Ayman al Zawahiri discusses the importance of jihadist media

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In his third media appearance this month, Ayman al Zawahiri urges jihadist unity in the realm of the media.

After a lengthy media absence, al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri has appeared in three separate releases this month.

In the first, Zawahiri swore allegiance to Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the Taliban’s new emir. Mansour, in turn, promptly accepted the pledge. In the second, Zawahiri introduced Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamzah, to the world as a “lion” of al Qaeda. Hamzah went on to deliver a lengthy address, praising al Qaeda’s regional branches and discussing other matters. The first two messages featured the same still image of Zawahiri set against different backgrounds. The al Qaeda leader’s talks were delivered via audio files, with no video of him speaking.

But Zawahiri’s third appearance is different. In a 35-minute video, which was disseminated via Twitter on August 15, Zawahiri discusses his time spent with Osama bin Laden. The video is the seventh part in Zawahiri’s “Days with the Imam” series, which began in November 2011. And bin Laden’s former deputy uses the video to preach jihadist unity, especially in the realm of the media.

Much of Zawahiri’s story focuses on al Qaeda’s escape from the Tora Bora Mountains in December 2001. He heralds bin Laden’s “wisdom,” explaining that al Qaeda’s first leader foiled the designs of the “traitors” and “hypocrites” who sought to do him in. But the Battle of Tora Bora serves a higher purpose in Zawahiri’s telling, as it is supposedly an example of how the jihadist media can counter the Western press.

Zawahiri says he escaped from the mountains before bin Laden did and heard the BBC report that all of the Arabs had been killed. This was one of the many “lies” the mujahideen’s enemies spread, Zawahiri claims, and it is the responsibility of the jihadist media to counter them.

Since the 9/11 attacks, he says, the jihadist media has “exposed the lies of the Americans and the lies” of NATO’s “Crusader” coalition. But while the jihadist media supposedly earned victories over America in the past, the situation has been reversed, with the American media “moving the battle to us.”

Of particular concern to bin Laden’s successor is the way in which the jihadist media has “become a tool for the destruction” of the jihadists’ cause. Here, Zawahiri is clearly referring to the rivalry between the Islamic State and al Qaeda, which has garnered more and more attention in the jihadists’ media sphere.

The “jihadist media” today is filled with “insults” and “curses,” Zawahiri laments, with everyone from the mujahideen’s leaders to the rank and file being “guilty” of spreading “abuses.” He calls on jihadist media operatives to abstain from disseminating material that further sows discord in their ranks.

There was a time, under Mullah Omar and bin Laden, when the jihadists were “all one rank,” Zawahiri says. They would march into battle “united,” but now a “war has begun between ourselves.”

In a message clearly aimed at the Islamic State’s men, Zawahiri says the jihadists should refrain from calling one another “nonbelievers” or saying that some belong to the “awakenings.” The latter is a reference to the Islamic State’s habit of lumping in their jihadist rivals with members of the US-backed awakenings in western Iraq, where tribal forces battled the Islamic State’s predecessor organization during the height of the Iraq War.

The content of the al Qaeda emir’s third message this month is drastically different from the Islamic State’s messaging. In late June, for example, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani called on all rival factions to “repent” for daring to fight Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s “caliphate.” Adnani was especially disturbed by the setbacks suffered by Baghdadi’s fighters in Derna, Libya, where the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), a coalition of pro-al Qaeda forces, quickly routed the “caliphate’s” men from their strongholds. Adnani blasted the MSC’s members, saying they were part of the “awakenings.” Of course, Zawahiri objects to this very same term. However, the Islamic State’s propagandists continue to employ it and have even released dozens of posters targeting their rivals using this same theme.

Al Qaeda can “pardon any personal issues,” Zawahiri says, but anything that further tears apart the jihadists’ ranks should not be tolerated. The Islamic State’s leaders have charted a different course, using their media machine to exacerbate the infighting at every turn.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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10 Comments

  • KW64 says:

    If the Jihadists have time and energy to fight each other, they must not feel under very much pressure from the “NATO Crusader Coalition” (NCC).

    When one is severely threatened you do not break alliances. So far, Turkey’s more active support role for the “NCC” does not seem to have had much positive effect.

  • mike merlo says:

    so how long before Baghdadi or Zawahiri is a victim of an assassination or an attempted assassination by that which opposes them? This is great drama! Diva Jihadist’s havin a ‘cat fight.’ Hopefully some insiders survive all this & manage to put all this drama to print. So where is Mullah Omar’s ‘family’ & son? Zawahiri is lookin pretty ‘dapper.’

  • James says:

    Brought to you by filthy Twitter, Inc., the mouthpieces of mass murderers, war criminals and other despots, terrorist/tyrants like ISIS and old and decrepit Zawahiri.

  • Tony says:

    Whenever I hear about this guy, I think of the word “irrelevant” quite a bit. Some general points to make:

    1) He is talking about battles that happened almost 14 years ago. He is quite out of touch with the current jihadist generation.

    2) He has been overwritten by the Islamic State and younger AQ jihadists, who focus on controlling territory, governance and using modern trends to keep the fight alive and going. They are on the frontlines battling it out, while he sits in an unknown location, goes off about old battles and points his finger in the air for a few hours at a time.

    3) I suspect that all the pledges of allegiance made to him are just a rallying call for AQ affiliated jihadists. Those pledges of allegiance seem to be some type of message they wish to send to the world. A message that they abide by a code of honor of sorts. The pledges made to the Taliban leaders are a bit more relevant, but not by much, it seems.

    4) The way which Zawahiri wants to wage war is not sustainable. He advocates locally that small cells interact with the general population in order to start revolutions and eventually wage a massive war against the U.S. But his method only worked in a few instances, and everywhere else, they failed to let jihadists take and hold ground.

    • Mark says:

      Very well stated. Bin Laden has been a focal point in his recent media releases, from praising his wisdom in this message to having Hamza speak for the majority of the second release. He relies on the past, and especially the memory of bin Laden, to stay relevant, as groups like ISIS and AQAP are overtaking AQ central. Plus, he lost even more relevance when he pledged loyalty to a man who had been dead for a year.

  • rtloder says:

    For a start Zawahiri is content to claim everyone is the same , therefore all theaters of exchange are governed by mirror tactics of what is imagined the situation to be.
    Why doesn’t he just say we collect money for creating havoc, leads one to doubt his honesty , honestly why would Baghdadi align with him , at least Baghdadi is an honest mad bastard.

  • Evan says:

    Part of the problem all along has been underestimating these guys, to a degree, some are clowns, others aren’t…
    It’s difficult I think for us to really get a good grasp on these guys and get inside their OODA loops, because of the vast cultural, religious and societal differences between us…
    We all though OBL was totally irrelevant for years….
    Turns out he was very much in charge, calling the shots from Pakistan, watching porn, and communicating with and directing a large and growing international network…
    Zawahiri isn’t OBL, but he’s calling the shots, these oaths are much more significant than what we might think. Yes AQ’s regional branches eclipse the HQ element in land/resources controlled, but not really by a whole lot. All of the FATA is AQ/Taliban/HIG/whatever controlled. That’s significant.

    I do however agree that these guys have WAY too much idle time on thier hands, and that lots of something’s should be done very rapidly to remedy that…

  • Mr T says:

    Zawahiri’s “Days with the Imam” sound a lot like “Weekend at Bernies”. That must be what he has been up to with Mullah Omar. “Weekend at Omars”. Propping up dead people and old battles while he continues to hide behind women and children and blather on about holy war that has gone on for decades and cost the tragic deaths of countless people.

  • Mark says:

    I think the reason for Zawahiri’s multiple media releases this month is the Mullah Omar-fiasco he finds himself in. Many AQ militants have no loyalty towards Zawahiri himself, but they respect him for being bin Laden’s longtime deputy. His pledging allegiance to a dead man made him look either incompetent or untrustworthy as a leader. This is why he invokes bin Laden so much in the recent releases, from touting his wisdom to incorporating Hamza in the last release. He needs the past, and specifically the memories of bin laden and 9/11, to stay relevant, as AQ has done nothing under his leadership.

    • Stephanie says:

      Good point. This could be quite humiliating to him and hopefully a step towards weakening AQ’s influence.

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