Post-Mubarak Egypt presents a number of counterterrorism challenges for the US and its allies. An unknown number of terrorists belonging to the al Qaeda-allied al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) have been freed from jail. And new jihadist groups, some openly proclaiming their allegiance to al Qaeda, now operate in the Sinai. [See here, here, here, and here.]
The situation is so conspicuous that Mohamed al Zawahiri, the younger brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, has been freed from jail and is secure enough in his new life that he recently granted an interview to CNN. The younger Zawahiri says that al Qaeda has not been defeated and that the organization’s strength is “not in its leaders but in its ideology.”
CNN describes Zawahiri as “unrepentant about his beliefs” despite a lengthy prison sentence, and that comes through in the interview. CNN reports:
“If the West wants to live in peace then they must give the Muslims their rights back. Occupation of our lands is one thing, but interference in our religious beliefs is the worst kind of breach of human rights. We only want to build our Islamic nations the way we like it and want no confrontation with the West as long as they stop occupying our land, killing innocent women and children and above all interfering in our religious beliefs,” al-Zawahiri said.
“We call for fasting, prayers, spreading Allah’s word and Jihad if we are attacked or restricted from practicing our religion. In this case, we invite the oppressor first into the Islamic community to learn our religion. If they refuse, and we are stopped from spreading our religion, then Allah has ordered us to confront them, and this is Jihad,” Al-Zawahiri said.
Mohamed al Zawahiri, like other jihadists, is eager to couch his beliefs in terms that are consistent with a defensive jihad — that is, he and his ilk are simply responding to Western aggression. Of course, al Qaeda’s principal victims are Muslims and Zawahiri’s language is contrived. The part in bold could be construed as an explicit endorsement of an offensive jihad as well. “If they refuse” to learn/adopt al Qaeda-style beliefs, Zawahiri seems to be saying, then we have the obligation “to confront them, and this is Jihad.”
In March, an Egyptian military court acquitted Mohamed al Zawahiri of longstanding terrorism charges. Also acquitted was Mohammed Islambouli — a known al Qaeda operative who had spent years living in exile in Iran. Islambouli’s brother was the assassin who killed Anwar Sadat in 1981. Mohamed al Zawahiri was suspected of playing a role in that assassination, too, but was acquitted. Ayman al Zawahiri was convicted on related charges, however, and spent time in jail before making his way to Afghanistan. The rest, as they say, is history.
After Mohamed al Zawahiri and Islambouli were acquitted earlier this year, Al Arabiya reported that, in 1998, the pair was “sentenced on charges of undergoing military training in Albania and planning military operations in Egypt.” EIJ operatives are known to have operated and plotted inside Albania at the time.
CNN reports that Mohamed al Zawahiri “spent some time working for the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) as an architect, helping to build schools and hospitals.” It is probably safe to assume that he was not truly “an architect” at the time, however. CNN correctly adds: “The IIRO had connections to the Saudi government but would later be accused of links to militant Islamist groups, including al Qaeda, and was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.”
In The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright writes that Mohamed al Zawahiri broke with his brother after the elder Zawahiri decided to join Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders in 1998. Ayman supposedly berated his brother for mismanaging the EIJ’s finances and the two were not always peas in the same pod.
Maybe so. But judging by Mohamed al Zawahiri’s interview with CNN, he doesn’t have any problem with al Qaeda or its ideology today.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.