BEIRUT, Lebanon – In the race between al-Qaida and the Islamic State to lead global jihad, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has scored a big one in al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s own backyard of Egypt.
Earlier this month, the Egyptian group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, or Defenders of Jerusalem, announced allegiance to ISIS, which gives Baghdadi a major foothold in the largest Sunni Arab country in the world.
A Salafist jihadist group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is based in the Sinai Peninsula and has carried out attacks in Cairo and the Sinai, from which it also has attacked Israeli targets as well.
The group appeared during the 2011 Egyptian revolution and has become more active since the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood-backed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in 2012.
Baghdadi’s coup in the jihadist world comes as he seeks allegiance from various al-Qaida groups in areas outside his established caliphate, which include portions of northern and eastern Syria and western and central Iraq. In recent days, he’s announced recruitment efforts in Algeria, Libya and parts of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, something which has stoked the ire of Zawahiri.
He even has acquired allegiances from prominent jihadist groups in non-Arab countries such as Pakistan and in some south Asian countries.
As WND recently reported, Baghdadi’s assertiveness in regions not directly connected to the caliphate also has raised consternation with al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula, or AQAP, which recently took Baghdadi to task publicly for encroaching on their turf in obtaining allegiance from elements of AQAP.
Despite the complaints from Zawahiri and other al-Qaida affiliated groups, Baghdadi is expected to step up further conquests in the months ahead and press for oaths of allegiance from other Sunni jihadist groups – in both Arab and non-Arab countries – that show a capability to control the territories in which they operate.
Competition between Baghdidi and Zawahiri began last year after the al-Qaida leader admonished the ISIS leader for attempting to bring the al-Qaida-affiliated group in Syria, the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, under ISIS. Zawahiri also objected to the brutality Baghdadi displayed even over fellow Sunni Muslims as well as Shiite Muslims in capturing territory.
The grand design pursued by both al-Qaida and ISIS is to create a caliphate. However, they have gone about that in different ways. Al-Qaida launches occasional attacks and seek adherence from Sunni Muslims. ISIS takes over actual territory, which has had a strong appeal for recruitment efforts, especially of young foreign fighters.
Middle East sources tell WND that Baghdadi’s latest play against AQAP appears to have been calculated.
They point out that jihadi groups within AQAP in Yemen, where it is headquartered, and in neighboring Saudi Arabia, already have sworn allegiance to ISIS, suggesting that AQAP doesn’t have firm control over those groups and that ISIS already has begun to make inroads into the Arabian Peninsula.
For Western intelligence, a merger of AQAP with ISIS would be troubling. Not only would it garner ISIS more territory to declare for its caliphate, but AQAP is known for its excellence in bomb making and is one of the few jihadist groups in the world capable of directly threatening the U.S. homeland
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor that it was “inevitable” that once Baghdadi asserted his independence of Zawahiri by operating in Syria and then proclaiming himself caliph that the two would be in competition for the allegiance of jihadist groups throughout the Islamic world.
“What is now increasingly clear is that Baghdadi has been taking the offensive in this battle and dispatching important emissaries secretly to coax support and pledges of loyalty from key targeted groups,” said Riedel, a former analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency.
In persuading the leadership of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Baghdadi enlisted the help of another major former al-Qaida figure, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, who was involved in recruiting in Hamburg, Germany, the hijackers who flew suicide missions into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
Almost on a daily basis, Zammar met the Hamburg cell which included soon-to-be hijackers Mohammad Atta, Ziad Samir Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi and Ramzi Binalshibh, who was the financial courier and coordinator of the 9/11 attack.
Zammar’s own history
Zammar has his own history and is well-known in the jihadist world. A native of Aleppo, Syria, and a member then, in 1982, of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Zammar fled to Germany following the brutal Brotherhood purge by the late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current but embattled Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
While in Hamburg in 2000, he caught the attention of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which sought to recruit him under the noses of the domestic German intelligence service, the BfV, the Bundesamt fur Verfassungsshutz, or Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
Even before 9/11, the CIA had been watching Zammar’s frequent visits to the apartment on Marionstrasse in Hamburg where those who would be hijackers lived.
In Hamburg, Zammar ran a “travel agency” to recruit jihadists for al-Qaida operations.
In 1996, he had traveled to Afghanistan where he met Osama bin Laden at the late al-Qaida leader’s request. He then travel numerous times to Afghanistan prior to the 9/11 attacks.
Following the 9/11 attack, Zammar fled to Morocco where the CIA then conducted an operation to lure him to Syria when U.S. relations with that country were better. He was sentenced to death but later exchanged in a prisoner swap for Syrian army officers being held by the rebels.
Zammar subsequently joined ISIS in the Syrian city of Raqqa, headquarters of ISIS. Baghdadi then dispatched him to meet with the leadership of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis to discuss allegiance to ISIS.
“Zammar’s credentials as a bin Laden protégé with ties to the Hamburg cell undoubtedly helped his argument,” Riedel said. “Getting the jihadist Egyptians, of course, steals a march on Zawahiri by taking away his fellow Egyptians at home. Zammar delivered a big prize.”
While Zawahiri still retains most of various groups which belong to al-Qaida, Zawahiri lacks Baghdadi’s “winning image. Baghadi looks like a winner, which is always good for a competition.”
“Of course, one way to win a terrorist loyalty contest is to be the architect of an attack on the Crusader homeland,” Riedel said. “Nothing would cement Baghdadi’s or Zawahiri’s credentials as the true heir to Sheikh Osama bin Laden than a spectacular attack in America.”