Center for Strategic Communication

An audio message attributed to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), “surfaced on social networking web sites on June 14,” according to the SITE Intelligence Group. The message was not disseminated through the ISI’s official propaganda arm, the al Fajr Media Center, which reportedly refused to release it.

The message does appear to have come from al Baghdadi, however, who has been involved in a dispute with Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of the Al Nusrah Front, over the chain of command in Iraq and Syria.

Al Baghdadi tried to subsume the Al Nusrah Front under his leadership in early April, naming the merged entity the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” But al Julani rejected this move out of hand. The dispute then went all the way to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, who ruled against al Baghdadi and dissolved the union in a letter dated May 23.

In the new message attributed to al Baghdadi, the ISI emir openly defies Zawahiri.

“The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant remains as long as we have a pulse or an eye that blinks,” al Baghdadi says, according to SITE’s translation. The new entity “remains, and we will not bargain with it or back down from it until Allah the Almighty raises it above or we die without it.”

Al Baghdadi challenges Zawahiri directly, saying the May 23 ruling attributed to al Qaeda’s emir is not grounded in a proper reading of sharia law. “As for the message that was attributed to Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri, may Allah preserve him, we have … several shariah and method-based issues [with it], and the worshiper was given the choice between the command of His Lord and the command that opposes Allah’s command,” al Baghdadi says, according to SITE.

Al Baghdadi says that he “decided to respond to the matter that is violated in [Zawahiri’s] letter” after consulting the shura council of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, as well as others.

Assuming that the message from al Baghdadi is genuine, it is a clear instance of insubordination. Zawahiri himself likely sensed that his ruling on the dispute between al Baghdadi and al Julani would not be easily settled.

As part of his May 23 ruling, Zawahiri commanded that a longtime al Qaeda operative known as Abu Khalid al Suri oversee the matter. According to Zawahiri, al Suri has been empowered to resolve “any dispute” between the two emirs “arising from the interpretation of this ruling.” And, if necessary, al Suri can “set up a Sharia justice court for giving a ruling on the case.”

Al Baghdadi’s message tests al Suri’s authority as granted by Zawahiri. The coming weeks might reveal more about al Suri’s ability, or lack thereof, to rein in the ISI’s renegade commander.

Meanwhile, the Al Nusrah Front has restarted its propaganda operation after suspending it for two months in the wake of the dispute with the ISI. In its latest messages, the Al Nusrah Front has maintained the branding it used prior to al Baghdadi’s power play.

It appears that from the Al Nusrah Front’s perspective, therefore, Zawahiri’s ruling is binding. Based on his latest alleged audio message, the ISI’s al Baghdadi does not agree.