Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Al Qaeda's boss asserts himself

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst, and Jennifer Rowland, Special to CNN
June 11, 2013 -- Updated 2051 GMT (0451 HKT)
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is able to communicate with affiliates in Syria and Iraq.
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is able to communicate with affiliates in Syria and Iraq.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Barack Obama said al Qaeda's core is headed for defeat
  • Peter Bergen: Terror group's leader is still acting as if al Qaeda matters
  • He says Ayman al-Zawahiri intervened to block merger of Iraqi and Syrian wings
  • To avoid tracking, al-Zawahiri likely using a courier to deliver messages, Bergen says

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." Jennifer Rowland is a program associate at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- In the most comprehensive speech he has delivered on terrorism, President Barack Obama declared last month that the "core of al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan is on a path to defeat."

On May 23, the very same day that Obama delivered this keynote speech at the National Defense University in Washington, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the core of al Qaeda, fired off a lengthy memo to two al Qaeda affiliates in the Middle East.

This memo demonstrates Zawahiri considers himself and the al Qaeda core to be still relevant and very much in charge of the global jihadist movement.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

The Zawahiri memo, which was published on Monday by the Al Jazeera news network in the original Arabic, is addressed to the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq and the leader of Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra, which is a front organization for al Qaeda, according to the State Department.

In the memo, Zawahiri chastises the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, in a tone that an irritated parent might use, for announcing in April the merger of the Iraqi and Syrian wings of al Qaeda "without asking permission or receiving advice from us and even without notifying us."

Zawahiri also unloaded on Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, the leader of the Syrian wing of al Qaeda, who at the same time had publicly announced his allegiance to Zawahiri and the core of al Qaeda. Zawahiri complained that the Syrian branch of al Qaeda had publicly outed itself as an al Qaeda affiliate "without having our permission."

He instructed that the merger of the al Qaeda's Iraqi and Syrian wings "be dissolved" and that the Syrian wing is "under the (al Qaeda) general command."

Zawahiri said he made these decisions "after holding consultations with my brothers in Khorosan," an ancient word for the region that today contains Afghanistan, which indicates that Zawahiri is able to communicate with, or perhaps even meet with, al Qaeda leaders along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Why does this matter? It matters because "Al Qaeda Central" is now trying to assert control over two of its most virulent affiliates.

Is Iraq unraveling?

Al Qaeda in Iraq has mounted a series of spectacular attacks over the past year, which demonstrates that it is a force to be reckoned with again in Iraqi politics.

The Congressional Research Service reported this month that there were some dozen days in 2012 in which al Qaeda carried out multicity attacks that have killed hundreds of Iraqis.

And the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria is widely acknowledged to be the most effective fighting force that is now fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

A long-term safe haven for this group in Syria, which is in the heart of the Arab world and next door to Israel and that is now directed by al Qaeda Central, could create an organization with the intention and capability to attack the West.

That Zawahiri continues to try to assert his control over al Qaeda-affiliated groups is not all that surprising considering that Osama bin Laden did the same thing while he was holed up in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, for the last five years of his life before he was killed by a Navy SEAL team in early May 2011.

Documents found at the Abbottabad compound show that al Qaeda's founder was deep in the weeds of key personnel decisions.

In a letter to the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, bin Laden was adamant that Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki not become that affiliate's new leader. Awlaki never did get promoted and was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

The mere existence of the Zawahiri memo shows that he is able to communicate with relative ease with al Qaeda's affiliates in the Middle East. Because of the now-well documented dangers of using any kind of electronic communication system, Zawahiri, like bin Laden before him, is almost certainly using a courier network to hand-deliver his letters.

In closing his letter to al Qaeda's affiliates in Syria and Iraq, Zawahiri appointed a man named Abu Khalid al-Suri to resolve any future disputes that might arise between the two groups.

It isn't clear to what extent al Qaeda's affiliates in Syria and Iraq will actually pay attention to directives from Zawahiri but it is a fact that these affiliates have pledged their allegiance to him.

If the core of al Qaeda is indeed on the road to defeat as Obama asserted three weeks ago, Zawahiri clearly hasn't gotten this message.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT