After nearly three years of silence, the nearly forgotten leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, made a dramatic announcement this week. It came amid suggestive ideas coming from other quarters of a possible realignment of radical Islamic forces that could have a major effect on conflicts ongoing in Iraq and Syria. In a recording released Wednesday, Sept. 9, Osama bin Laden’s successor slammed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and his self-declared caliphate – as illegitimate.”
But he went on to say, “Despite the big mistakes [of ISIS], if I was in Iraq or Syria, I would cooperate with them in killing the Crusaders and secularists and Shiites, even though I don’t recognize the legitimacy of their state, because the matter is bigger than that.”
Of course, this call if it found a response would add a ton of fuel to the already blazing war in Syria.
Indeed, if Abu Mohammed al-Julani, leader of al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, decides to join forces with ISIS, this would generate the largest and strongest military force anywhere from Mosul in northern Iraq to the southern suburbs of Damascus.
Seven Mid East players would suffer from this potential alliance
Such an alliance could raise a new peril for a host of Middle East players: Syrian President Bashar Assad, the US and its counter-ISIS operations in Iraq and its Turkish base; the Russian troops fighting in Syria; President Vladimir Putin’s policies on Syria and his campaign against Islamic terror; the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the pro-Iranian militias fighting in Iraq and Syria; and Tehran’s Lebanese proxy, the Hizballah.
Al-Baghdadi, like Zawahri, is sworn to kill all Shiites.
Amalgamation of the two radical Muslim terrorist armies would also pose a new threat to Israel and Jordan from across their borders with Syria.
The ball now lies in the court of the ISIS leader. But one cannot help wondering what impelled the Al Qaeda leader to break his long silence and why he is suddenly ready to throw in his lot with an organization which he has detested for years.
He may be looking for spectacular terror action as a means of putting his organization back in the spotlight of the Islamic world and the West. Another reason may be the growing number of Islamic leaders in the Middle East, Africa and Asia who quitting al-Qaeda and swearing allegiance to ISIS and al-Baghdadi.
But the catalyst might have come from a wholly unexpected direction, DEBKA Weekly’s experts on Al-Qaeda and counterterrorism suggest.
Iran’s fundamentalists favor deal with ISIS
In the past week, voices have been heard in Iran calling for an extraordinary effort to crush ISIS before it is too late and the “caliphate” becomes a fait accompli in the Middle East.
They are challenged by powerful voices calling for the very opposite.
Indeed the Iranian monthly Asr-e-Andisheh made waves with an article calling for negotiations with ISIS, saying it could be the start of a change in policy toward the militant group, which Tehran currently considers its primary enemy in terms of religion, ideology and politics.
The article was written by Akbar Jenab-Zadeh and Qassem Pour-Hossein, both fundamentalists and professors at Tehran’s University of Allameh Tabatabai. They are also close to a Hossein Shariat–Madari, the chief editor of Iran’s conservative newspaper Kayhan, which often represents the views of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – hence nearly from the horse’s mouth.
In the article, the radical writers asserted that, unlike Israel, ISIS has the advantage of owning a specific land and effectively ruling it. Iranian society’s view of this organization comes from a misconception, because it is neither a takfiri group nor the creation of the US and Israel.
Most ISIS leaders were once prisoners in the United States, the two professors note, and their objective is to fight the US. They commend the Islamic State as different from Al Qaeda and Al-Nusra in that it “remains powerful and will not be defeated by US-led forces.”
Zawahri jumps in to beat Tehran to the draw with ISIS
DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Tehran added that the publication of the article by the respected journal marks the first endorsement from a high Iranian regime echelon of a possible rapprochement with ISIS. The fundamentalist wing is already pushing for a revised policy towards the militant group.
This idea is not as revolutionary as it would seem. Radical Shiite Iran has a history of operational association with the radical Sunni al Qaeda.
In 2001, after the US invasion of Osama Bin Laden’s base in Afghanistan, Tehran granted sanctuary to scores of its top operatives and their families.
In 2005, for an attack on Saudi Arabia, Iran used an al Qaeda team living there in asylum as its proxy for a campaign of terror in Riyadh that also targeted Americans. This campaign was orchestrated by Saif al-Adel, a high-profile crony of bin Laden, who is currently the organization’s top operations officer. He once had friends in high places in Tehran and may still do.
With voices in Tehran discussing talks with ISIS, it is no wonder that Al-Zawahri is jumping in to beat Iran to the draw for a chance to revive al Qaeda’s sagging fortunes.