Al Qaeda has released a new audio message from Ayman al Zawahiri, who addresses recent events at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The audio speech is embedded in a video that is nearly 16 minutes long and features archival footage of Osama bin Laden, a still image of Zawahiri, and scrolling text throughout.
Zawahiri begins by alleging that “Muslims everywhere” are upset by the “Jews’ repeated attacks on the blessed Al Aqsa Mosque,” according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. He then praises the knife attacks that have been carried out against Jews, saying they are “a new epic of jihad,” in which people “defend Palestine and Al Aqsa with knives, cars, stones, and everything they own.” Zawahiri asks Allah “to bless these martyrdom-seekers who dare to stab the Jews even as they are almost certain that they will be killed at the Jews’ hands.”
The al Qaeda leader argues that two things are required to “liberate” Jerusalem. First, the jihadists must strike “the West, and especially America, in its heartland” and also attack Western interests everywhere they are found. Zawahiri cites a number of previous attacks in the West as part of his call for more terror, including the September 11, 2001 hijackings and the Boston Marathon bombings carried out by the “two Tsarnaev brothers.”
Second, Zawahiri says that Muslims must establish a “state” in Egypt and the Levant in order to “mobilize the ummah to liberate Palestine.” The al Qaeda chieftain uses this point to emphasize one of his key themes. Establishing such states, based on al Qaeda’s radical version of sharia law, “requires unity,” avoiding “disputes and ending “hostilities” between “the mujahideen.” This is a reference to the infighting between the Islamic State, led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and its jihadist rivals in Syria and elsewhere.
Therefore, Zawahiri once again calls for jihadist unity against the “mujahideen’s” common enemies. He does not endorse Baghdadi’s self-declared “caliphate.” He has already set forth his extensive critique of Baghdadi’s state in previous messages. And he takes a swipe against Baghdadi’s state again in his latest message, saying that al Qaeda is fighting to resurrect the caliphate based on the “prophetic method,” which requires shura (consultation). Baghdadi did not consult recognized jihadist authorities before declaring that his organization now rules over a “caliphate” covering large portions of Iraq and Syria.
But Zawahiri wants the fighters within Baghdadi’s ranks to stop fighting Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, and its allies, as well as jihadists elsewhere, so that they can focus on the supposed alliance between America, Europe, Russia, the “Rejectionists” [meaning Shiites and Iran], and the Nusayri [a derogatory reference to Bashar al Assad’s Alawite regime]. Zawahiri alleges that all these parties are “coordinating their war against us” in a joint alliance. He asks why the jihadists are not able to set aside their differences and “direct” all of their “efforts” against them.
Addressing jihadists “from every group” around the world, Zawahiri says that the Levant and Egypt are the “two historical gates of Jerusalem” and the battle in those two areas is a fight against the “Crusader-Rejectionist alliance.” The ummah [community of worldwide Muslims] must support this battle however it can, Zawahiri says, because it is a battle “to show” what it means for Muslims to wage an “acceptable jihad” that elevates Allah’s sharia and does “not empower the secularist and national regimes.”
Zawahiri wants to build popular support for the jihadists’ efforts, seeing this as key to their victory. “It is a political jihad battle so we could convince the ummah that our conduct is in line with what we call for and does not contradict it and does not drive away the Muslim people from the mujahideen,” Zawahiri says. Thus, the jihadists must “hone our conduct in order to convince our Muslim people that we are really keen to be ruled over by sharia if we are called to implement it” and do not label other Muslims as non-believers. The jihadists must convince Muslims that they “are the most merciful of people toward our people” and “do not seek to oppress Muslims.”
Al Qaeda’s bottom-up approach is, therefore, very different from the Islamic State’s. While they both want to build governments based on sharia law, al Qaeda is much more focused on building legitimacy for its ideological project in the hearts and minds of Muslims. Al Qaeda and its allies want to gradually implement sharia law and eventually resurrect a caliphate. Zawahiri’s organization has adopted this strategy, in part, because it knows that most Muslims are not pining for al Qaeda-style rule.
Through its top-down authoritarianism, the Islamic State seeks to convince Muslims that it is a caliphate today and that its version of sharia law, with its graphic executions and punishments, is divinely justified. (Al Qaeda generally avoids propaganda that focuses on its implementation of sharia’s penalties, whereas the Islamic State explicitly advertises its decapitations and amputations.) From the Islamic State’s perspective, Muslims who do not accept its legitimacy as a “caliphate” are to be terrorized into submission.
Zawahiri is not only critical of the Islamic State, with its hard stance, but also other Islamist groups that have adopted softer approaches to achieving their goals.
In this “political jihad battle,” Zawahiri says, the Muslim people should be shown that groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, salafists who support the Egyptian regime, and Rached Ghannouchi (a Tunisian Islamist who co-founded the Ennahda Movement in his home country) have erred by allying themselves with the secular governments and corrupt politicians who oppress Muslims. Zawahiri also accuses these Islamists of submitting themselves to agreements that recognize Israel’s legitimacy, “because they have realized that the price for reaching power is the acceptance of the secular constitutions and submission to Israel.”
The “mujahideen in Palestine” should fight to build an Islamic government, Zawahiri says, arguing that a “secular government that rejects sharia” in Jerusalem would be unacceptable.
Toward the end of his message, Zawahiri again ties Jerusalem to the jihadists’ efforts in the Levant and Egypt. “We must work to establish a Muslim government in the lands neighboring Israel,” he says, and the jihadists’ infighting distracts from this key mission.
Archival footage of Osama bin Laden is included at the beginning and the end of the al Qaeda production. The clip at the end is used to emphasize that al Qaeda seeks to resurrect a caliphate. A common misconception in the West is that while the Islamic State seeks to conquer territory, al Qaeda only plots terrorist attacks.
“Today, praise be to Allah…we are redrawing the map of the Islamic world to make one state under the banner of the caliphate, Allah willing,” bin Laden says in the clip. From Zawahiri’s perspective, the jihadists’ battles in the Levant and Egypt are key to making this goal a reality.