As successor to Osama bin Laden, Zawahri has the allegiance of al Qaeda branches in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. But the group’s dominance is being challenged by Daesh terror group, which controls territory in Syria and Iraq and followings in Libya and Yemen.
In Syria, al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front and Daesh are the two most powerful groups fighting government forces. Once a single group, they split in 2013, largely due to a power struggle among leaders.
“We have to want the unity of the Mujahideen in Sham (Syria) so it will be liberated from the Russians and Western crusaders. My brothers … the matter of unity is a matter of life or death for you,” Zawahri said.
The authenticity of the recording, the first since January, could not be immediately verified, but it had the hallmarks of previous Zawahri tapes.
He is believed to be hiding in a border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On the recording, Zawahri lambasted a U.N.-backed political process to find a solution in Syria, and praised Nusra Front, which controls most of Idlib province.
Nusra is also part of an alliance of a brigades known as Jaish al Fateh, which is leading battles against Syrian government forces.
In January, Nusra Front tried unsuccessfully to convince rival factions to merge into one unit, including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham.
Zawahri also emphasised once again the ideological divide between al Qaeda and Daesh, which is fighting a Western-led coalition and Russian forces while also clashing with Western-backed rebels and the Syrian army.
He described them as “extremists and renegades” whose followers would eventually disavow their beliefs and methods.