Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s Break: Strategic Strife or Lackluster Leadership?

By Tricia Bacon and Elizabeth Grimm
Journal on Studies in Conflict and Terrorism
Dated: August 2017


How effective was Osama bin Laden’s leadership of Al Qaeda? Many would claim that this is a straightforward question. He was effective enough to lead a group that successfully targeted the United States on land, in the air, and at sea. He was effective enough to evade capture by the United States and its allies for more than a decade. He was effective enough to build a highly centralized and bureaucratic group before 11 September 2001 (9/11) and to manage it as it metastasized following 9/11. He was effective enough to build a network of alliances in a movement riven with divisions and populated with leaders with sizeable egos and ambitions.
But the question of bin Laden’s effectiveness is a deceptively complex one. It begs the question: how much did his death matter? When scholars and practitioners examine terrorist leader effectiveness, it is generally assessed according to metrics such as the number of attacks, the lethality of attacks conducted under their leadership, or the duration of their tenure.
However, these metrics would not capture the most consequential event since bin Laden’s death: the split between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, an outcome often assumed to be the culmination of strategic differences between the two groups. What is less often discussed about leadership effectiveness—but is perhaps more important—is the leader’s influence over both internal group cohesion as well as external relations with other groups. Both factors, internal unity and external relationships, are essential indicators of a leader’s effectiveness. As such, bin Laden’s greatest strength as the leader of Al Qaeda was the masterful way in which he cultivated and reinforced internal and external unity, successfully managing difficult personalities within his group and within allied groups. In particular, bin Laden was instrumental in keeping Al Qaeda and its Iraq affiliate allied despite their longstanding problems and strategic differences. Viewing unity as paramount, bin Laden handled disputes more deftly than his deputy and successor Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. With bin Laden’s credibility, diplomacy, persuasiveness, and overall ability to manage the conflict, these now foes would likely have remained aligned, despite the conflict between al Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) that led to the alliance’s rupture.
In addition, although decapitation is still one of the most relied on counterterrorism measures, the focus has largely been on the targeted leaders. Far less attention has been given to examining the value of removing the current leader against the question of who will take his or her place. In making this determination, policymakers and analysts must consider not only operational factors like lethality but also organizational factors. A question of particular importance is: how well does the leader manage the internal and external relations of the group compared to the likely successor?
This article starts from the assumption that first image theorizing—examining the impact of individuals on outcomes—can illuminate critical aspects of terrorist groups and can also inform counterterrorism decision making. While some political scientists and international relations (IR) scholars diminish or outright ignore individuals as a force shaping major international events,

1. Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack, “Let Us Now Praise Great Men: Bringing the Statesman Back In,” International Security 25(4) (Spring 2001), p. 108.View all notes

 first image theorists have argued that, even at the state level, individuals play an important role in forming—and fracturing—alliances. Morgenthau observed that “the smooth and effective operation of an alliance, then, depends in good measure upon the relations of trust and respect among its military statesman.”

2. Hans Morgenthau, Politics among Nations, 3rd ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960), p. 201.View all notes

 Likewise, Byman and Pollack argue that leaders shape alliances and exert significant influence on strategies, goals, and capabilities.

3. Byman and Pollack, “Let Us Now Praise Great Men,” pp. 113–114.View all notes

 If leaders even matter for states’ alliances, they undoubtedly matter for terrorist organizations’ relations as well. As Price argues, the inherent cohesiveness of violent groups, the intentional centralization of authority and information, and the importance of leadership in defining the group’s ideology and driving recruitment all make terrorist leaders extraordinarily consequential.

4. Bryan C. Price, “Targeting Top Terrorists: How Leadership Decapitation Contributes to Counterterrorism,” International Security 36(4) (Spring 2012), pp. 14–21.View all notes

 In an environment where the individual possesses exceptional weight, the first image seems especially germane for the study of terrorist groups. Moreover, given that terrorist organizations with allies are “more likely to kill, more likely to kill prolifically, and more likely to pursue weapons of mass destruction,” not to mention survive longer, it is essential to understand the role leaders play in alliance sustainment.5

5. Michael C. Horowitz and Philip B. K. Potter, “Allying to Kill Terrorist Intergroup Cooperation and the Consequences for Lethality,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 58(2) (March 2014), pp. 199–225; Victor Asal et al., “With Friends Like These … Why Terrorist Organizations Ally,” International Public Management Journal 19(1) (2016), pp. 1–30.View all notes

Examining the Al Qaeda and ISIS alliance rupture through a first image lens and using counterfactual analysis, this article’s findings broadly suggest:
How leaders matter relates to how they manage their organizational relations—both internal and external—rather than simply the number or type of attacks a group plans and executes under a leader.
Bringing leadership back into the study of terrorism is critical given the concentration of power in the hands of individual terrorist leaders.
Terrorist leaders can be evaluated on their ability to manage internal cohesion and external relations.
A pivotal moment in assessing the importance of terrorist leadership is the dispute between al Nusra and ISIS that led to the alliance rupture between Al Qaeda and ISIS. It was al-Zawahiri’s biggest challenge to date as Al Qaeda’s leader. Without question, the alliance between Al Qaeda and its Iraq affiliate had long been troubled, leading some to conclude that the break was a long overdue culmination of strategic differences. However, long-standing differences between Al Qaeda and ISIS about levels of violence, state declarations, or priorities were not previously sufficient to cause an alliance rupture. Nor was recalcitrant leadership in Iraq a new development. What changed was Al Qaeda’s ability to manage these problems as a result of bin Laden’s death and al-Zawahiri’s ascension.
This article examines what impact bin Laden’s death had on the alliance rupture between Al Qaeda and ISIS. The driving question is: could the alliance outcome have been different if bin Laden were still alive? This article answers this question by employing counterfactual methodology to systematically test what impact bin Laden in particular had on the Al Qaeda–ISIS alliance. It thus process traces alternate outcomes from this pivotal event in the recent history of terrorism. It then briefly surveys the literature on first image theories, including the implications for leadership decapitation. The article then examines why counterfactuals provide a much needed—yet rarely used—approach to examining critical issues such as the importance—or lack thereof—of terrorist leaders in alliance management. It offers a typology of potential outcomes: bin Laden—Alliance, bin Laden—Split, al-Zawahiri—Alliance, and al-Zawahiri—Split (Table 1). It first examines events as they transpired in the al-Zawahiri—Split Quadrant, before engaging in comparative counterfactual process tracing of the bin Laden—Alliance and bin Laden—Split Quadrants to discern whether bin Laden’s survival would have altered the outcome. Bin Laden was an effective leader of Al Qaeda, though not only for the reasons often attributed to him. Perhaps his greatest strength was managing conflict and disunity, which would erupt after his death. This investigation of his impact is not an esoteric exercise. Groups with allies pose the greatest counterterrorism threat today and understanding what sustains or disrupts these relationships is thus of paramount importance.

The Importance of Terrorist Organization Leaders

IR scholarship has generally eschewed first image explanations when it comes to matters such as alliances and wars, with a few important exceptions. In particular, in “Let Us Now Praise Great Men,” Byman and Pollack argue, “goals, abilities, and foibles of individuals are crucial to the intentions, capabilities, and strategies of a state.”6

6. Byman and Pollack, “Let Us Now Praise Great Men,” p. 144.View all notes

 Byman and Pollack maintain that individuals can both determine a state’s intentions and be an important component of a state’s capabilities, saying “[g]reat leaders also can strengthen a country’s diplomatic power. It is individuals who build alliances … that maintain or destroy balances of power.”7

7. Ibid., p. 134.View all notes

 Moreover, leaders shape others’ reactions, especially under fluid conditions.8

8. Ibid., pp. 135, 142.View all notes

 Citing the relationship between Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, and Roosevelt, respectively, they contend that the predictability—or lack thereof—of individual leaders either destroyed trust between actors with shared goals or enabled the growth of partnerships despite strategic differences.9

9. Ibid., p. 139.View all notes

 Horowitz et al. similarly analyze world leaders to demonstrate that their beliefs, worldviews, and acceptance of risk help determine when and why states wage war. In fact, Horowitz et al. conclude that leaders’ attributes can play as significant, and at times more significant, a role as the international system or domestic institutions in determining state behavior in military affairs.10

10. Michael Horowitz, Allan C. Stam, and Cali M. Ellis, Why Leaders Fight(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. xi.View all notes

Horowitz and Stam also argue that leaders’ backgrounds communicate relevant information about how they, and thus states, will behave.11

11. Michael C. Horowitz and Allan C. Stam, “How Prior Military Experience Influences the Future Militarized Behavior of Leaders,” International Organization 68(3) (2014), p. 555.View all notes

 Additionally, Mukunda finds that occasionally a leader who has not been vetted or watered down—what Mukunda refers to as an “unfiltered” leader—ascends to power and takes her or his organization to glory or disaster.12

12. Gautam Mukunda, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), p. 19.View all notes

 After illustrative examination of several U.S. presidents, Mukunda argues that unfiltered leaders are more likely to have an extreme impact than a filtered leader, and that the “very best” leaders almost always fall into this “unfiltered” classification.13

13. Ibid., p. 221.View all notes

However, scholarship on terrorism has followed the trends within IR, and relatively few recent scholarly works emphasize terrorist leaders. With far fewer constraints than heads of state and less impact on international balances of power, the leader of a violent political group can have an even greater impact on that group’s preferences, intentions, strategies, and by extension, its alliances. Therefore, the neglect of first image explanations limits an understanding of terrorist group relations.
The main exception to this tendency to overlook terrorist group leaders is the research program on leadership decapitation. This literature is replete with debates and varying findings, with conclusions often depending on how one measures the effect of leadership decapitation. Proponents of leadership decapitation point to examples of groups like the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Sendero Luminoso, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC), and Aum Shinrikyo, in which the arrest of the charismatic, central leader severely damaged the group. Price finds that leadership decapitation increases the mortality rate of terrorist groups, because the organizational characteristics of terrorist groups amplify the importance of leadership and complicate succession.14

14. Price, “Targeting Top Terrorists,” pp. 11, 17.View all notes

 Langdon et al. also find support for decapitation, arguing that the killing of the leader is more likely to prompt the group’s failure than his arrest.15

15. Lisa Langdon, Alexander J. Sarapu, and Matthew Wells, “Targeting the Leadership of Terrorist and Insurgent Movements: Historical Lessons for Contemporary Policy Makers,” Journal of Public and International Affairs 15 (Spring 2004), p. 75.View all notes

 As for inhibiting the group’s operational effectiveness, D’Alessio et al. conclude that capture significantly diminished the hierarchical Sendero Luminoso’s ability to carry out attacks.16

16. Stewart D’Alessio, Lisa Stolzenberg, and Dustin Dariano, “Does Targeted Capture Reduce Terrorism?” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 37(10) (2014), p. 890.View all notes

 Also, while finding that leadership decapitation does not diminish terrorist attacks in the short term, David concludes that it reduces the capacity of terrorist networks to carry out attacks in the long term, especially when “leadership, planning, and tactical skills” are limited to a few individuals.17

17. Steven R. David, “Israel’s Policy of Targeted Killing,” Ethics and International Affairs 17(1) (2003), pp. 118–120.View all notes

However, other works cast doubt on the importance of terrorist leaders, and, by extension, the resources expended to target them. Critics of leadership decapitation argue that doing so can increase groups’ recruitment and generate support for their narrative.18

18. Edward H. Kaplan et al., “What Happened to Suicide Bombings in Israel?” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 28(3) (2005), p. 230; Audrey Kurth Cronin, “How al-Qaida Ends: The Decline and Demise of Terrorist Groups,” International Security 31(1) (Summer 2006), p. 22; Stephanie Carvin, “The Trouble with Targeted Killing,” Security Studies 21(3) (2012), pp. 529–555.View all notes

 For instance, Carvin not only finds killing terrorist leadership risky, unpopular, and fraught with ethical concerns, but also insufficient to end terrorism.19

19. Carvin, “The Trouble with Targeted Killing,” pp. 552, 555.View all notes

Similarly, Kaplan et al. conclude that targeted killings spark terrorist recruitment and subsequently increase the rate of attacks.20

20. Kaplan et al., “What Happened to Suicide Bombings in Israel?” pp. 225, 232.View all notes

 Cronin argues that killing leaders can increase publicity for the group or make the deceased leader a martyr to attract new recruits.21

21. Cronin, “How al-Qaida Ends,” p. 22.View all notes

 Jordan goes furthest, arguing that decapitation is not only ineffective, but even counterproductive to defeating a terrorist group. She finds that organizations not experiencing leadership decapitation are more likely to fall apart than decapitated organizations.22

22. Jenna Jordan, “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation,” Security Studies 18 (2009), p. 720.View all notes

 Pape also finds that leadership decapitation against terrorist organizations that use suicide attacks temporarily disrupts its operations, but “rarely yields long-term gains” and is not likely to end a major suicide terrorist campaign on its own.23

23. Robert A. Pape, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” American Political Science Review97(3) (2003), p. 356.View all notes

 Like Pape, Atran argues that hunting terrorists can exacerbate the threat and will not yield long-term relief from suicide terrorism.24

24. Scott Atran, “Genesis of Suicide Terrorism,” Science 299 (5612) (7 March 2003), pp. 1534–1539.View all notes

 Jenkins similarly argues that the strategy lacks long-term effectiveness, pointing to the endurance of Palestinian terrorism despite Israel’s assassination campaign against suspected terrorist leaders following the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.25

25. Brian Michael Jenkins, “Should Our Arsenal Against Terrorism Include Assassination?” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, January 1987), pp. 11–12. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Additionally, Jenkins notes that leadership decapitation against terrorist groups may install a more dangerous successor.26

26. Jenkins, “Should Our Arsenal Against Terrorism Include Assassination?” pp. 7, 8.View all notes

Consistent with the findings of the leadership decapitation critics, bin Laden’s death did not result in Al Qaeda’s organizational disintegration or end its terrorism campaign.27

27. Carvin, “The Trouble with Targeted Killing,” p. 553; Jordan, “When Heads Roll,” p. 4.View all notes

Nor did it destroy the Sunni jihadist movement. By those measures, his death was not consequential. However, no evidence exists that his death bolstered Al Qaeda’s recruitment or the group’s rate of attacks either. So how did bin Laden’s death affect Al Qaeda?
Counter to Jenkins’s prediction, bin Laden’s death resulted in a less capable leader rising to the helm of an already weakened group, a leader who has struggled to manage an organization under long-term pressure and facing an upstart. To state the obvious: all leaders are not created equal.28

28. Jeff D. Colgan and Edward R. Lucas reach such a conclusion in analyzing the disparate third and first image effects of revolutions on a state’s behavior. In particular, Colgan and Lucas find that revolutionary leaders are less likely to form new alliances. See Jeff D. Colgan and Edward R. Lucas, “Revolutionary Pathways: Leaders and the International Impacts of Domestic Revolutions,” International Interactions (2016), pp. 1–27.View all notes

 While the removal of even an exceptional leader may not result in the dissolution of the group s/he leads or an end to its violence, leadership decapitation can weaken a group by eroding its ability to manage challenges and conflict when a less capable successor takes over the group. In other words, the efficacy of leadership decapitation depends on the quality of the targeted leader compared to his or her successor. Of course, this impact cannot necessarily be quantified in terms of numbers of attacks, deaths, or organizational survival. One area that leadership capability can reveal itself, however, is in managing relations and conflicts.29

29. Byman and Pollack, “Let Us Now Praise Great Men,” p. 135.View all notes

 Indeed, as Shapiro notes, the dilemma of maintaining control while remaining covert requires terrorist leaders who can quell or alter operatives’ preferences without compromising the group’s security.30

30. Jacob N. Shapiro, The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), pp. 48–51.View all notes

 The loss of a highly capable leader in bin Laden and his replacement by a less effectual one in al-Zawahiri was one of the primary reasons that Al Qaeda was unable to successfully manage the conflict between al Nusra and ISIS, which produced an alliance rupture and a rival that then eclipsed Al Qaeda. Running day-to-day operations after 9/11,31

31. Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), p. 157.View all notes

 al-Zawahiri was an effective deputy to bin Laden—the two men complemented each other’s strengths32

32. Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), p. 127.View all notes

—but as a leader, his inability to manage conflict resulted in long-standing differences becoming irreconcilable ones.

Why Comparative Counterfactual Analysis?

In order to examine how bin Laden’s death affected Al Qaeda and, most significantly, the Al Qaeda–ISIS split, it is critical to hypothesize scenarios in which bin Laden did not die. Counterfactual analysis assesses the extent to which the absence of a condition—one deemed necessary for the original outcome to happen—is sufficient for the absence of the original, historical outcome. A counterfactual alters or removes one or more conditions from a course of past events to prompt a “possible” or “alternate” outcome.33

33. Jack S. Levy, “Counterfactuals, Causal Inference, and Historical Analysis,” Security Studies 24(3) (2015), p. 379.View all notes

While often applied to the past, counterfactuals can also treat future scenarios (e.g., “If Japan acquires nuclear weapons, then Asia will be destabilized”). At a basic level, counterfactuals can challenge determinism in causal analysis and the perceived inevitability of a course of events.
Scarcely has a method been as maligned as counterfactuals. Historian Carr dismisses the use of counterfactuals as the “might have been” school of thought, or an undisciplined “parlor game” that is only played by people who wish a more agreeable outcome had happened.34

34. E. H. Carr, What is History?(Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1964), chap. 4.View all notes

 Historian Lukacs, another critic of counterfactuals, lambastes the rise of “counterfactualism” as a crisis affecting the historical profession.35

35. John Lukacs, “‘Counterfactual’ Is Wrong,” Historically Speaking 7(2) (November/December 2005), pp. 2–3. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

However, this article contends as other scholarship has concluded: the responsible and disciplined use of counterfactuals can challenge deterministic views of historical events, elucidate false assumptions in causal analysis, and help analysts, policymakers, and scholars identify decisive factors and red herrings in complex security issues. Although skeptical of individual leaders’ relevance to explaining state behavior, Jervis identifies counterfactuals as an appropriate method for determining whether “the identity of the president or any other leader matters.”36

36. Robert Jervis, “Do Leaders Matter and How Would We Know?” Security Studies 22(2) (2013), pp. 158, 160.View all notes

 Both political science and philosophy scholars have developed methodological approaches to counterfactual analysis that combat Carr’s claims that counterfactuals are overly speculative and non-falsifiable.37

37. Richard Ned Lebow, “What’s So Different About a Counterfactual?” World Politics 52(3) (2000), pp. 550–585; Jack S. Levy, “Counterfactuals and Case Studies,” in Janet Box-Steffensmeier, Henry Brady, and David Collier, eds., Oxford Handbook of Political Methodology(New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 627–644; James D. Fearon, “Counterfactuals and Hypothesis Testing in Political Science,” World Politics 43(2) (January 1991), pp. 169–195; Richard J. Evans, Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History(Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2013); Philip E. Tetlock and Aaron Belkin, “Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical, Methodological, and Psychological Perspectives,” in Philip E. Tetlock and Aaron Belkin, eds., Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical, Methodological, and Psychological Perspectives(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 17–31.View all notes

Tetlock, Belkin, and Levy all outline rules for counterfactual testing to challenge the notion that it is an imprecise tool. Importantly, they stress that logical consistency is key, what they named “cotenability,” which means that the consequent could logically flow from the counterfactual antecedent despite the historical alterations.38

38. Ibid., pp. 17–31; Levy, “Counterfactuals, Causal Inference, and Historical Analysis,” pp. 389, 390.View all notes

 Similarly, both Fearon and Lebow claim that the more one draws from history, the easier it becomes to defend causal inferences underpinning a counterfactual supposition.39

39. Fearon, “Counterfactuals and Hypothesis Testing in Political Science,” pp. 193–194; Lebow, “What’s So Different About a Counterfactual?,” pp. 582–583.View all notes

 Critically, counterfactuals hinge in particular on an essential factor: Levy calls it “the minimal rewrite rule” and Tetlock and Belkin refer to it as “historical consistency.” Citing Weber, Levy emphasizes that “counterfactual analysis should make as few changes as possible from the real world.”40

40. Levy, “Counterfactuals, Causal Inference, and Historical Analysis,” p. 390.View all notes

 Tetlock and Belkin agree that effective counterfactuals exclude “what­if scenarios that begin with wild departures from reality.”41

41. Tetlock and Belkin, “Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics,” p. 34.View all notes

 According to this rule, only one antecedent condition is altered.
Just days after bin Laden’s death, Byman and Padilla identified different scenarios that could have played out in Abbottabad involving helicopter mechanical issues, tipped-off inhabitants of the compound counterattacking, accidental deaths of Pakistani children at the hands of the SEALs, and a standoff with Pakistani forces, resulting in an international crisis.42

42. Daniel Byman and Phillip Padilla, “The Debacle That Didn’t Happen,” Slate, 4 May 2011. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Likewise, Schmidle’s account of the key decisions leading up to and during the raid give a comprehensive image of just how many factors contributed to the mission’s success. What if Obama’s national security advisors had pushed back against the uncertainty of the intelligence on bin Laden’s location? What if the SEALs onboard the downed Black Hawk were seriously injured, or killed? What if the second Black Hawk could not refuel and return to Afghanistan?43

43 Nicholas Schmidle, “Getting Bin Laden,” The New Yorker, 8 August 2011. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Many scenarios that would have changed the outcome that night are plausible without wild imagination.44

44. Jeff Greenfield, “What if bin Laden Had Been Captured, not Killed? An Alternate History,” The Washington Post, 6 May 2011. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Of course, the U.S. military and intelligence community would likely still have pursued bin Laden if the May 2011 operation failed. However, for the sake of this study—and to avoid falling down a rabbit hole—the article will simply assume that bin Laden was not killed in 2011 and had survived through at least 2014.
The viability of a counterfactual addressing the alliance outcome between Al Qaeda and ISIS is matched by its utility. Examining terrorist groups via counterfactuals offers similar advantages as alternative analysis approaches in intelligence assessments, such as counterfactuals, devil’s advocacy, and Team A/Team B Exercises. These techniques can facilitate causal analysis, overcome deterministic biases, and inject creativity into the analytical process.45

45. Noel Hendrickson, “Counterfactual Reasoning: A Basic Guide for Analysts, Strategists, and Decision Makers,” The Proteus Monograph Series 2(5) (October 2008), pp. 6–7.View all notes

 Although terrorism research has become more diversified methodologically, few scholarly works have employed counterfactuals to examine critical turning points in terrorism studies.46

46. See Michael J. Findley and Joseph K. Young, “Terrorism and Civil War: A Spatial and Temporal Approach to a Conceptual Problem,” Perspectives on Politics10(2) (June 2012), pp. 285–305.View all notes

To conduct comparative counterfactual analysis, the article process traces two counterfactual scenarios, bin Laden—Alliance and bin Laden—Split. First, it recounts what actually transpired, the al-Zawahiri—Split Quadrant, relying on secondary literature. For the comparative counterfactual analysis of the bin Laden—Alliance and bin Laden—Split Quadrants, it draws extensively from the declassified documents retrieved from bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, from the Harmony collection at West Point, and to a lesser extent public statements from Al Qaeda, al Nusra, and ISIS. The documents from Abbottabad are particularly useful in understanding how bin Laden viewed various situations, his management of the organization and relations with Al Qaeda’s allies, and the input he received from his senior lieutenants. It also uses secondary sources, including biographies of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, for information about their leadership styles and capabilities. It will not examine the al-Zawahiri—Alliance Quadrant because the two variables of interest—strategic differences and leadership qualities—do not change. As the article will demonstrate, al-Zawahiri’s approach, personal idiosyncrasies, and decades of experience with multiple terrorist organizations shaped how he handled the conflict between al Nusra and ISIS. Therefore, the al-Zawahiri—Alliance Quadrant requires the pivotal juncture with al Nusra and ISIS to have never occurred at all, and such anomalies are not in the interest of this study.

The Al Qaeda and ISIS Split: What Happened

This section briefly explains the events as they actually occurred leading up to alliance break, corresponding with the al-Zawahiri—Split Quadrant, picking up the timeline shortly after bin Laden’s death in May 2011. The Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), as the group was then known, was the only affiliate that did not publicly declare bayat, or fealty, to al-Zawahiri when he was announced as Al Qaeda’s emir that June. Although Al Qaeda contended that ISI’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi privately pledged bayat to al-Zawahiri and thereby complied with al-Zawahiri’s decision to keep the bayat a secret, there is a dispute about whether al-Baghdadi actually did so.47

47. Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror (New York: Harper Collins, 2015), p. 180; Thomas Jocelyn, “Zawahiri Makes Another Attempt at Reconciliation in Syria,” Long War Journal, 2 May 2014. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 While this may appear to be a technicality, breaking bayat is a serious breach that would badly damage one’s standing in jihadistcircles.48

48. J. M. Berger, “The Islamic State vs. al Qaeda,” Foreign Policy, 12 September 2014. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017). The Arabic word bayat (also written bay’at, bayah, and bay’ah) describes the pledge of allegiance one makes to a leader—usually a spiritual leader or sheikh from whom one receives knowledge—and can be understood as a promise made to God. Bayat is not a one-sided declaration and requires the oath to be accepted to be rendered legitimate.View all notes

Although there was no public bayat, ISI issued a public statement proclaiming that it remained faithful to al-Zawahiri and Al Qaeda.49

49. William McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), p. 1336. Kindle edition.View all notes

 In August 2011, now deceased ISI spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani declared al-Zawahiri “the honorable sheikh, the reputable instructor, the experienced leader, the wise of the ummah” and appealed to God “to bless him and his recent position of leadership,” and “to help him with the charge entrusted to him.”50

50. Aaron Y. Zelin, “The War between ISIS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement,” Research Notes: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Vol. 20 (June 2014). Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

That same month, in part at al-Zawahiri’s urging, al-Baghdadi deployed Syrian operative Abu Muhammad al-Jolani and a dozen others to Syria—where the revolution against Bashir al-Assad’s regime had escalated into a full-fledged civil war—to wage jihad against the Alawite government.51

51. Zelin, “The War between ISIS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement”; McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, p. 1467.View all notes

 Al-Jolani and his men proceeded to covertly build a network in Syria, conducting a bombing campaign in Damascus.52

52. Weiss and Hassan, ISIS, p. 149.View all notes

Al Nusra’s public revelation in 2012 portrayed the group as a Syrian enterprise, deliberately obfuscating its ties to ISI and Al Qaeda. As al Nusra became a recognized leader among insurgent groups in Syria—building relations with local communities, achieving battlefield gains in conjunction with other insurgent groups, and also squeezing out moderate groups—al-Jolani grew more emboldened, seeing himself as a leader in his own right, rather than a subordinate of al-Baghdadi.53

53. Ibid., p. 150; Stern and Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror, p. 41.View all notes

However, al-Baghdadi wanted to consolidate the two ventures, expand ISI’s “state” into Syria, and stunt the ambitions of his upstart lieutenant before losing grip of his deployed operatives.54

54. McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, p. 1543.View all notes

 Consequently, al-Baghdadi sent a letter to al-Jolani, ordering him to announce al Nusra as part of ISI. Al-Jolani rebuffed the order, arguing that doing so would not help the cause in Syria. His suspicions about al-Jolani mounting, al-Baghdadi deployed loyalists to covertly watch him.55

55. Ibid., p. 1563.View all notes

What al-Baghdadi’s spies found clearly did not alleviate ISI’s concerns, because in March 2013, al-Baghdadi and his deputy met with al-Jolani in Syria and reiterated their request that he publicly acknowledge the ties between al Nusra and ISI. This time al-Jolani refused by appealing to a higher authority, arguing that al Nusra was in Syria on al-Zawahiri’s orders and that al-Zawahiri had forbidden any announcement of Al Qaeda’s presence in Syria.56

56. Ibid., pp. 1569–1570.View all notes

 Al-Baghdadi began maneuvering behind the scenes to undermine al-Jolani and prepare a public announcement.57

57. Ibid., p. 1570.View all notes

On 8 April, more than a year after al Nusra embedded itself in Syria, al-Baghdadi announced the formation of ISIS. ISIS was to subsume al Nusra, thereby merging the two entities and establishing a “state” that spanned both Iraq and Syria.58

58. Ibid., pp. 90–91; Weiss and Hassan, ISIS, pp. 183–184.View all notes

[W]e could not but come to their [the people of Syria’s] help so we appointed al-Jolani, who is one of our soldiers, along with a group of our sons, and we sent them from Iraq to Syria to meet our cells in Syria. We set plans for them and devised policies for them and we supported them with half of our treasury every month. We also provided them with men with long experience, foreigners and locals… We did not announce it for security reasons and for people to know the truth about [ISI] away from media distortion, falsehood, and twisting.59

59. Weiss and Hassan, ISIS, p. 146.View all notes

Al-Jolani countered with his own statement, in which he acknowledged ISI’s role in al Nusra’s creation, but declared al Nusra’s independence from ISIS and loyalty to Al Qaeda.60

60. Mary Habeck, “Assessing the ISIS–al-Qaeda Split: Introduction,” INSITE Blog, last modified 18 June 2014. Available at September 15, 2017); Brian Michael Jenkins, “The Dynamics of Syria’s Civil War” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2014), p. 10. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

At an impasse, al-Baghdadi and al-Jolani appealed to Al Qaeda. This move belies the notion that the alliance between Al Qaeda and ISIS was already irrelevant, despite the ambiguity about al-Baghdadi’s oath. Al-Jolani called on the “sheikh of jihad,”61

61. Clark-Scott and Levy, The Exile, p. 476.View all notes

 while al-Baghdadi wrote to al-Zawahiri, foreshadowing the strife that would follow:
This poor servant [al-Baghdadi] and those brothers with him here in al-Sham believe it is up to our shaykhs in Khorasan [Afghanistan and Pakistan] to announce a clear, unambiguous position in order to bury this conspiracy before it causes blood to flow and we become the reason for a new calamity for the umma. We believe that any support for what this traitor has done, even tacitly, will lead to a great fitna, which will thwart the program for which the blood of Muslims has been shed.62

62. McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, p. 1592.View all notes

In May, al-Zawahiri weighed in.63

63. See Annex A for a translation of al-Zawahiri’s message.View all notes

 Al-Zawahiri lamented that “we have neither been asked for authorization or advice,” and that “we have heard the news from the media” rather than receiving notification from either group.64

64. McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, pp. 1595–1596.View all notes

 He acknowledged both groups’ accomplishments and then faulted both for their conduct—ISI for expanding its writ and attempting to subsume al Nusra without consulting Al Qaeda, and al Nusra for publicly acknowledging its connection to Al Qaeda without permission.65

65. Ibid., p. 92; Weiss and Hassan, ISIS, pp. 184–185.View all notes

 Most importantly, al-Zawahiri annulled ISI’s shift to ISIS and ordered it back to Iraq.66

66. Jenkins, “The Dynamics of Syria’s Civil War,” p. 10.View all notes

 Al-Zawahiri ruled that al Nusra should be independent from ISI and act as Al Qaeda’s representative in Syria. Al-Zawahiri’s edict offered no religious explanation or political justification for his decision, but he empowered Abu Khalid al-Suri—a Syrian jihadist with long-standing ties to Al Qaeda—to act as his representative and help mediate infighting between the two groups.67

67. Weiss and Hassan, ISIS, p. 184.View all notes

Al-Baghdadi consulted with ISIS’s shura council and then rejected al-Zawahiri’s ruling in a public audio statement the same month.68

68. Stern and Berger, ISIS, p. 42.View all notes

 Al-Baghdadi said al-Zawahiri’s decision contradicted “the command of my Lord,” and vowed to pursue a united Islamic state spanning the two states.69

69. McCants, “How Zawahiri Lost al Qaeda,” Foreign Affairs, 19 November 2013. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017); Zelin, “The War between ISIS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement”; Weiss and Hassan, ISIS, p. 185.View all notes

 Al-Baghdadi justified his defiance by claiming that al-Zawahiri’s insistence on a distinction between Syria and Iraq deferred to artificial state borders drawn up by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which Al Qaeda (and other jihadists) wholly reject.70

70. Weiss and Hassan, ISIS, p. 185.View all notes

 It was an unprecedented move. As Stern and Berger argued, “Ever since the days of Zarqawi and bin Laden, al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate had been troublesome, but the differences … had been fought out in private and papered over in public.”71

71. Stern and Berger, ISIS, p. 43.View all notes

 Now their problems were quite public.
The problems between ISIS and al Nusra mounted. Many of al Nusra’s non-Syrian members defected to ISIS. As al-Baghdadi forewarned, ISIS proceeded to use violence against Syrian opposition groups, including al Nusra, to back up its territorial claims. By early 2014, it had incited “a war within a war” in northern Syria.”72

72. Ibid., p. 42.View all notes

 It sent reinforcements from Iraq and made territorial gains largely at the expense of Syrian rebel groups and refused to share power in its areas of operation.73

73. Ibid.View all notes

By January 2014, Syrian opposition groups rebelled against ISIS, protesting its heavy-handed tactics.74

74. Zelin, “The War between ISIS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement.”View all notes

 Al Qaeda’s designated emissary, Abu Khalid al-Suri, bemoaned how ISIS “is excommunicating everyone who opposes them or differs with them, spilling blood with impunity as if they own Islam.”75

75. McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, pp. 1683–1684.View all notes

 These objections fell on deaf ears, as ISIS expelled both Syrian regime and opposition forces in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour, captured Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq, and now “spanned the Levant and Mesopotamia.”76

76. Stern and Berger, ISIS, p. 43; Weiss and Hassan, ISIS, p. 186.View all notes

 Irrespective of ISIS’s gains, Al Qaeda officially severed ties in February 2014, slightly more than ten years after the alliance formed, declaring that ISIS “is not a branch of the al Qaeda group … does not have an organizational relationship with it and [Al Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions.”77

77. Liz Sly, “Al-Qaeda Disavows Any Ties with Radical Islamist ISIS Group in Syria, Iraq,” The Washington Post, 3 February 2014. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

While ISIS clashed with al Nusra on the battlefield, it expressed its ire with Al Qaeda in the media. In April, al-Adnani claimed that “al Qaeda today has ceased to be the base of jihad, rather its leadership has become an axe supporting the destruction of the project of the Islamic State and the coming khilafa.”78

78. Zelin, “The War between ISIS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement.”View all notes

 In May, he issued a derisive speech, sarcastically titled, “Sorry, Emir of al Qaeda,” in which he asserted that al-Zawahiri had made a “laughingstock” of Al Qaeda and mockingly apologized for ISIS’s failure to follow him.79

79. Weiss and Hassan, ISIS, p. 43.View all notes

Yet ISIS still expressed regard for Al Qaeda’s fallen leaders. In a video series, “Series of the Life from the Words of the Ulema on the Project of the Islamic State,” ISIS hailed bin Laden and now deceased Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) spokesman Anwar al-Awlaqi.”80

80. Zelin, “The War between ISIS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement.”View all notes

 ISIS has even portrayed itself as carrying out bin Laden’s mission. As Zelin argued, “ISIS considers itself the true heir of bin Laden’s al Qaeda, but under the new banner of the Islamic state.”81

81. Ibid.View all notes

The Cause of the Split: The Strategic Explanation

This section offers the first part of the comparative counterfactual analysis, laying out the logic of the bin Laden—Split Quadrant, arguing that Al Qaeda and ISIS would have inevitably experienced the break because of their strategic differences, even if bin Laden was alive.82

82. Byman, “Will ISIS and al-Qaida Always Be Rivals?,” 27 May 2016, Brookings Blog. Available at September 15, 2017); Barak Mendelsohn, “Jihad’s Civil War: The Battle Between ISIS and al Qaeda Simmers On,” Foreign Affairs, 16 June 2016. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Stern and Berger capture this rationale when they characterize the Al Qaeda and ISIS break as “born out of strife and irreconcilable differences.”83

83. Stern and Berger, ISIS, p. 177.View all notes

Overall, the two groups experienced three major strategic differences. First, they disagreed about which enemy to prioritize. Second, they disagreed about the appropriate quantity and quality of violence. In particular, Al Qaeda was continually concerned with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)/ISI’s level of violence against Muslims. Third, they disagreed about whether the conditions were ripe for declaring and building a state. Al Qaeda believed it was premature to declare a state, whereas the group in Iraq was willing to make such a declaration even when it lacked the basic trappings of a state. In 2013, these three differences re-emerged.
Moreover, these differences converged at a time in which al Nusra had demonstrated its desirability as an ally, discouraging Al Qaeda from allowing the problematic ISI to subsume al Nusra. According to the logic of this Quadrant, no matter who led Al Qaeda, it would have sought its own ally in Syria to influence events there and retain its preeminence among jihadist groups. As occurred in 2003, when Al Qaeda was unable to directly participate in the insurgency in Iraq, it sought a representative in Syria through which it could shape the conflict. Al Qaeda long sought to influence local insurgencies, and, like Iraq in 2003, Syria was a particularly strategic and symbolic battlefield.84

84. Michael Scheuer, Osama bin Laden (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 74.View all notes

 This project now had added urgency as the revolutions in the Arab world presented an opportunity Al Qaeda wished to exploit.85

85. Letter to Shaykh Mahmud, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

Al Nusra’s conduct and adherence to Al Qaeda’s strategy demonstrated that it was a desirable partner for this venture. Unlike its counterpart in Iraq, it comported with the strategy that Al Qaeda advocated. Specifically, it appointed indigenous leadership, forged ties with fellow Sunni groups, and carved out a leading and unifying role among Sunni opposition groups—approaches Al Qaeda had urged AQI/ISI to take with limited success.86

86. Al Qaeda advocated for Iraqi leadership of AQI even when al-Zarqawi headed the group. See Ayman al-Zawahiri, Letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, 9 July 2005, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Available at September 15, 2017); Weiss and Hassan, ISIS, p. 150; Stern and Berger, ISIS, p. 41; Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, p. 74.View all notes

 In addition, unlike AQI/ISI, al Nusra won the support of local Sunnis and generally avoided collateral damage to Muslim civilians, another approach bin Laden emphasized.87

87. See Letter to the generous brother Shaykh Abu Muhammad, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017); Give the tribes more than they can handle, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017); SOCOM-2012-0000019: Letter to Shaykh Mahmud, May 2010, “Letters from Abbottabad,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 It also adhered to bin Laden’s preference and al-Zawahiri’s subsequent instructions to keep association with Al Qaeda private, until publicly pressed by ISIS.88

88. Osama bin Laden, SOCOM-2012-0000005: Letter to Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, 7 August 2010, Harmony Database, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 In addition, Al Qaeda knew and trusted several al Nusra associates, most notably Abu Khalid al-Suri. By this logic, bin Laden would have ruled as al-Zawahiri in the dispute—that al Nusra should be independent from ISI—so that Al Qaeda could protect al-Nusra as partner in Syria. This would have triggered al-Baghdadi’s ire and public denunciation and led to the alliance termination.
The argument underpinning this Quadrant is that al-Baghdadi’s public power play to absorb al Nusra, declare a state spanning Iraq and Syria, and use violence against Sunni opposition groups that did not acquiesce to ISIS was thus the proverbial last straw. With these events, their strategic differences became insurmountable.89

89. John Turner, “Strategic Differences: Al Qaeda’s Split with the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham,” Small Wars & Insurgencies26(2) (4 March 2015), pp. 208–225.View all notes

 Moreover, even if bin Laden had been alive, the weakening of personal ties between the two groups would have contributed to their inability to reconcile their differences; al-Baghdadi and his deputies were largely unknown to Al Qaeda.90

90. SOCOM-2012-0000019.View all notes

Problems with the Strategic Explanation

Undoubtedly, from the outset, Al Qaeda and AQI had a troubled alliance. Their strategies and priorities were never fully aligned. However, al-Zarqawi was clear about his intentions when he proposed the alliance in 2003, so these differences should not have been a surprise to Al Qaeda.91

91. “Zarqawi Letter: February 2004 Coalition Provisional Authority English translation of terrorist Musab al-Zarqawi letter obtained by United States Government in Iraq,” U.S. Department of State Archive. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 The main points of tension in the relationship in 2013—ISI’s excessive violence, the two groups’ differing priorities, ISI’s tendency to make major decisions without consulting Al Qaeda, and a recalcitrant leader on the Iraq side—were by no means new issues. These had long been points of frustration between the two groups; however, under bin Laden, they were insufficient to end the alliance. Some terrorism scholars, such as Hoffman, debate whether their differences actually amounted to strategic disagreements or if they simply boiled down to “timing and process.”92

92. Bruce Hoffman, “The Coming ISIS-Al Qaeda Merger,” Foreign Affairs, 29 March 2016. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Even if one accepts them as strategic differences, it is unclear why these existing differences would have become irreconcilable in 2013 if bin Laden was still alive.

Divergent Views on Acceptable Levels of Violence

Although concerned about counterproductive violence against Muslims, bin Laden’s management of the alliance with AQI/ISI and other groups while he was alive suggests that ISIS’s excessive violence would not have been sufficient to cause the groups to split under his leadership. Under al-Zarqawi, AQI’s violence was so damaging to Al Qaeda that the former head of the bin Laden unit at the Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Scheuer, characterized al-Zarqawi as “the most potent strategic threat al Qaeda faced after 9/11.”93

93. Michael Scheuer, Osama bin Laden (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 141.View all notes

 Despite the damage AQI under al-Zarqawi inflicted on Al Qaeda, bin Laden repeatedly counseled AQI through his deputies with limited, if any, success to better calibrate its violence against Muslims; he did not sever ties, nor did he threaten to do so.
AQI’s indiscriminate and excessive violence persisted after al-Zarqawi’s death, when Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi took over.94

94. Scott-Clark and Levy, The Exile, p. 276View all notes

 During their tenure, the group, now having declared itself a state and thereby deemphasizing its association with Al Qaeda, lost much of the prestige it garnered from al-Zarqawi’s leadership and faced a revolt from Iraqi Sunnis—the exact outcome Al Qaeda forewarned the group to avoid.95

95 Atiyah ‘Abd al-Rahman, Atiyah’s Letter to Zarqawi, 2005, Harmony Database, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

Other Al Qaeda members saw ISI’s violence as too much of a liability, but could not prevail on bin Laden to end the alliance. Adam Gadahn wrote to bin Laden urging him to break ties with ISI because of its violent excesses.96

96. Adam Gadahn, SOCOM-2012-0000004: Letter to unknown, January 2011, Harmony Database, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Despite ISI’s continued misconduct, bin Laden remained unwilling to sever ties. In other words, the problem of excessive violence existed when AQI was at a peak under al-Zarqawi and when ISI was at an ebb under al-Masri, yet bin Laden did not break ties at either point, nor is there evidence that he seriously considered doing so. Bin Laden was steadfast even as the group in Iraq experienced dramatic changes in its strength.97

97. In addition, while one might argue that ISIS had surpassed Al Qaeda in 2013–2014, that was also the case in 2004–2006, during al-Zarqawi’s meteoritic rise and Al Qaeda’s post-9/11 “meager years.” (see Wright, “The Master Plan”). Senior Al Qaeda leader Abu Faraj al-Libi acknowledged as much when he remarked, “[h]ad I known of all of Zarqawi’s activities and capabilities when he first came to al Qaida with a desire to pledge bayat to Usama bin Laden, I would have written a letter to bin Laden advising that the Shaykh [bin Laden] pledge bayat to Abu Musab instead” (Seth Jones, Hunting in the Shadows (New York: W. W. Norton Company, 2012), p. 145).View all notes

 Bin Laden undoubtedly would have been dismayed that the problem continued under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; however, his handling of the alliance until that point suggests that ISIS’s excessive violence would not suffice to end the alliance.
Instead, bin Laden’s track record suggests that he would have focused on persuading ISIS to modify its behavior. To that end, Al Qaeda repeatedly sent emissaries and letters and investigated allegations.98

98. To the noble brother al-Hajj ‘Uthman, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017); Dear honorable brother Shaykh Azmaray, 5 March 2008, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017); Letter-to-Shaykh-Abu-Abdallah-Al-Shafi-I, 26 January 2006, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 It recommended committees to settle differences and the creation of “a special, strong apparatus for following up on the behavior of the mujahidinbrothers and sending whoever necessary, who is accused of violating the rights of the people to be judged.”99

99. To the noble brother al-Hajj ‘Uthman; Dear honorable brother Shaykh Azmaray.View all notes

 Bin Laden’s approach was to find solutions, seek to change the group’s behavior, and retain ties.
Moreover, Al Qaeda even questioned some of the accusations levied against its ally. For example, senior Al Qaeda member and religious scholar Atiyah Abd al-Rahman said to bin Laden in 2007 that Al Qaeda must investigate the allegations, as many “do not pan out after examination.”100

100. Mahmud, My dear Brother ‘Adnan, 15 March 2007, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Bin Laden subsequently attributed some of the charges against ISI to plots by hostile governments, saying “the states in their wickedness have forced some mujahid Islamic groups to the front, so it appears that the conflict is between the mujahidin in al Qaeda and mujahidin in other groups.”101

101. To the noble brother al-Hajj ‘Uthman.View all notes

 Operating at a distance, Al Qaeda sought to investigate and verify accusations against its ally, rather than renounce the group.
In addition, Al Qaeda’s frustration with its allies’ use of violence extended beyond its affiliate in Iraq, but bin Laden encouraged reform rather than dissolution in those instances as well.102

102. SOCOM-2012-0000019, pp. 7–8.View all notes

 Al Qaeda lodged similar complaints about violence against Muslims with al-Shabaab,103

103. SOCOM-2012-0000005, p. 3.View all notes

 the Afghan Taliban, and the Pakistani Taliban,104

104. Letter dated 07 August 2010; Letter to Shaykh Mahmud; Letter to our Honored Commander of the Faithful, 5 November 2010, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017); To our honorable Emir the Emir of all Believers, December 2010, Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 even sending a letter to the Pakistani Taliban reprimanding its gratuitous violence, insisting it reform or face “repercussions.”105

105. Mahmud al-Hasan and Abu Yahya al-Libi, SOCOM-2012-0000007: Letter to Hakimullah Mahsud, 3 December 2010, Harmony Database, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 In the correspondence available, under bin Laden, Al Qaeda did not communicate with AQI/ISI in such a manner. Yet, even in the case of the Pakistani Taliban, which continued to engage in indiscriminate violence despite Al Qaeda’s admonitions, bin Laden did not follow through on threats to punish the Pakistani group or break ties. Despite concern about his allies’ violence,106

106. For example, see Dear Brother Shaykh Mahmud, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 bin Laden’s strategy was to provide counsel and seek ways to persuade others to reform.107

107. One exception occurred in the mid-1990s when bin Laden broke with the Algeria Armed Islamic Group (GIA) after the GIA insulted and threatened him to prevent him from supporting other Algerian groups. See Wright, The Looming Tower, p. 190.View all notes

Different Priorities

The second long-standing issue between Al Qaeda and AQI/ISI was the difference in their priorities. This initially manifested itself in Al Qaeda’s desire for AQI to focus on the United States’ forces in Iraq, while AQI concentrated on the Shi’a. The disagreement shifted slightly when AQI renamed itself ISI, thereby claiming to be a state, which Al Qaeda viewed as premature. From Al Qaeda’s standpoint, the United States must first be sufficiently weakened before forming an Islamic state.
We should stress on the importance of timing in establishing the Islamic State. … We should keep in mind that this main power [the United States] still has the capacity to lay siege on any Islamic State, and that such a siege might force the people to overthrow their duly elected governments. We have to continue with exhausting and depleting them till they become so weak that they can’t overthrow any State that we establish.108

108. Osama bin Laden, Letter Addressed to Atiyah, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

Despite these reservations, bin Laden not only maintained the alliance with ISI, he ordered his lieutenants to defend AQI’s decision to declare itself ISI and even provided the language for al-Zawahiri to use to justify its ally’s declaration.
[I]t had to establish in Iraq a state and an emir to rule these people and facilitate their affairs and preserve sharia law. The trustworthy mujahidin in Iraq have vouched for individuals and have established the state and have agreed upon an emir from among them who is Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi. As for the emir of war in Iraq, we know him and have vouched for him publicly in both video and audio throughout the world.109

109. To the noble brother al-Hajj ‘Uthman; Also see Letter to Shaykh Abu Muhammad 17 August 2007, 17 August 2007, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

In addition, pointing to Al Qaeda and ISIS’s disagreement over which enemies to prioritize and whether to establish an Islamic state as the cause of the alliance rupture overlooks that Al Qaeda experienced these differences with other allies as well. For example, Al Qaeda struggled to compel AQAP, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other allies to focus on the United States, rather than their near enemies, or local regimes.110

110. Dear Brother Shaykh Mahmud; Letter Addressed to Atiyah.View all notes

 Al Qaeda even pressed other allies to forge ceasefire deals with local adversaries, a proposal AQAP strongly rejected.111

111. Mahmud, Letter to Shaykh Abu Abdallah dated 17 July 2010, 17 July 2010, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017); Hajji Uthman, Respected Brother, kind Shaykh, Zamrai, Sahib, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at,%20kind%20Shaykh,%20Zamrai,%20Sahib.pdf(accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 AQAP and Al Qaeda in particular clashed when AQAP sought to exploit the chaos in Yemen to establish a state.112

112. SOCOM-2012-0000016; Mahmud, Letter to Shaykh Abu Abdallah dated 17 July 2010.View all notes

 Moreover, despite bin Laden’s reservations about premature state building, he balanced his opposition by supporting affiliates when they did control territory. For example, bin Laden assigned one of Al Qaeda’s most respected religious scholars, Abu Yahya al-Libi, to support al-Shabaab’s administration of territory.113

113. Mahmud, Letter dated 5 April 2011, 5 April 2011, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

In other words, like the issue of excessive violence, the divergence in Al Qaeda and ISIS’s priorities and beliefs about the timing of erecting an Islamic state was a long-standing and manageable issue. Nor was it unique to Al Qaeda’s alliance with ISIS. Yet, these differences never induced an alliance termination. Instead, under bin Laden, Al Qaeda engaged in dialogue about its views and vision and sought to influence its allies’ conduct.114

114. For example, see Osama bin Laden, Letter dated 07 August 2010, 7 August 2010, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

Moreover, some of the differences between Al Qaeda and ISIS’s priorities actually narrowed after bin Laden’s death. While bin Laden advocated the America-first strategy, al-Zawahiri prized the overthrow of the Egyptian regime, a cause he relinquished only when he had exhausted all other options. Like al-Baghdadi, al-Zawahiri saw the utility of greater focus on the near enemies in the Arab world, particularly after the Arab Spring.115

115. McCants, “How Zawahiri Lost al Qaeda.”View all notes

Lack of Consultation

The third major and recurring problem in the alliance was AQI/ISI’s lack of consultation with Al Qaeda. Over the course of the alliance, AQI/ISI failed to confer with Al Qaeda about numerous major issues: the decision to launch an attack in Jordan in 2005; the successor to al-Zarqawi in 2006, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi in 2010, and Abu Ayyub al-Masri in 2010; and the decision to declare an Islamic State in Iraq in 2006, to name a few. Therefore, al-Baghdadi’s move to declare an Islamic state extending into Syria was not an isolated incident, it was the latest in a series of unilateral moves by the group.
While AQI/ISI’s lack of consultation caused Al Qaeda consternation,116

116. ‘Atiyah ‘Abd al-Rahman, Letter to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi.View all notes

 some of it was a function of the difficulties communicating between Pakistan and Iraq.117

117. Dear honorable brother Shaykh Azmaray, 5 March 2008, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 The two groups continually struggled to circumvent the security environment to communicate, and some of the failed efforts to connect resulted in detentions and public embarrassment. One captured emissary who traveled from Pakistan to Iraq allegedly even provided intelligence that helped the United States to locate bin Laden.118

118. Scott Shane and Charlie Savage, “Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate about Value of Torture,” 3 May 2011, New York Times. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 When bin Laden requested that his advisors communicate with affiliates through couriers to avoid interception, his advisors responded that this approach was simply not possible for communications with ISI.119

119. Gist of conversation Oct 11, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

By the time al-Baghdadi took over, Al Qaeda had adjusted to ISI’s consultation failures to some degree. While Al Qaeda offered its views to ISI about how to select the next leader, in a letter between Al Qaeda senior leaders in 2010, the author denied asking ISI to a delay in the announcement of its new leader in order to consult with Al Qaeda.
In reference to my request to the brothers in Iraq to hold back on announcing the emir, I did that in order to protect the unity of Al-Mujahidin there, and not to have discussions with us on this. … As far as what you mentioned regarding the cons in delaying the announcement of the Amir, we have no doubt about that.120

120. Tunis, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

In other words, while bin Laden would have been dismayed by ISI’s decision to unilaterally expand its writ to Syria, he previously handled ISI errors that were committed without consulting Al Qaeda by privately communicating his concerns through his lieutenants and offering guidance on how to reform going forward.

Difficult Leaders

Problematic leaders from the Iraq side also proved an ongoing issue. Al Qaeda had also found it difficult to deal with al-Zarqawi, al-Masri, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s messiah complex was undoubtedly a difficult challenge, but bin Laden possessed, as Byman explained, the rare qualities necessary to unify “a movement filled with strong and zealous personalities.”121

121. Byman, “Will ISIS and al-Qaida Always Be Rivals?”View all notes

 After all, bin Laden and al-Zarqawi had little affection for one another, even after their first meeting.122

122. Stern and Berger, ISIS, p. 16.View all notes

 Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members saw al-Zarqawi as a thug, yet bin Laden was committed to working with the Jordanian to influence events in Iraq.123

123. Mary Anne Weaver, “The Short, Violent Life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,” The Atlantic, July/August 2006. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 As disgust within Al Qaeda grew over al-Zarqawi’s behavior, bin Laden urged patience.124

124. Scott-Clark and Levy, The Exile, p. 241.View all notes

 Bin Laden clearly valued unity over personal affection for other leaders.
Despite problems with leaders, under bin Laden, Al Qaeda generally adopted a supportive public posture toward AQI/ISI, even when quarreling behind the scenes. For example, while Al Qaeda privately castigated al-Zarqawi for his attacks against Shi’a holy places and beheadings, it publicly declared, “This group and the emir of Jihad, brother Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, and other organizations that joined him, are the best, and they fight under Allah’s orders. And their brave operations against the Americans and ‘Allawi apostate government pleased us.”125

125. Message to Muslim brothers in Iraq and to the Islamic nation, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 While there was sometimes a divergence in Al Qaeda’s public and private view towards AQI/ISI,126

126. Stern and Berger, ISIS, p. 43.View all notes

 bin Laden gave unequivocal private instructions to al-Zawahiri to publically support ISI. Even though bin Laden did not agree with ISI’s decision to declare a state,127

127. Gist of conversation Oct 11.View all notes

 his instructions to his deputy gave no indication that he harbored anger about ISI’s state declaration.
I put before you a very important matter that needs a great amount of effort to eliminate the confusion about the subject of the Islamic State in Iraq. … You must plug this gap, whereby the primary focus of your working plan in the coming period is continuing to support the righteous mujahidin in Iraq—and first among them are our brothers in the Islamic State of Iraq—and to defend them. … And work to rally the people and expose the conspiracies and defeat them in a frank and clear way, meaning your support for the state is visible to the eyes and not hidden to anyone. … The state is yielding and takes what is due from the oppressor and gives it to the oppressed.128

128. To the noble brother al-Hajj ‘Uthman. Also see Letter to the generous Shaykh Abu Muhammad and Letter to Shaykh Abu Muhammad 17 August 2007.View all notes

Bin Laden was so intent on defending ISI that he assigned Atiyah Abd al-Rahman—a now deceased senior Al Qaeda leader and one of its most esteemed religious scholars—to “support and defend the Islamic State of Iraq” and “to refute the suspicions that rose about it,” among other things.129

129. Dear brother Abu-‘Abdallah al-Haj ‘Uthman, 17 December 2007, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 In other words, bin Laden prioritized supporting ISI, even when relations were strained.
In sum, the main factors identified in the strategic explanation as causing the split had been managed under bin Laden for years. Above all, bin Laden was intent on shaping the conduct of other groups and thus had proven averse to severing ties.

Could the Alliance have been Salvaged? A First Image Examination

In contrast to the strategic explanation, a first image argument emphasizes the influence of leaders on outcomes, such as alliance and conflict management. Even some proponents of the strategic explanation acknowledge that leadership played a role in the Al Qaeda and ISIS split. Stern and Berger point out, “[w]hile it’s true to say that al Qaeda saw ISIS as too extreme, it’s more accurate to say that al-Zawahiri fired ISIS for its public defiance of his wishes and commands.”130

130. Stern and Berger, ISIS, p. 179.View all notes

 Hoffman concurs, arguing that, “the differences that do exist between ISIS and al Qaeda are rooted more in clashing egos and tone than in substance.”131

131. Hoffman, “The Coming ISIS-al Qaeda Merger.”View all notes

 In other words, leadership played an important role in the cessation of the alliance. In this section, the article first presents evidence that suggests that bin Laden would have viewed the al Nusra and ISIS dispute differently than al-Zawahiri. In the second section, it compares the leadership qualities of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, in particular, it examines their respective abilities to handle conflict and thereby salvage the alliance.

Evidence of how Bin Laden would have viewed the Dispute

Although al-Nusra had proven a more desirable partner than ISIS, al-Zawahiri’s decision to separate ISIS and al Nusra was inconsistent with bin Laden’s views in two notable ways. First and foremost, endorsing a split between al Nusra and ISIS ran counter to bin Laden’s unwavering promotion of unity, which he viewed as a strategic necessity, a religious requirement, and an organizational imperative. A public statement to the “Islamic Nation” captured his view:
I remind the Mujahidin that uniting under unification is not a minor thing, but rather one of the most important duties. Therefore, it should be given attention, and the Jihadi organizations must unify and arrange among each other to get united, under one banner.132

132. Message to Muslim brothers in Iraq and to the Islamic nation.View all notes

Bin Laden had parochial reasons for seeking unity: it was a means to bring other groups under Al Qaeda’s rubric. For example, in urging the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to merge with Al Qaeda, bin Laden told al-Zawahiri to “please remind them that unity is a duty and it should not be postponed.” He similarly characterized al-Zarqawi’s alliance with Al Qaeda as a reflection of “the duty of unification.”133

133. Letter to Shaykh Abu Muhammad 17 August 2007.View all notes

 Affiliate alliances were a critical component to Al Qaeda’s pursuit of unity. Byman defined an affiliate as “a terrorist organization that accepts the leadership of another terrorist organization but remains organizationally distinct.”134

134. Daniel Byman, “Buddies or Burdens? Understanding the Al Qaeda Relationship with Its Affiliate Organizations,” Security Studies23(3) (2014), p. 434.View all notes

 At the time of bin Laden’s death, Al Qaeda had four affiliates: AQI, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQAP, and al-Shabaab.
However, bin Laden’s focus on unity was not limited to bringing groups under Al Qaeda’s auspices.135

135. See for example, the emphasis on unity in Jihad in Pakistan, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Bin Laden actively promoted unity among Afghan jihadist factions in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal.136

136. Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, pp. 75–76.View all notes

 The failure of Afghan factions to unite and the consequences for it—squandering the defeat of the Soviet Union—made a lasting impression on bin Laden, and he subsequently argued that “[p]olitical differences in Islam that divide Muslims are considered evil.”137

137. As cited in Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, p. 86.View all notes

 Seeing first-hand how a lack of unity could waste a victory cemented his prioritization of uniting jihadists in the campaign against the United States.
His emphasis on unity also stemmed from his belief that it was a strategic imperative, given the “Crusader-Zionist alliance.” “Fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,” he exhorted fellow jihadists on multiple occasions.138

138. Usamah Bin-Muhammad Bin-Ladin, “Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders: World Islamic Front Statement,” 23 February 1998. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Nowhere was bin Laden more intent on promoting unity than in Iraq.139

139. Letter-to-Shaykh-Abu-Abdallah-Al-Shafi-I; Letter to Special Committee of al-Jihad’s Qa’ida of the Mujahidin Affairs in Iraq and to the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, 26 January 2006, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Under his leadership, Al Qaeda constantly urged unity among the Sunni groups in Iraq as a religious necessity and a strategic requirement. In promoting the religious obligation to unite, bin Laden repeatedly drew from examples in Islam’s history. He cited Ibn Taymiyyah, for example, saying “unity is mercy, disunity is torture” and urging Sunni Iraqis—he called them “grandchildren of Saladin”—to unite.140

140. Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, pp. 148–149.View all notes

 He also pulled from the Koran, citing the verse for example, “Take shelter in Allah’s rope and do not separate from Him,” to encourage unity in Iraq.141

141. Bin Laden, Message to Muslim brothers in Iraq and to the Islamic nation. Also see Letter to Special Committee of al-Jihad’s Qa’ida of the Mujahidin Affairs in Iraq and to the Ansar al-Sunnah Army.View all notes

Al Qaeda’s handling of the strife between ISI and Ansar al-Islam (aka Ansar al-Sunna) reflected bin Laden’s conviction that unity was paramount. Despite serious accusations from Ansar al-Islam about ISI’s conduct, Al Qaeda repeatedly pressured its Kurdish ally to unite with ISI. Al Qaeda’s insistence on unity is even more telling because Al Qaeda’s relationship with Ansar al-Islam predated its alliance with AQI. Al Qaeda held Ansar al-Islam in high esteem, writing that “our honorable Shaykh [bin Laden] and the Mujahidin brothers here have great respect and appreciation for the Army of Ansar al-Sunnah [Ansar al-Islam], and they consider them and us one item.”142

142. Letter to Special Committee of al-Jihad’s Qa’ida of the Mujahidin Affairs in Iraq and to the Ansar al-Sunnah Army. For another senior Al Qaeda letter’s religious and political arguments in favor of unity, which are consistent with bin Laden’s views, see Letter from Abu Yahya, November 2009, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Nonetheless, when Ansar al-Islam complained to Al Qaeda about AQI/ISI’s conduct,143

143. Letter to Shaykh Abu-‘Abdallah al-Shafi’i.View all notes

 Al Qaeda responded by reiterating bin Laden’s desire for unity between AQI/ISI and Ansar al-Islam above everything else.144

144. Letter to Special Committee of al-Jihad’s Qa’ida of the Mujahidin Affairs in Iraq and to the Ansar al-Sunnah Army.View all notes

 Bin Laden also instructed his lieutenants to communicate to ISI the need to mend fences with Ansar and to “avoid disagreements and conflicts.”145

145. Letter dated 7 August 2010.View all notes

 Shortly before his death, bin Laden professed the hope that al-Baghdadi’s appointment would improve unity and instructed Atiyah “to … remind them [Ansar al-Islam] to exert their utmost efforts to seek unity and resolve differences between the different jihadi entities in Iraq.”146

146. SOCOM-2012-0000019, p. 34.View all notes

Al Qaeda even advocated for unity in the face of grave accusations coming from Sunni groups in Iraq about AQI/ISI’s behavior, accusations that would arise again in 2013.147

147. Jihad and Reform Front 22 May 2007, 22 May 2007, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017); Dear Brother Abu al-‘Abbas, 5 April 2007, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017); Message from one of Shaykh Hamid’s students (undated), “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017); SOCOM-2012-0000011: Letter to Hafiz Sultan, Harmony Database, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Al Qaeda treated these accusations with some skepticism, even those coming from groups it trusted, sensing exaggeration and feeling “that the stories lack[ed] accuracy.”148

148. Dear Brother Abu al-‘Abbas.View all notes

Overall, bin Laden’s consistent and unwavering emphasis on unity led Scheuer to conclude that “bin Laden has always argued that if Islam is to be defended there must be unity among Muslims. … [H]e has consistently argued that … differences … must not be allowed to hamstring Muslims from uniting against a common enemy.”149

149. Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, p. 41.View all notes

 A ruling from him that endorsed division would have been unprecedented and inconsistent with his relentless promotion of unity.
Second, al-Zawahiri’s ruling was inconsistent with bin Laden’s views because al-Zawahiri adhered to the “artificial” borders imposed by the Sykes-Picot agreement, a deficit that al-Baghdadi also used to delegitimize al-Zawahiri’s ruling. Bin Laden had repeatedly declared his opposition to these borders. As Coll explained, “He rejected the borders of many nation-states as illegitimate lines drawn by pagan colonialists.”150

150. Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century (New York: Penguin Press, 2008), p. 8460. Kindle edition.View all notes

 Consequently, he assigned Al Qaeda’s affiliates regional responsibilities that abdicated the existing national boundaries. For example, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s purview expanded from Libya to Mauritania, while al-Shabaab had authority over the Horn of Africa.151

151. Letter to Uthman, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Also, Al Qaeda anointed al-Zarqawi’s group as Al Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers/Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia instead of just Al Qaeda in Iraq, which could be interpreted to include Iraq and some parts of Syria as well as Iran and Turkey. Al Qaeda’s decision, or at least concurrence with ISI’s decision, to send personnel into Syria suggests that it agreed that Syria fell under the group’s mandate. Either way, al-Zawahiri’s adherence to national boundaries in his edict ran counter to bin Laden’s abdication of these boundaries.
Taken together, bin Laden’s commitment to unifying jihadist forces and rejection of national boundaries strongly suggests that he would not have ordered a split between al Nusra and ISIS. This does not necessarily mean that he would have accepted ISIS’s power play either, more likely seeking a compromise that ensured unity and local leadership in the insurgencies. Moreover, his rejection of the current national boundaries makes it difficult to fathom that he would use them to delineate responsibility between two Al Qaeda allies.

Bin Laden versus Al-Zawahiri: A Leadership Comparison

The first question that arises when assessing whether leadership was a factor in the Al Qaeda and ISIS dispute is: what was bin Laden’s role in interactions with the affiliates? Admittedly, Al Qaeda did not rely solely on bin Laden to keep the affiliates in line. As exemplified by Shapiro’s “terrorist dilemma,” due to the dangers posed by counterterror initiatives, leaders must often sacrifice operational control to retain operational security.152

152. Jacob N. Shapiro, The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), chap. 1.View all notes

 As a result, bin Laden’s deputies, particularly al-Zawahiri, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, and Abu Yahya al-Libi, undertook much of the communication with the affiliates, conveying Al Qaeda’s guidance, counsel, and policies as well as sometimes seeking assistance.153

153. Abu Yahya al-Libi’s death in 2012 and Atiyah Abd al-Rahman’s death in 2011—both respected Al Qaeda theologians—also harmed al-Zawahiri’s ability to manage the dispute with ISIS. Bin Laden would also have struggled without their counsel, but was still far more able than al-Zawahiri to manage the conflict. We thank the anonymous reviewer for this point.View all notes

However, behind the scenes, bin Laden was extensively involved as well, seeking updates and issuing guidance to send to the affiliates through his deputies.154

154. At times his deputies felt bin Laden was too involved. See Scott-Clark and Levy, The Exile, p. 351.View all notes

 Bin Laden would also communicate to his deputies whether he approved of how they dealt with situations. For example, he chastised al-Zawahiri for making public Al Qaeda’s frustrations with al-Zarqawi, saying that such matters should be handled privately.155

155. Scott-Clark and Levy, The Exile, p. 243.View all notes

 Given the security concerns, bin Laden sometimes could not be involved to the degree that he would have liked; he was, as Bergen and Cruikshank argued, a “hands-on leader.”156

156. Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, “Revisiting the Early Al Qaeda: An Updated Account of Its Formative Years,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 35(1) (2012), pp. 1–36.View all notes

Nonetheless, when it came to major issues with the affiliates, bin Laden was consistently involved and his decisions were the final word. This was increasingly the case as trusted members of bin Laden’s shura council were captured or killed,157

157. The Long War Journal reports that the U.S. drone strike campaign in Pakistan alone killed over fifty senior Al Qaeda members between 2004 and 2010. Several members of the Al Qaeda shura council, or individuals that are otherwise identified as having close relations with bin Laden, were either killed or captured in the decade leading up to bin Laden’s death, such as: Abu Hafs al-Masri (killed November 2001), Muhammad Atef (killed November 2001), Abu Mohammed al-Masri (detained in Iran from around 2003–2015), Saif Al-Adel (detained in Iran from around 2003–2015), Sayeed al-Masri (killed May 2010), and Abu al-Khayr al-Masri (detained around 2003–2015). The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “US Strikes in Pakistan,” The Long War Journal. June 14, 2017. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017); Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Senior Al Qaeda Leaders Reportedly Released from Custody in Iran,” Long War Journal18 September 2015. (accessed 8 August 2017); Scott-Clark and Levy, The Exile, pp. 494–496.View all notes

 and replaced with senior leaders with whom he was less likely to consult.
An insightful illustration of bin Laden’s role vis-à-vis the affiliates occurred when Al Qaeda decided to make al-Shabaab an affiliate. Initially, one of the major components of the affiliate alliance was that the subordinate group publicly adopted Al Qaeda’s name. However, bin Laden grew concerned about the Al Qaeda name, even contemplating changing it.158

158. SOCOM-2012-0000009, Undated, Harmony Database, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Then, in 2010, when bin Laden was deciding whether to make al-Shabaab an affiliate, the issue of whether to make the relationship public was a point of contention. Bin Laden decided that al-Shabaab should become an affiliate, but unlike previous arrangements, there would be no name change and the affiliation would be private; neither group would publicly announce or tout it. He wrote:
Now, in relation to the issue of unity, I see that this obligation should be carried out legitimately and through unannounced secret messaging, by spreading this matter among the people of Somalia, without any official declaration by any officers on our side or your side, that the unity has taken place.159

159. “SOCOM-2012-0000005,” p. 1.View all notes

Al-Zawahiri urged bin Laden to reconsider his decision to keep al-Shabaab’s affiliation private, to no avail. While bin Laden told al-Shabaab that the reasons for private affiliation were to avoid increased counterterrorism pressure and keep funding avenues open for al-Shabaab, al-Zawahiri feared that bin Laden was heeding the concerns of some who worried Al Qaeda was “inflating its size and growth.” He urged bin Laden t reconsider his “opinion not to declare the accession of the brothers of Somalia.”

160. SOCOM-2012-0000006: Letter to Azmarai, December 2010, “Letters from Abbottabad,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Nonetheless, al-Shabaab remained a private affiliate until after bin Laden’s death, when al-Zawahiri announced al-Shabaab as an affiliate in February 2012. While there was no public announcement, in the interim, Al Qaeda took the need to support al-Shabaab seriously, providing guidance and input on how it should govern, its attacks and targets, economic opportunities, and religious counsel, as it did with other affiliates.

161. Zamaray (Usama bin Laden), “Letter to Abu Yahya,” “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 19 January 2017, pp. 1–2. Available at September 15, 2017); “Letter about efforts in other regions,” “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 19 January 2017, pp. 1–3. Available at September 15, 2017); Azmarai (Usama bin Laden), “Letter dated 07 August 2010,” “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 20 May 2015, pp. 1–4. Available at September 15, 2017); Abu ‘Abdullah (Usama bin Laden), SOCOM-2012-0000010: Letter to Shaykh Mahmud, “Letters from Abbottabad,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 It also sent messages to encourage the Somali group.

162. Mahmud (Atiyah Abd al-Rahman), “Letter dated 5 April 2011,” “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 20 May 2015, p. 4. Available at September 15, 2017); Mahmud (Atiyah Abd al-Rahman), “Letter to Shaykh Abu Abdallah dated 17 July 2010,” “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 20 May 2015, pp. 2–3. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 Thus, while bin Laden solicited and accepted input from others, he made the final decision on such matters.
This leads to a related and equally important second question: would bin Laden have handled the dispute with ISIS more effectively than al-Zawahiri and thus forestalled an alliance rupture? To assess this question, it is critical to first identify what qualities are conducive to alliance management, particularly when conflict arises. First, given that the dispute between al Nusra and ISIS involved two powerful entities with ambitious leaders, the Al Qaeda leader had to be sufficiently credible and respected that his ruling would be accepted or, at a minimum, not publicly rejected. Second, given that tensions were running high between Al Qaeda’s allies, the Al Qaeda leader needed to be diplomatic and capable of defusing tensions. Third, given that both groups were convinced of their positions, the Al Qaeda leader had to be able to persuasively justify his position to both sides and skillfully articulate that position.


Based on these criteria, al-Zawahiri’s relative shortfalls are quickly apparent, particularly in his inability to command the respect of al-Baghdadi and al-Jolani. Bin Laden possessed a unique combination of characteristics that had earned him the respect of fellow jihadists for decades. As Byman explained, bin Laden was a “charismatic yet humble man who did not demand adulation but inspired those around him; an ideal combination for unifying a movement.”

163. Byman, “Will ISIS and al-Qaida Always Be Rivals?”View all notes

 He enjoyed considerable prestige, which bordered on mythic status, derived from his ability to confront superpowers—from the Battle of Jaji against Soviet forces in Afghanistan to 9/11—and survive against long odds, thereby perpetuating the notion that he received divine help.

164. Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, p. 132.View all notes

 His leadership enjoyed such credibility that others followed him even when they believed he was wrong.

165. See for example, Ari R. Weisfuse, “The Last Hope for the al-Qaida Old Guard? A Profile of Saif al-‘Adl,” 17 March 2016, CTC Sentinel, CTC West Point. Available at September 15, 2017) on ‘Adl’s disagreement about 9/11. See Peter Bergen, The Osama I Know: An Oral History of Al Qaeda’s Leader (New York, NY: Free Press, 2006), p. 51 on Abu Ubaydah al-Banshiri’s view that putting the al-Masada camp in Jaji during the anti-Soviet jihad was militarily unwise.View all notes

Bin Laden’s ability to maintain legitimacy and credibility in the movement for over two decades was partially derived from the way he presented himself: as a man who sacrificed everything for Islam. He built the legend of a “rich man who live[d] like the poor, a socially advantaged man who was prepared to sacrifice everything for his religion, a fighter who would not waver in the face of death.”166

166. Essam Deraz in Coll, The Bin Ladens, p. 4539.View all notes

 He adopted what Coll characterized as a “posture of ardent Islamic devotion from which he would never deviate.”167

167. Coll, The Bin Ladens, p. 2991.View all notes

 Perhaps most importantly, as Coll argued, he saw himself as an:
inspirer of jihad, not a cult leader or dictator. … He had long thought of himself not as the general of an Islamic army or the self-anointed ruler of a prospective caliphate, but as the vanguard of a much broader and looser Islamic political resistance, in which his own band of violent operators would play no more than a galvanizing role.168

168. Ibid., pp. 4963, 8470.View all notes

In contrast, al-Zawahiri’s leadership is, as Byman plainly stated, “much less compelling.”

169. Daniel L. Byman and Jennifer R. Williams, “ISIS vs. Al Qaeda: Jihadism’s Global Civil War,” The Brookings Institution, 24 February 2015. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 By all accounts, al-Zawahiri is highly intelligent, but lacks “[b]in Laden’s charisma and conciliatory personality.”

170. Byman, “Will ISIS and al-Qaida Always Be Rivals?”View all notes

 Soufan argues that, “for all of his intelligence, his cunning, and his zeal, al-Zawahiri possesses none of the charisma bin Laden had. Indeed, his personality alienated many people over the years.”

171. Ali Soufan, Anatomy of Terror(W.W. Norton & Company, 2017), Kindle Edition, p. 107.View all notes

 Al-Zawahiri did not ascend to lead either Al Qaeda or the organization he led prior, al-Jihad, because others followed him. Rather, he inherited this role when his more capable and charismatic superiors were removed. Accounts of al-Zawahiri portray him as “an awkward, withdrawn, disputatious man of little grace and much violence.”172

172. Coll, Ghost Wars, p. 7311.View all notes

 Within al-Jihad, “the introverted physician was often overshadowed by his more charismatic and domineering colleagues.”173

173. Lawrence Wright, “The Man Behind Bin Laden: How an Egyptian Doctor became a Master of Terror,” The New Yorker, 16 September 2002. Available at (accessed September 15, 2017).View all notes

 In fact, some in al-Jihad saw him as unfit to lead. One of al-Jihad’s early leaders, Major Essam al-Qamar, observed that there was “something missing’” in al-Zawahiri that made him unsuitable to be a leader.174

174. Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), p. 49.View all notes

Qamar’s words would prove prescient as the path that led al-Zawahiri to become bin Laden’s deputy was littered with leadership failures. Scheuer summed it up saying:
Zawahiri was inept at running the EIJ’s [al-Jihad] international cells, and his mistakes allowed Egyptian intelligence to wreck the network—forcing al-Zawahiri to seek out bin Laden’s aid and accept his direction. Al-Zawahiri and his lieutenants completely failed to damage the Egyptian government—and so accepted bin Laden’s plan to knock the U.S. props from under Mubarak’s regime. … Al-Zawahiri was unable to raise any significant amount of money and was all but broke—and so was forced to begin working with bin Laden.175

175. Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, p. 14.View all notes

At the helm of al-Jihad and then Al Qaeda, more charismatic rivals with religious credentials repeatedly overshadowed al-Zawahiri. As would occur in 2013 with al-Baghdadi, in the 1980s and 1990s, al-Zawahiri struggled because he lacked the charisma, celebrity, or credentials of rivals including bin Laden’s mentor Abdullah Azzam or al-Gama Islamiyah’s spiritual leader, the Blind Sheikh.
Moreover, as the leader of al-Jihad, al-Zawahiri led his group from disaster to failure. The group’s first two attacks failed to kill the targeted Egyptian officials.

176. Wright, The Looming Tower, pp. 185, 186.View all notes

 Even the group’s most successful attack—a suicide truck bomb attack against the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad in 1995—caused dissension. This attack endangered a sanctuary for jihadistsand the main route into Afghanistan. Also, within al-Jihad, some expressed disquiet about targeting civilians in the embassy and the use of suicide operations. Such internal turmoil prompted al-Zawahiri to issue a statement the following year that defended the attack against the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad by pointing to the Embassy’s activities against al-Jihad, the recent extradition agreement between the two countries, and Islamabad’s persecution of the mujahidin.177

177. Ibid., p. 217; Camille Tawil, Brothers in Arms: The Story of al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists(London: Saqi Books, 2010), p. 108.View all notes

 Following this series of operational failures, al-Zawahiri privately ordered a ceasefire within al-Jihad, which would become permanent in the face of the group’s inability to recover.178

178. Fawaz A. Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 129.View all notes


Second, to effectively handle the al Nusra and ISI conflict, the Al Qaeda leader needed to have the ability to defuse tensions. Bin Laden consistently demonstrated an ability to manage tensions with his humble style, while al-Zawahiri repeatedly exacerbated conflict with his dictatorial manner. Bin Laden held “himself above the fray” of the infighting that plagued the Sunni jihadist movement and strove to prevent and address disagreements among jihadists in a calm manner.

179. Coll, The Bin Ladens, p. 4957; In the name of Allah, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017); Osama bin Laden, Letter to Shaykh Mahmud and Shaykh Abu Yahya, 4 December 2010, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017); Osama bin Laden, Letter to my two noble brothers, Abu Muhammad and Abu Khalid, 14 January 2011, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017); Osama bin Laden, Letter to the generous Shaykh Abu Muhammad; Abu ‘Abdallah, Letter to Abu Khalid, “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 It was a quality that he developed while working for his family’s construction company, where he needed to manage problems between hs workers and between the company and Saudi officials without offending others.

180. Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, p. 7; Coll, The Bin Ladens, pp. 4538–4546.View all notes

While bin Laden grappled with a fair share of divergent views and disagreements, it is telling that Al Qaeda did not experience a major splinter of consequence under his leadership, a rarity among terrorist organizations, which speaks to bin Laden’s diplomatic prowess.
Not only would these characteristics have helped bin Laden reduce the tensions between al Nusra and ISIS, his approach would have served him well if ISIS pushed back on his ruling. Except for his avowed enemies, bin Laden consistently avoided attacking or repudiating those who denounced him. He did not disavow his family, friends, or even the Sudanese regime, which bilked him for significant investments and betrayed him.181

181. Coll, The Bin Ladens, p. 336; Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, pp. 2, 103.View all notes

Similarly, though deeply frustrated with the Afghan factions’ failure to coalesce after the Soviet withdrawal, he refused to criticize Afghan leaders

182. Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, p. 104.View all notes

 Thus, he was unlikely to over-react to ISIS’s discontent or “fire ISIS for its public defiance” as al-Zawahiri did.
Moreover, bin Laden rarely experienced acrimonious breaks with those he disagreed with because of his ability to manage dissent. Tawil noted that when other jihadists broke with bin Laden, “their decision to strike out on their own did not sour their relationships with bin Laden, with him they were to remain on cordial terms.”183

183. Tawil, Brothers in Arms, p. 32.View all notes

 As Scheuer explained, although he regretted and hoped to remedy divergent religious beliefs, bin Laden rarely faulted others for these beliefs and believed they should not prevent Muslims from uniting against the enemy.

184. Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, p. 40.View all notes

Whereas Bin Laden was clearly adept at managing disagreement, al-Zawahiri was a constant source of tension and conflict. McCants captured the consequence when he said that, “Like any sprawling organization, al Qaeda has seen its fair share of bureaucratic infighting. But the squabbling has reached fever pitch since Ayman al-Zawahiri began his tenure as head of the organization.”

185. McCants, “How Zawahiri Lost al Qaeda.”View all notes

 An examination of al-Zawahiri’s past reveals a man who was, as Coll put it, involved in “endless internal battles over ideology, power, and leadership, struggles in which al-Zawahiri became increasingly isolated and reviled even among hard-core Egyptian radicals. This was not bin Laden’s style.”

186. Coll, Ghost Wars, p. 7311.View all notes

 His former cellmate characterized al-Zawahiri as someone who “has always insistently preferred his own opinion despite his humbleness. He has always tended to get into clashes with those who do not agree with him, despite his tolerance.”187

187. Muntaair Zayyāt and Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabiʻ, The Road to Al-Qaeda: The Story of Bin Lāden’s Right-Hand Man (London; Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 2004), p. 104.View all notes

 Conversely, bin Laden ingratiated himself with many Islamists, “even those whose outlooks and interests differed markedly from his own.”

188. Coll, Ghost Wars, p. 7311.View all notes

In addition to personal abrasiveness, al-Zawahiri has exacerbated his group’s rivalries in the past, a tendency that would compound problems with ISIS. Early on, al-Zawahiri not only rejected the Muslim Brotherhood because of its decision to renounce violence and work within Egypt’s political system, he authored a book titled Bitter Harvest, which consisted of an “interminable string of accusations and recriminations” against the Brotherhood.

189. Tawil, Brothers in Arms, pp. 38, 44–45.View all notes

 Gerges described the book as a platform for a vitriolic attack on the Muslim Brotherhood.

190. Gerges, The Far Enemy, p. 111.View all notes

Similarly, al-Jihad and al-Gam’a Islamiyah, a rival Egyptian Salafist jihadist organization that also sought the overthrow of the Egyptian regime during the 1990s, repeatedly failed to overcome their differences and unite in pursuit of their common cause. While the blame does not lie solely with al-Zawahiri, he exacerbated al-Jihad and al-Gama’a Islamiyah’s rivalry. Although his colleagues urged him to moderate his discourse, al-Zawahiri wrote a lengthy treatise rejecting al-Gama’s spiritual leader, the Blind Sheikh, as unfit to lead because of his blindness, paving the way for their future inability to work together.

191. Michael Scheuer, Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2006), p. 186; Wright, “The Man behind Bin Laden.”View all notes

 In the late 1990s, when bin Laden tried to unify the Arab jihadist groups’ efforts in Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri devised ways to exclude al-Gama’a Islamiyah.

192. Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan (London: C. Hurst and Co., 2015), pp. 265–266.View all notes

Consequently, when al-Gama’a Islamiyah declared a ceasefire in the late 1990s, al-Zawahiri could not dissuade the group, despite his repeated attempts. In the wake of his failure, al-Zawahiri launched what his former cellmate characterized as “an acute attack on all the people that had anything to do with it.”

193. Zayyāt and Abu-Rabiʻ, The Road to Al-Qaeda, p. 73.View all notes

 Once again, al-Zawahiri was the source of tensions, rather than someone who mitigated them.
Al-Zawahiri’s tendency to cause conflict was not limited to external rivals, as he compounded al-Jihad’s internal dissension in the 1990s. He undertook actions by fiat—without consulting al-Jihad’s leadership shura—such as signing onto bin Laden’s 1998 International Front Against Jews and Crusaders, which committed his organization to pursing a different cause than the one that animated most members.194

194. Tawil, Brothers in Arms, p. 15; Andrew Higgins and Alan Cullison, “Saga of Dr. Zawahiri Sheds Light On the Roots of al Qaeda Terror,” The Wall Street Journal, 2 July 2002. Available at September 15, 2017).View all notes

 No one was immune from fallouts with al-Zawahiri; he even denounced his own brother.195

195. Higgins and Cullison, “Saga of Dr. Zawahiri Sheds Light On the Roots of al Qaeda Terror.”View all notes

 Al-Jihad’s Yemen chapter ran through three leaders in just a few months, and many members left al-Jihad because of differences with al-Zawahiri. After one particularly contentious meeting, one al-Jihad member wrote “I always felt this entity may dissolve in seconds.”196

196. Ibid.View all notes

The much-heralded merger between Al Qaeda and al-Jihad in 2001 only involved a handful of al-Jihad members, because the rest of the group was dead, jailed, or rejected the move and al-Zawahiri’s leadership.
Zawahiri’s leadership failures while emir of al-Jihad are even more telling when one considers the organization’s small size and homogeneity. In contrast, bin Laden created and managed a multinational organization with meers hailing from different countries, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

197. Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, p. 166.View all notes

 Nonetheless, under al-Zawahiri’s leadership, al-Jihad devolved into endless infighting and dysfunction, with many colleagues repudiating their leader and the group splintering “into angry and homeless gangs.”

198. Wright, The Looming Tower, p. 217; Coll, Ghost Wars, p. 7339.View all notes

Bin Laden could defuse tensions in part because he was not a harsh leader, unlike al-Zawahiri and many terrorist leaders who “established power over their groups by routinely executing rivals or transgressors.”

199. Coll, Ghost Wars, p. 5169.View all notes

 After the apprehension of a would-be assassin in Afghanistan, described by bin Laden’s bodyguard as crying and looking “like a child,” bin Laden ordered his release.200

200. Peter L. Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader (New York: Free Press, 2006), p. 241.View all notes

 In contrast, when al-Zawahiri learned of a plan to assassinate him involving the Egyptian intelligence services’ coercive recruitment of two teenage boys, including the son of an al-Jihad member, he had both boys killed.

201. Tawil, Brothers in Arms, p. 110.View all notes

Similarly, when bin Laden found out a close aid was stealing from him, he only asked that the money be repaid and lectured the man about improving his dedication to jihad.202

202. Coll, Ghost Wars, p. 5169.View all notes

 In contrast, al-Zawahiri’s berating of a subordinate over an unnecessary expense of a $470 fax machine led to the man’s resignation.

203. Higgins and Cullison, “Saga of Dr. Zawahiri Sheds Light On the Roots of al Qaeda Terror.”View all notes

 Al-Zawahiri escalated conflicts, while bin Laden sought to defuse them.

Justification for his Position

Finally, to manage the al Nusra and ISIS conflict, the Al Qaeda leader had to offer a justification for his position that would skillfully articulate his position and persuade both sides. Al-Zawahiri’s ruling was woefully inadequate on this score. He offered no explanation or justification for his instructions that al Nusra should act as Al Qaeda’s representative in Syria, while ISIS must return to operating only in Iraq. He both praised and chastised the groups and then issued a ruling without explaining the basis of it. Once again, he expected his orders to be followed simply because he issued them.
Bin Laden’s writings, particularly those that offer recommendations or instructions to others, are replete with religious explanations and analogies to justify his positions.204

204. See for example his emphasis on the need to use “Shari’a evidence and logical assessment” to persuade allies of a controversial position in Letter Addressed to Atiyah, p. 3.View all notes

Bin Laden’s use of scripture, history, and the Sunnah gave his opinions credibility and insulated him from being summarily dismissed, as occurred with al-Zawahiri. Yet, bin Laden was not a religious scholar nor did he claim to be one, claiming, as Scheuer recounted, “only to be a ‘humble slave of God’ forced to into this role because the Islamic world’s ‘illustrious scholars’ have been silenced.”

205. Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, p. 164.View all notes

 While some pointed to his lack of formal religious training as weakness, Scheuer argues that as a consequence, he lacked “the dogmatism often associated with the professional theologian.”206

206. Ibid., p. 41.View all notes

 In addition, because of his lack of formal religious credentials, he sought input from the religious scholars within Al Qaeda in order to make decisions, which he publically acknowledged when he said, “My job is not to lead but to follow. … I always seek guidance from many great religious scholars.”207

207. As cited in Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, p. 164.View all notes

When bin Laden’s decisions did not provide a religious justification, he offered political rationales for his decisions, usually framing them in terms of the best interest of others. For example, when he opted to maintain a private alliance with al-Shabaab, he justified doing so by saying that this would protect al-Shabaab from counterterrorism pressure and allow it to more readily attract funds from the Gulf.208

208. SOCOM-2012-0000005, pp. 1–2.View all notes

Bin Laden’s rulings were even more effective because he was a skilled speaker and writer. As Scheuer argued, he “speaks with an eloquence that can alternately comfort and inspire his listeners.”209

209. Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, p. 167.View all notes

 Scheuer continued, saying that his lyrical and poetic brand of classical Arabic—combined with a comprehensive knowledge of the Koran and the hadith—allowed him to communicate effectively with the Muslim world and provided a familiar frame of reference for listeners.210

210. Ibid., p. 166.View all notes

 Again, al-Zawahiri suffers by comparison. Al-Zawahiri’s former cellmate acknowledged that “Zawahiri does not possess bin Laden’s orational or preaching skills…,” as “bin Laden has the ability to reach the hearts of people with simple words.”211

211. Zayyāt and Abu-Rabiʻ, The Road to Al-Qaeda, pp. 10, 51.View all notes

 Scott-Clark and Levy claim that even bin Laden disliked his deputy’s “hectoring and pedantic tone.”212

212. Scott-Clark and Levy, The Exile, p. 258.View all notes

Bin Laden was far from a perfect leader. He was criticized as being vain, single-minded, and unwilling to heed counsel once he decided on a course of action. Al Qaeda’s most consequential act, the 9/11 attacks, were an example of bin Laden refusing to heed the shura council’s input and the Afghan Taliban’s orders.213

213. Ibid., pp. 5, 47.View all notes

 However, this comparative counterfactual analysis suggests that not only would bin Laden have viewed the conflict between al Nusra and ISIS differently than al-Zawahiri, he would have been more capable at managing the dispute and hard feelings stemming from it. In other words, the alliance was troubled, but not doomed. The change in Al Qaeda’s leadership was key to the alliance outcome.

Implications and Recommendations

The findings in this article suggest the need for a careful evaluation of the targeted leader and his or her likely successor. By employing counterfactuals to examine the strength of individual and systemic explanations for the split between Al Qaeda and ISIS, the article concludes that individual leaders can factor greatly into outcomes of seminal events. The systemic explanation of the split—that Al Qaeda and ISIS would have inevitably experienced the break because of irreconcilable differences in 2013—possesses some weaknesses. Despite the numerous problems cited in the strategic explanation for the split—including divergent views on acceptable levels of violence, disparate priorities, lack of consultation, and intractable leaders in 2013—Al Qaeda had encountered these challenges in the preceding decade and maintained the alliance with its partner in Iraq nonetheless.
On the other hand, the first image explanation offers a much more compelling argument for the Al Qaeda–ISIS split. Whether bin Laden or al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda shaped the group’s priorities, preferences, and credibility in the eyes of Al Qaeda’s allies. Also, Al Qaeda’s leader impacted the group’s diplomatic strategies and persuasiveness when offering unwelcome rulings to an ally. In short, the capabilities of Al Qaeda’s leader determined the group’s ability to prevent the alliance rupture.
Although the findings highlight the importance of terrorist leaders, they neither prescribe nor proscribe leadership decapitation. Instead, they suggest the need for a careful evaluation of the targeted leader and his likely successor. States must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of leadership decapitation against a particular terrorist group before they commit to the practice. As the article explored, the elimination of bin Laden promoted a deputy less capable of managing the group’s alliances, exacerbated the Al Qaeda–ISIS fissure, and weakened Al Qaeda in several veins. However, the same example displays how the splintering of terrorist alliances can also prompt adverse and unforeseen consequences, as evidenced by the subsequent surge of ISIS.
Since leadership decapitation remains an essential component of U.S. counterterrorism policy against ISIS and other terrorist groups, this study contains multiple implications for scholars and policymakers alike.
First, individuals matter, and terrorist leaders’ impact on a group’s ability to manage its alliances should not be ignored in terrorism scholarship and counterterrorism policymaking. As demonstrated through the counterfactual analysis of the Al Qaeda–ISIS split, terrorist leaders shape their groups’ priorities, preferences, and credibility in the eyes of allies. In other words, the qualities of terrorist leaders can determine the group’s goals, strategies, and ability to manage alliances.
Second, counterfactual analysis has value for developing counterterrorism strategy. Counterfactual analysis offers a useful heuristic for reviewing past policy decisions. For instance, the examination of counterfactual trajectories had bin Laden survived enabled the ability to determine which course of events proved most devastating to the group’s ability to maintain alliances. Likewise, counterfactual analysis offers a creative tool to examine policies authorized against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS (and other terrorist organizations). Just as the employment of counterfactuals helped determine the decisive variable maintaining Al Qaeda’s alliances, intelligence analysts or military strategists could employ counterfactual analysis to determine the decisive variables enabling ISIS’s success in various respects. In other words, counterfactual analysis could help policymakers isolate the most effective policy to implement against a terrorist group.
Third, leadership decapitation can exacerbate fissures within a terrorist organization and drive allies apart. Of course, one cannot confidently say that the United States is “better off” due to the Al Qaeda–ISIS split or that the alliance would not have ended at some subsequent juncture. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of al-Zawahiri and bin Laden demonstrates how the ascension of a less capable leader can accelerate the fracturing of a terrorist alliance. These fractures can diminish a group’s operational reach and harm a group’s image in the eyes of potential recruits and other allies.
Fourth, assessing the utility of leadership decapitation in any case requires an examination of the current leader’s capabilities relative to the capabilities of the likely successor. Many studies of leadership decapitation tend to focus on the idiosyncrasies and capabilities of the targeted leader to determine the method’s effectiveness. However, comparing the qualities of the leader to that of the deputy creates the capability to determine how decapitation will impact a group. For example, one would not grasp how bin Laden’s death impacted Al Qaeda’s ability to manage its alliance with ISIS without the juxtaposition of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri’s respective priorities, preferences, perceived credibility, and ability to handle conflict.
Fifth, the study problematizes the critique of leadership decapitation that a more dangerous or radical leader might rise to fill the void left by the decapitated leader. While the likely successor is sometimes not clear to intelligence officials, in high priority groups—the very organizations most likely to be considered for leadership decapitation—analysts often can narrow the options down to a few likely options. Also, the study demonstrates that policymakers, analysts, and academics can discern the interests and preferences that will shape the decision making of that successor as well as his or her competence in handling disputes. Of course, a terrorist leader’s deputy may indeed be more radical than the leader himself or herself. However, the analysis of al-Zawahiri’s tendencies based on his previous leadership of al-Jihad demonstrates how analysts could determine the predispositions of likely successors well before decapitation occurs.
Even though leadership targeting remains a cornerstone for U.S. counterterrorism strategy, some diminish or outright ignore the role of first image theorizing in terrorism scholarship and counterterrorism decision making. This article has illustrated a previously underdeveloped method for analyzing the efficacy of leadership decapitation. Future research in terrorist decapitation needs to examine not only the effects of removing that specific leader, but the quality and effectiveness of the next possible leader(s). As a result, this article recommends future scholarship that employs counterfactual analysis of a decapitated group other than Al Qaeda in order to draw comparisons between the leadership styles of the previous and successive leaders.

Related posts

Leave a Comment