Seven years after the death of al-Qaeda’s founding leader, Osama bin Laden, the Sunni jihadist movement stands divided. Al-Qaeda remains a powerful player, primarily because of the strength of its affiliates, those groups that have sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda. But al-Qaeda also faces a major rival: its former affiliate in Iraq, the Islamic State.
Their alliance — formed in 2004 — was troubled from the outset. Al-Qaeda was constantly frustrated with its Iraqi affiliate’s excessive violence, prioritization of Shiites as an enemy, infighting with other Sunni militants in Iraq and refusal to heed al-Qaeda’s counsel. Yet their alliance withstood those problems for years. Three years after bin Laden’s death, the relationship not only ruptured, but the Islamic State also challenged al-Qaeda for the leadership of the Sunni jihadist movement.
This raises the question: Would the split have occurred if bin Laden was alive? By some measures, his death had little impact. It didn’t result in al-Qaeda’s disintegration, nor did it end the group’s terrorism. But on the basis of our research into bin Laden’s leadership using the declassified documents from his compound as well as the extensive secondary literature on him, we propose that, unlike his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden was sufficiently capable as a leader that he may have been able to prevent the rupture with the Islamic State.
Long-standing problems in the two militant groups’ alliance came to a head in April 2013. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — leader of the group that then called itself the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) — publicly announced that his organization would incorporate an extremist group, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, to become the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
His move was not entirely unjustified. Al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, hailed from ISI. ISI also had provided support that enabled al-Nusra to gain a prominent position within the opposition in Syria.
By Zawahiri’s orders, ISI and al-Qaeda’s ties to al-Nusra were something of an open secret, not to be publicly acknowledged by any of the parties to bolster al-Nusra’s legitimacy within the Syrian opposition. Not only did Baghadi’s announcement contravene Zawahiri’s authority, it stunted Jolani’s ambitions to have his own organization in Syria. The feuding leaders turned to Zawahiri to resolve their dispute.
That May, Zawahiri weighed in: He voided ISI’s move into Syria and ordered it back to Iraq. He ruled that al-Nusra should be independent of ISI and act as al-Qaeda’s representative in Syria. Baghdadi defiantly rejected Zawahiri’s ruling in a public audio statement the same month. Baghdadi vowed to pursue an expanded Islamic State and increased his group’s violence against civilians and other opposition groups. In an unprecedented move, al-Qaeda publicly severed ties with ISI in February 2014.
While these were new developments, the underlying issues were not. Al-Qaeda repeatedly attempted to curb ISI’s excessive violence. ISI’s move to declare itself a state spanning Iraq and Syria without consulting al-Qaeda leadership was the latest in a string of unilateral moves, including its initial declaration of “statehood” in 2006.
The Iraq-based group also had a long record of conflict with other Sunni militant groups. Baghdadi, while not well known to al-Qaeda, was by no means the first leader of the group to ignore al-Qaeda’s counsel. So why was this incident sufficient to rupture relations?
One important change was the shift from bin Laden’s skillful leadership to Zawahiri’s contentious management. Bin Laden commanded considerable respect within the Sunni jihadist movement. He enjoyed a near-mythical status as the man who sacrificed everything for violent jihad and delivered a massive blow to the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. It would have been more difficult for Baghdadi to publicly repudiate bin Laden. As a sign of bin Laden’s prestige, Baghdadi’s group has claimed to be the true heir of bin Laden’s legacy.
In addition, bin Laden was masterful at managing the difficult personalities and sizable egos in a movement with plenty of both. While bin Laden grappled with numerous disagreements, al-Qaeda did not experience a splintering of consequence under his leadership, a rarity among terrorist organizations.
In contrast, this was not the first time Zawahiri inherited a leadership position in the absence of more capable superiors. During the 1990s, he unsuccessfully led an Egyptian group, al-Jihad. As the leader of al-Jihad, Zawahiri was a source of conflict rather than a mediator of it, and his group eventually fractured. His history of worsening rivalries, alienating followers and making unpopular decisions by fiat proved prescient when he was faced with the dispute between al-Jolani and al-Baghdadi. As he had done in the past, he exacerbated tensions rather than reducing them.
When bin Laden communicated difficult decisions, he invoked scripture, history and the Sunnah to give his opinions credibility. Or he framed unpopular decisions in a way to minimize the fallout. For example, when telling al-Shabab that he would not publicly recognize it as an affiliate, he explained how doing so would hurt al-Shabab, though his decision was likely due in part to his reservations about the Somali group.
Zawahiri’s ruling on the dispute in Syria was particularly inadequate on that score. He offered poor justification for his instructions that al-Nusra should act as al-Qaeda’s representative in Syria, while ISI must return to operating only in Iraq. He expected his orders to be followed simply because he issued them. Tellingly, Zawahiri has since struggled to maintain the alliance with al-Nusra.
Bin Laden’s qualities and status suggest he would have been far more capable than Zawahiri of managing the dispute, and by extension he may have been able to preserve the flawed alliance. Bin Laden consistently emphasized that unity within the Sunni jihadist movement was of paramount importance, even in the face of differences. Arguably, it was his highest priority. In his absence, his successor has proved unequal to the task, leaving a divided movement in his wake.
Tricia Bacon is an assistant professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs. She is the author of “Why Terrorist Groups Form International Alliances.”
Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault is an assistant professor of teaching in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. She is the author of “How the Gloves Came Off: Lawyers, Policy Makers, and Norms in the Debate on Torture.”