Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri has issued a statement denouncing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s claims to the title of fourth caliph, as part of a recorded message that was released on Wednesday. The title would designate Baghdadi as a successor to the prophet Muhammad, and leader of the Muslim community.
Zawahiri moderated his message by also stating that al Qaeda would fight alongside ISIS if the option presented itself, but such claims contradict the battles that have been taking place between the two groups in Syria. The announcement was still a welcome development to defense officials, who until now could not confirm the extent of the division between the two terrorist groups.
National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olson has stated that this division could be driven wider by the U.S. and its allies with the use of misinformation campaigns. Previous battles between the two groups have included the reported killing of one of Zawahiri’s top representatives by ISIS in February 2014, which occurred during an attempted peace agreement.
Al-Zawahiri’s proclamation is an attempt to delegitimize ISIS, but also to take back some of the prestige that al Qaeda possessed prior to ISIS’ split from the group two years ago in Iraq.
Zawahiri explained his rationale, “We preferred to respond with as little as possible, out of our concern to extinguish the fire of sedition, but Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his brothers did not leave us a choice, for they have demanded that all the mujahideen reject their confirmed pledges of allegiance, and to pledge allegiance to them for what they claim of a caliphate.”
Other Muslim governments may also be able to exploit this rift between the two terrorist groups, as stated by Nicholas Palarino, a former counterterrorism adviser to the U.S. Congress, “The leaders of Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt can explain the differences between these two groups to the world’s Muslims.”