Date: 07/08/2022 Time: 12:26
By Pinhas Inbari
The killing of the international terrorist Ayman Zawahiri on the balcony of his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, is an opportunity to explain the al-Qaeda phenomenon, not from its familiar aspect – to conquer the world with terrorism to establish a Muslim caliphate, but from its lesser-known aspect – the internal developments in Islam in general, and Islamic terrorism in particular. In this aspect, al-Qaeda differed from the other Islamic terrorist groups, those that preceded it and those that followed it, in that at the top of the movement stood two leaders who represented two different streams of Islam, Bin Laden the Wahhabi and Zawahiri from the end of the radical spectrum of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabis are very different from each other, and currently Wahhabi Saudi Arabia is in open conflict with the Brotherhood. While the Wahhabis see the first century of Islam, which is the seventh century, as the absolute model, that obliges the Muslim to follow – just as the Prophet and his contemporaries did, the Brotherhood sees the first century as a source of inspiration but not a source of imitation. Therefore, the brotherhood’s mainstream is seeking a dialogue with Europe with the strategic goal of conquering the West with conflicting ways and taking advantage of Western democracies to penetrate the corridors of power. Europe’s “red-green” alliance, the Muslim Brotherhood together with the European left, illustrates this strategy. In the direct context of Israel, while the Wahhabis deny the sanctity of Jerusalem, for the Brothers, Jerusalem is the holy city even at the expense of Mecca. While the Wahhabis do not see the Palestinian problem as a matter to be dealt with, the Brothers have embraced this problem in a very conspicuous way.
Zawahiri belonged to the militant faction of the Brotherhood, the Gam’at of Egypt, who see the overthrow of the Egyptian regime: Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, and now Sisi as their main target. He met bin Laden in Afghanistan, where bin Laden suggested that he be his deputy, and from his statements after the establishment of al-Qaeda, it turns out that he accepted the way of the Wahhabis and humbled the way of the Brothers, even though here and there the Ikhwanji jumped out of him. When we understand this aspect of Bin Laden’s decision to appoint Zawahiri as his deputy – to unite the entire Sunnah — Wahhabis and Ikhwan – into one front against the West, we can understand the twists of al-Qaeda in the days after Bin Laden’s killing, and the source of the West’s great error in understanding the war in Syria, the differences between ISIS and Nusra, and what resulted from this mistake. The crux of the problem was the unwillingness of the Wahhabis to accept the Ikhwanji Ayman Zawahiri, to be their leader after the killing of Bin Laden, and even earlier when Bin Laden hid in Pakistan from the Americans who sought revenge on him.
The problem began in Iraq when Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, refused to follow Zawahiri’s orders and did not recognize his authority. there were a series of disagreements between them over the conduct of the Islamic campaign in Iraq, especially when Zawahiri demanded that he swear allegiance to the Taliban leader, Mula Omar, and Zarqawi refused. Why did Zarqawi refuse? We understood this when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Zarqawi’s successor, established ISIS, he declared himself a Khalifa, that is, he not only renounced his ties to the Taliban, but obliged Zawahiri to recognize him as the leader – Bin Laden’s real successor, and in response, the fundamental organization that resisted ISIS in the war in Syria, al-Nusra, declared Zawahiri the leader of the movement – and the two leaders of the competing groups, created complete confusion among Western experts of the situation in Syria in general, And within the Islamic terrorist movements in particular when the declaration of Zawahiri as the leader of Nusra immediately identified Nusra as the heir to al-Qaeda.
The western experts got perplexed- If this is so, then who is ISIS’s successor, al-Baghdadi? Who does he represent? Here everyone was confused, and it was difficult to characterize the real division – Baghdadi is the successor of al-Qaeda, hence, he aspired at spreading terrorism throughout the world, while al-Nusra was the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and it concentrated on liberating Syria from Assad’s rule – a kind of Syrian copy of Egypt’s Gama’at. It could also explain why Egypt’s Gama’at did not follow Zawahiri, did not join al Qaeda, but adhered to their fundamental goal of overthrowing the Egyptian regime, instead of going to bin Laden and the Wahhabis, they went to Erdogan and the Brothers. The main disagreement between al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood was that while al-Qaeda saw the whole world as an arena of jihad, the Brotherhood saw their countries as the arena of struggle and did not want to spread out – at most, they included the problem of Palestine and Jerusalem in their agenda.
Over time, al-Nusra realized the mistake it had made and ousted Zawahiri, and also changed its name to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham – the Headquarters for the Liberation of Syria, which made it easier for it to explain its goals to the West that they are not al-Qaeda, and are not planning terrorism in Europe, but are focused on overthrowing Assad. Erdogan sponsored them, and today they are concentrated in the Idlib region, which in fact is annexed to Turkey.
Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.