Al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri Calls For Sectarian Guerrilla War in Iraq and Syria

Al Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahri speaks from an unknown location, in this still image taken from video uploaded on a social media website June 8, 2011. Social Media Website Social Media Website/Reuters

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called on Sunni Islamist militants to unleash a guerilla war against both the regime of Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

Zawahiri, who replaced Osama Bin Laden as Al-Qaeda figurehead following his death in 2011, said jihadis in the Levant —the area of the Middle East that includes Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon— should prepare for a long war against Assad, who he claimed was backed by Iran and the West.

"Our people in [Syria], prepare yourselves for a long battle with the Crusaders and their allies the Shiites and Alawites," Zawahiri said in an audio recording released online Sunday which was verified by the jihadi monitoring group SITE and reported by Reuters.

The Egyptian-born Al-Qaeda leader told Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria that they were being targeted by the West and its allies, who sought to prevent a wave of Islam sweeping the region. It is not clear when or where the audio recording was made.

Intelligence sources told Newsweek April 21 that Zawahiri was most likely in hiding in Karachi, under the protection of Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). The port city of 26 million people on the Arabian Sea is the site of a major nuclear complex and is home to Pakistani naval and air bases.

Read More: Ayman al-Zawahiri: How a CIA drone strike nearly killed the head of al-Qaeda

In the message, Zawahiri calls on all Muslims — not just Syrians and Iraqis — to carry out a holy war.

In July 2016, Al-Qaeda's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, broke off from the umbrella organization and rebranded itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

Jabhat al-Nusra is now the largest force in an alliance of Islamist brigades known as Hayat Tahrir al Sham. Despite the separation, the U.S. State Department still considers Jahbat Fateh al-Sham to have the same strong links to Al-Qaeda as the Nursa Front.

Al-Qaeda was at one point almost completely eclipsed by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), in Iraq and Syria but has played a more prominent role as ISIS has lost more territory and suffered reduced capabilities to carry out attacks.

In March 2017 Al-Qaeda called on Muslims around the world to take action against the U.S. if Washington did not withdraw its armed forces from the Arab world.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham now controls much of Idlib Province in Syria with U.S. and coalition airstrikes regularly targeting the group's leadership in northern Syrian, according to Reuters.