Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri pushed for unity among the various terrorist groups operating in Syria Sunday in a video posted online, his first public address since January.
The video was an apparent attempt by the Osama bin Laden successor to counter the ongoing presence of Islamic State as the premier Sunni terrorist group, as well praise the rise of the Nusra front, an al-Qaida affiliate, which has seen massive gains in Syria filling the void left by ISIS as it continues to lose territory.
“We have to want the unity of the Mujahideen in Sham (Syria) so it will be liberated from the Russians and Western crusaders,” said al-Zawahiri in his video address. “My brothers … the matter of unity is a matter of life or death for you.”
Al-Zawahiri condemns ISIS as “extremists,” reinforcing al-Qaida’s well-known disdain for the rival group. Though ISIS originated from al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), the group splintered in 2013 to form its own independent terrorist organization. The two organizations share a similar radical Islamic ideology, however, they vehemently disagree on tactics and strategy.
Al-Qaida had often condemned AQI’s use of reckless violence, which ISIS carried over during its rise. ISIS’s use of violence against Sunnis in particular has often drawn the ire of al-Qaida leadership. Instead, al-Zawahiri prefers converting Sunni Muslims to the al-Qaida ideology through proselytizing. Grandiose violence against Western targets, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, serve as an important symbol for al-Qaida in order to rally Muslims around the cause.
As far as long term goals and strategy are concerned, the two groups differ significantly. A primary al-Qaida objective has been to overthrow what it sees as the puppet governments in the Middle East in order to promote what the group believes is proper Islamic governance. Daniel Byman, the Middle East research director at the Brookings Institution, refers to this as the “far enemy” strategy. ISIS, on the other hand, prefers a “near enemy” strategy, which focuses on toppling “apostate” leaders like Syrian President Bashar Assad and cleansing the Islamic religion of Shia groups and ideology.
The video itself appears to have been recorded fairly recently, considering al-Zawahiri’s mention of the ongoing efforts by the United Nations to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria.
Al-Zawahiri’s exact location is unknown, but he is believed to be hiding in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
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