Ayman al Zawahiri has issued a new 47-minute audio tape with accompanying imagery eulogizing Mustafa Abu al Yazid, a major al Qaeda financial chief whose death has been previously reported by the The Long War Journal, as well as numerous other outlets. Some highlights from the tape [translations from Open Source Center]:
Delegitimizing mainstream clerics. One recurring theme in jihadi messages is the illegitimacy of clerics associated with the Muslim world’s ruling regimes. Zawahiri attacks them at length:
As for the clerics of the rulers and ministries, they call for obeying the corrupt secular rulers who changed the doctrine of monotheism by advocating the interfaith dialogue with polytheist and superstitious religions and supporting the agreements with Israel. Moreover, they invite the Israeli ambassador to the Al-Azhar University, shake hands with [Shimon] Perez in New York, and grant permissibility to the Crusader armies to enter the Arabian Peninsula. They forbid people from carrying out jihad, support France in banning the head veil, issue fatwas to outlaw face veil, and allow the Muslims to be enrolled in the US army and fight their Muslim brothers under the banner of the Cross.
Zawahiri frames this as an issue of which god the scholars are worshiping. He argues that the clerics associated with regimes in the Muslim world “buy the worldly life and pay their religion as a price,” while jihadi clerics “buy the Hereafter and pay their souls, families, and treasures as a price.” This is a common theme in jihadi rhetoric: when Abu Yahya al-Libi’s religious credentials were questioned, he replied that it was the “credentialed” clerics who were in fact unqualified because they had not gone to the battlefield to engage in jihad.
American defeat in Iraq. Previous releases by jihadi leaders have conceded serious setbacks in Iraq, such as bin Laden’s October 2007 statement that “the darkness has become pitch black.” In contrast, Zawahiri claims that the mujahidin have defeated the Americans: “The Americans are leaving Iraq but the mujahidin, on top of them the Islamic State of Iraq, will remain, by the will of God…. It is being unwillingly expelled by force, dragging the tails of defeat behind it.”
Existential conflict with America. There have long been two levels to the salafi jihadi conceptualization of the war with the US and Western countries. On one hand, al Qaeda and other jihadi groups have political goals, as a litany of grievances against the US and other Western countries has been clearly expressed. But in addition to these political goals, there is also an existential aspect to their fight. I am currently completing a study on the salafi jihadi movement’s economic strategy, and one of my conclusions is that the existential aspect of this fight has been more firmly emphasized since the collapse of the US economy in September 2008 — which, bluntly speaking, made the US seem mortal. Indeed, Zawahiri emphasizes the existential dimension of the conflict in this tape: “The roars of the lion shock the United States. They made it realize that it will die. Usama is the plague, earthquake, and flood, which will destroy the United States. The United States’ industry, politics, regimes, commissions, and armies will not protect it from destruction.”
Cultural conflict. I was recently on a panel at a conference on Somalia with a prominent terrorism expert (I’m not naming him here because it was a not-for-attribution event). He insisted that cultural issues are irrelevant to al Qaeda’s fight against the US: no terrorists have ever said they are fighting us just for cultural reasons, he said, and we need to acknowledge that al Qaeda’s fight is at heart about US foreign policy. It sounded to me that these claims may be overly broad, and I was able to immediately name one counter-example that my colleague conceded: the Danish cartoons have been used in that exact way, as both jihadi rhetoric and also various terror plots against the cartoonists and Jyllands-Posten demonstrate.
Of course, what appears in the rhetoric of jihadi spokesmen like bin Laden and Zawahiri will not map perfectly with what motivates their followers to take up arms. However, the prominence of cultural issues in Zawahiri’s tape is noteworthy:
The law, which was issued in France banning the face veil, proves that the freedom of the West only implies freedom of infidelity, dissolution, and fighting Islam. It is not meant for Muslims to stick to their religion. It is the freedom of the West to curse the Prophet, peace and prayers be upon him, to prevent anti-Semitism, prevent denial of the Nazi holocaust, and prevent offending homosexuals. It is the freedom of the West to bring down minarets of mosques. With all its power and might, France cannot touch the head cover of a nun, but it violates every Muslim woman wearing a face veil and every student wearing a veil.
This is not the only reference to cultural issues, which are heavily emphasized in the last half of the tape. These cultural issues are in fact presented as a casus belli, as Zawahiri says that those who “call for sanity and reason” in these circumstances “come out to drug the ummah, saying that violence is not the solution.” The relative importance of foreign policy as opposed to cultural issues in al Qaeda’s fight is a broader discussion which I do not attempt to resolve here. But cultural issues clearly do factor into the rhetoric of the movement’s major ideologues, and are presented as an independent justification for war.
Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.