The Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) is vanquishing Al Qaeda in the fight for the hearts and minds of jihadists, reports Foreign Policy (FP).
This is due, largely in part, to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi being a more dynamic and energetic speaker when compared to his al Qaeda counterpart Ayman al-Zawahiri, described by FP as “a tedious old man.”
“Baghdadi exhorts angsty young men to ‘erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere.’ Zawahiri offers lessons on political theory,” notes FP.
Zawahiri broke his silence last Thursday after going almost a year without issuing a public statement.
“The archterrorist’s remarks, however, were as underwhelming as they were overdue,” reports FP. “Zawahiri declared his loyalty to Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the new Taliban leader, but otherwise his communiqué contained little of interest.”
Many things came to pass in the jihadi world while Zawahiri public speeches laid dormant for several months, including the death of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) chief Nasir al-Wuhayshi, considered to be al Qaeda’s No. 2, and the continued rise of ISIS as an imminent threat to al Qaeda’s leadership of the global jihadi movement, among others.
Nevertheless, Zawahiri failed to address any of those issues in his most recent speech. FP reports:
Nor did Zawahiri emerge from his long period of silence with a rip-roaring call to arms to challenge the Islamic State and reassert his and al Qaeda’s leadership of the global jihadi movement. Instead, he put out a mind-numbingly dull video that featured an old clip of bin Laden that everyone has seen about a thousand times at this point, followed by almost 10 minutes of Zawahiri’s voice droning on and on over a static image of his weirdly beatific face.
“No fiery explosions, no rousing footage of ‘brave’ jihadis charging into the fight against the infidel,” it adds. “Just a tedious old man lecturing about how al Qaeda will continue to fight alongside the Taliban to establish the caliphate that ‘achieves security, removes injustice, restores rights, and raises the banner of jihad.’ Neither thrilling nor original.”
The al Qaeda leader is reportedly unable to captivate and energize a jihadist audience the way Baghdadi does. FP points out:
None of this is terribly surprising. When bin Laden died, numerous experts noted that Zawahiri lacked his predecessor’s charisma and leadership skills and was prone to infighting and pedantry. What he had instead was deep expertise in survival: Zawahiri formed his first terrorism cell as a teenager, and in the decades since has survived the hammer of Egypt’s counterterrorism, infighting within the jihadi movement, and an aggressive drone campaign.
Although al Qaeda is surviving under Zawahiri, it is not prospering. According to FP:
Al Qaeda still exists, and its operatives still plot against the West. But during Zawahiri’s tenure the results have been pathetic. Since he took over the group in 2011, the core al Qaeda has conducted not one successful attack in the United States or Europe. Those few terrorist attacks that did succeed were conducted by al Qaeda affiliates acting independently, or Islamic State adherents, not Zawahiri and his chief lieutenants.
Nevertheless, as the last senior figure of core al Qaeda, Zawahiri is a vital member of the group. ISIS appears to be expanding across the Muslim world, while al Qaeda seems to be on the decline.
“The Islamic State leadership, in contrast, is more dynamic. Baghdadi electrified the jihadi world when he proclaimed a caliphate last year,” reports FP. “His group’s campaign against Shiite ‘apostates’ and military victories on the ground are a demonstration of the group’s prowess and emotionally appealing to jihadi sympathizers and would-be radicals. Zawahiri talks the talk; Baghdadi walks the walk.”