The latest three messages from al-Qaeda addressing the Sunni community uncover the depth of the crisis that al-Qaeda is facing in its former host community.
The threatening tone of the missives from the alleged Abu Omar Baghdadi and Aby Ayyub, and the insulting tone of the second by Zawahiri, reflect mistrust, anxiety and a dire need to retrieve what was lost.
Death threats do not represent a serious call for cooperation on an achievable objective. This “work-for-me-or-I-kill-you” tone is completely different from the usual recruiting slogans that have focused on the ideology of fighting for absolute truth against absolute evil.
Those slogans have failed, which is why they have been discarded and replaced by threats and an effort to seek out third parties to render verdicts on disagreements, which is what Baghdadi alluded to when he proposed that some (not all!) Sunni clerics come forward to mediate between al-Qaeda and the public.
This call for mediation indicates first, that al-Qaeda has lost direct contact with the public and second, that there are still some clerics involved with al-Qaeda.
This is the main reason why people have abandoned the Association of Muslim scholars and it’s also the reason that moderate Sunni clerics declare war on the organization.
This is also a reason for the conflict between some tribes with some members of the Islamic party. One suspects that a group of the party’s members are essentially stuck with al-Qaeda: they can’t walk away because of the incriminating evidence al-Qaeda has against them and could threaten to expose.
Of course the threatening messages had to be backed with action in order to be taken seriously; the bombings in Mosul, Anbar and Diyala served as the actual bloody part of the message.
Here we can note, however, that the act didn’t match the threat. Instead of killing security forces and “awakening” fighters only (whom al-Qaeda calls collaborators) the murderous crimes reached civilians who had nothing to do with the whole conflict. Although one attack targeted a funeral of two “awakening” members, the actual victims were noncombatant mourners.
These crimes demonstrate that the principles and values that al-Qaeda touted are false and that the old ways have failed. Otherwise al-Qaeda wouldn’t have switched to terrorizing fellow Sunnis instead of promising mansions in heaven and dozens of virgins.
It is worth noting a difference in style: while Baghdadi used threats, al-Zawahiri has instead resorted to insults. By asking “Are these Awakening Councils in need of someone to defend them and protect them?” al-Zawahiri is playing on the sensitivity of the issue of pride.
In Arabic, there are instances in which questions could serve as assertive statements, in this case an insulting one. Basically what he’s saying is “By seeking protection and cooperation from the US military you are behaving like helpless women and children”.
Such an insult directed against tribal warriors hardened by endless wars since 1980 to date could easily infuriate the target audience more than Baghdadi’s threats did.
It is likely the response of the people will be of the scale of al-Qaeda’s crimes and that blood will only bring blood. This is what we saw from the first reaction from sheik Ali Suleiman of the Duleim tribe (the most prominent tribe in Anbar) who said “we’re not going to let them walk out of our land alive” and called Baghdadi’s message “words of a mad man”. This last notion of madness technically indicates that what al-Qaeda is proposing is absolutely nonnegotiable; the sheik didn’t use words like unacceptable, inappropriate, too harsh, too arrogant; he simply called the proposal crazy.
Attacks on civilians are only going to make the “Awakening” warriors more determined to stand their ground and al-Qaeda is only going to get more solid resistance and more enmity from the people in return for keeping this course of action.
The bad news is that the timing of the newest message from Abu Ayyub suggests that Iraq is heading for tough times in the short term.
It appears that Abu Ayyub wants to synchronize his own campaign with that promised by Sadr.
They know that Iraqi army units have been pulled from Anbar and elsewhere to support the fight against Shia militias, meaning that escalation on a second front would make the job of the Iraqi and US military harder.
The messages in words and bombs indicate that al-Qaeda remains determined to fight on the Iraqi front, which Zawahiri once again called “the fortress” of al-Qaeda’s terror campaign and will keep directing resources towards this purpose.
But at the same time, the vocal anger and frustration reveal that al-Qaeda continues to lose allies and ground and that time on the long run is not on its side. Above all it means that those of us determined to fight terrorism must not lose resolve in this critical battle.
Al-Qaeda has made the Iraqi front its physical center of gravity, and so it’s exactly the place where we must fight, and win.
Omar Fadhil is PJM Baghdad editor. His own blog is Iraq The Model.