CEOs don't like it when they discover massive changes within their corporations from the media – but that's what happened this spring to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Qaida's chief awoke one day to discover al-Qaida in Iraq, or AQI, had announced it was merging with Jabhat al-Nusra, currently waging jihad in Syria against Bashar al-Assad. Zawahiri then dashed off a three-page letter to both groups annulling the merger.
But CEO Zawahiri will soon discover that his ability to influence his franchises through his words – not backed up with money, men, and arms – has little impact on the twists and turns of the Iraq-Syria conflict. Once again, the diminished share price of the AQ ticker symbol will be evident to the brokers of terrorism in the exchange of global jihad.
A little background: Jabhat al-Nusra came into being as an AQI offshoot and quickly became one of the most effective (and brutal) groups fighting the Syrian government. In December 2012, the State Department announced that al-Nusra and AQI were one and the same; it was unsurprising then when AQI head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a new AQI-Jabhat al-Nursa group, the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," or ISIL, in April 2013.
But this merger was news to many in al-Nusra – including its chief, Abu Muhammad al-Golani, who stated "we were not consulted" by their comrades-in-arms across the border. In a defensive message, Abu Muhammad said "Al-Nusra Front will not change its flag ... We reassure our brothers in Syria that al-Nusra Front's behavior will remain faithful to the image you have come to know." He also reiterated his group's allegiance to Zawahiri – and not to his terrorist colleagues in Iraq.
Nonetheless, AQI's botched merger rollout has done more damage to the jihadist cause in Syria than any America-led covert influence campaign: some al-Nusra fighters have "defected" to the ISIL, others have stayed "loyal" to their original group, while many are still confused about who, exactly, is in charge.
Enter Zawahiri. As al-Qaida's fortunes have declined, so has his capacity for convincing any of his al-Qaida "subordinates" to bend to his will or listen to his advice. Interestingly, Zawahiri's decline has been evident even years ago in the charnel house of Iraq, most famously admonishing (to little effect) bloodthirsty AQI founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to tone down his brutal tactics because they were tarnishing the al-Qaida brand.
Zawahiri will continue his descent into insignificance because whatever is left of al-Qaida headquarters in faraway Pakistan has few real resources to help out those fighting on the ground. Several years ago, Zawahiri himself informed Zarqawi that "more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media" – but the other half is occurring, well, on an actual battlefield. And he must realize that Assad's 3rd Armored Division will not be halted with a three-page letter, nor will Hezbollah's advances in Qusayr be turned back by a dozen al-Qaida propaganda audio messages.
Providing guns and money would cause men to flock to its black banners, but al-Qaida has provided neither. Al-Qaida can try all it likes to adopt the trappings of a corporation. But without resources to provide to its affiliates, Zawahiri is shouting from the sidelines, a CEO in name only, of an organization that has been reduced to a shadow of its former self.
Aki Peritz is the senior policy adviser for national security at Third Way and author of "Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda."