Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has raised a lot of eyebrows with a newly released audio recording focusing heavily on the situation in Syria, urging Islamist factions in the nation to unify and liberate the region from “Russians and Western crusaders.”
Zawahiri went on to praise the local al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, saying he supports the idea of them creating a government inside Syria of their own, saying whoever they choose as their “emir” would be backed by the al-Qaeda parent organization.
Nusra is already to head of a coalition of Islamist factions in Idlib Province, but has so far been unsuccessful in trying to convince the groups to merge outright, an effort they’ve been making since January. Indeed, some factions have withdrawn a bit from the coalition to try to get more Western backing.
But exactly what Zawahiri is proposing is unclear, and several different interpretations have emerged, including the idea that he is encouraging Nusra to break away on its own, to form an “Islamic State” to compete with ISIS, or even to reunify with ISIS, which itself was the al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq not so many years ago.
Early in the Syrian Civil War, Nusra was a majorly influential part of the more unified rebellion, doing a lot of the heavy lifting in combat. Though they’ve remained allied with a lot of rebel groups, however, many are less willing to openly support them right now, fearing a loss of foreign aid.
But as Nusra gets more aggressive in and around Aleppo, its importance is once again on the rise, which likely is the real purpose of Zawahiri’s speech, to underscore Nusra’s status as an affiliate. Whatever he actually intends for the group to do, however, is likely being transmitted to them more discretely than in a recorded speech for public consumption.