anonymous moniker, as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, or “the immigrant.”
After months of internal bickering, this changed into a two-headed leadership for al-Qaeda in Iraq, which transformed itself into a “state” and an aspirational caliphate called the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), over which Dardiri presided in the shadow of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi. This tandem served to reassure the AQSL and reconcile its guidelines with the growing ambition of the Iraqi jihadis.
However, a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid in April 2010 killed both Dardiri and his Iraqi “caliph,” Abu Omar. The Iraqi militants quickly revamped the organization by appointing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the new emir of ISI. This Iraqization of the local branch of al-Qaeda became even more obvious after bin Laden’s death in May 2011, when Baghdadi refused to pledge allegiance to Zawahiri (contrary to AQAP’s stance, but in concert with AQIM’s).
Baghdadi had only scorn for the various manifestations of the Arab Spring. But the revolution against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave Baghdadi an opportunity to reactivate the ISI-controlled jihadi networks that had supplied the Iraqis with fighters from across the border.
He would use these networks to export his own jihadi insurgency into Syria through the Syria-based jihadi faction known as the Nusra Front, which announced its existence in January 2012. Doing so gave Baghdadi an opportunity to play both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border. In Iraq, he could benefit from the Sunni uprising against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-sectarian policies, and in Syria he was able to move supporters into the Euphrates Valley and embed his state-building project in the growing Syrian rebellion. One month after the Islamist conquest of Raqqah in March 2013, Baghdadi proclaimed the ISIL as an expansion into what he termed al-Sham or “the Levant”—meaning first and foremost Syria but potentially also Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel-Palestine.
The Nusra Front immediately refused this hostile takeover. What the international media described as a “merger” between the Iraqi and Syrian jihadi outfits was in fact a brutal split between the “global jihad” of the ISIL and the “Syrian jihad” of the Nusra Front. Their objectives were quite different, even contradictory; the ISIL was fairly comfortable with Assad staying in power for the time being, as it was more interested in building its own base, while the Nusra Front was adamantly resolved to topple the dictator.
By interfering to settle the dispute, Zawahiri thought he could restore his authority as bin Laden’s successor, although ironically that meant he was asserting his role as a “global” leader by upholding state borderlines between jihadi organizations. But Baghdadi brushed him off, finalizing the split between the two organizations and paving the way for the war between the ISIL and other rebels that began in January 2014.
Baghdadi is as ruthless as he is patient. Contrary to Zawahiri, who is a chatterbox, the leader of the ISIL never appears in public and, as a true heir to Zarqawi, his totalitarian “state” will suffer no dissent, liquidating dissidents just like the Assad regime.
The UN estimates the number of foreign fighters in Syria at a minimum of 7,000. Not all of them join the ISIL, but its recruiters are roaming the Turkish borders to catch inexperienced volunteers and use them as cannon fodder for their global propaganda and suicide attacks. Syria is far more accessible than any jihadi battlefield in the past, and the ISIL is now bracing for a sustained global campaign from the core of the Middle East.
The foreign recruits will not significantly enhance the ISIL’s fighting force in the current battles in Syria. Instead, they are basically a trump card to magnify the international outreach of Baghdadi’s networks—first in the jihadi diaspora and later as potential operatives in their home countries. The Sinai-based jihadi faction known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which is presently the most active jihadi group in Egypt, has already endorsed the ISIL, and many others are also tempted to switch publicly their allegiance from Zawahiri to Baghdadi. The clock is ticking—and it is no longer only about Syria.
Jean-Pierre Filiu is professor of Middle East studies at the Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA), a former diplomat and adviser to the French government, and the author of books including Apocalypse in Islam (University of California Press, 2011) and Arab Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2011).
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