Al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, As Sahab, released a new video from Ayman al Zawahiri yesterday. The al Qaeda leader eulogizes two jihadi veterans who were killed in 2015 and 2016.
The first is Abu al Hasan Rashid al Bulaydi, an Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) official killed by Algerian forces in Dec. 2015.
The second is Abu Firas al Suri, an al Qaeda veteran who was a top official in Al Nusrah Front until his demise in a US drone strike in Apr. 2016.
Both Bulaydi and Suri opposed the Islamic State, and Zawahiri makes several references to their opposition to Baghdadi’s project.
The video opens with images of deceased al Qaeda and Taliban jihadis scrolling across the screen. One of them, Abu Khalid al Suri, is pictured below. Abu Khalid was Zawahiri’s top representative in Syria at the time of his death in early 2014. He was a senior figure in Ahrar al Sham, an al Qaeda-linked group that models itself after the Taliban.
An AQIM official and jihadi ideologue
Zawahiri mentions a short book Bulaydi authored on the implementation of sharia law. The al Qaeda master describes the book as “valuable” and summarizes it, saying that Bulaydi set forth clear “guidelines” for behavior and cautioned people against “excesses.” According to Zawahiri’s summary, Bulaydi (pictured below) offered his advice regarding how the jihadists could build support for their Islamic laws. He argued that no one “group” can “establish sharia and rule over the people alone.” Instead, the jihadists need to have “good” relations with the “ummah” (worldwide community of Muslims) in order to make their governance a success.
Zawahiri praises Bulaydi’s work, saying the AQIM official left jihadists with sound advice regarding the development of qualified sharia officials and how they should attend to the political, social, and economic aspects of society. Moreover, according to Zawahiri, Bulaydi worked to improve the jihadis’ “methods of dawa,” or proselytization.
Referencing Bulaydi’s writings, Zawahiri argues that jihadists must cultivate their own cadres of sharia officials, as too many Islamic scholars are compromised by other concerns. Zawahiri says that these same scholars “preoccupy” the ummah with a “religion” devoid of jihad. These same scholars are allegedly too accommodating when it comes to secularism and nationalism, while justifying agreements that lead to submission to the Jews.
Bulaydi’s teachings demonstrated the importance of using “modern sciences” to make the jihadists’ work more efficient, according to Zawahiri. The jihadists’ goal is to become “closer” to the ummah such that the people are drawn “closer” to them. Eventually, according to al Qaeda’s plan, the “corrupt oppressors” and “tyrants” will be replaced by “virtuous Islamic rule,” as was the case during the era of the “righteous Caliphs.”
Zawahiri warns the “mujahideen” to avoid abandoning their principles, lest they be pulled down the path of the “devil.” This is the road to “defeat” and those who choose it are following in the footsteps of the Muslim Brotherhood and former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. From Zawahiri’s perspective, Morsi and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood tried to acquire political power through corrupt elections and were quickly unseated from power.
Bulaydi was the rare mujahideen sheikh who fought with both his pen and guns, Zawahiri says. And the al Qaeda leader tells viewers that Bulaydi will be difficult to replace.
A member of the “first generation of mujahideen”
Osama bin Laden’s successor then moves on to Abu Firas al Suri, a veteran jihadist who was profiled several times by FDD’s Long War Journal. Abu Firas was from the “first generation of mujahideen” and took part in the “jihadist uprising” against Syrian president Hafez al Assad in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Zawahiri says he first met Abu Firas in Peshawar, Pakistan, during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. They met again in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where Abu Firas visited Osama bin Laden and did “media” work.
In June 2015, Al Nusrah Front (al Qaeda’s branch in Syria) released a video titled, “The Heirs of Glory.” The production glorified the 9/11 hijackings and portrayed Al Nusrah as the rightful inheritors of a long jihadist legacy. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report: Al Nusrah Front celebrates 9/11 attacks in new video.]
Abu Firas was featured in the video and As Sahab includes a clip of him reminiscing about the jihad against the Soviets.
“Actually the victory of the mujahideen against the Russians had many effects,” Abu Firas said. “Russia was considered at the time the second most powerful country in the world, with some considering it as the most powerful. The Russians would proudly say that they possessed nuclear weapons with the potential, in theory, to destroy America 280 times, while we wish to destroy her just once.”
“Brothers, pure mujahideen, destroyed this giant beast,” Suri claimed. “This cast hope and life into the souls of the Muslims throughout the world. The Muslim is capable, if he wages jihad and clings to his creed, to achieve great things.”
Zawahiri speaks fondly of Abu Firas, emphasizing their ideological brotherhood. But the al Qaeda leader leaves many known details out of his eulogy, such as Abu Firas’ relocation to Yemen, where he stayed for approximately a decade before he returned to his native Syria and became embroiled in the jihadists’ disputes.
Zawahiri says he was informed that Abu Firas had reached Syria by another al Qaeda veteran, Abu Khalid al Suri. Zawahiri refers to Abu Khalid, who was killed by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men in Feb. 2014, as his “revered brother.” Abu Khalid told Zawahiri “in one of his letters” that Abu Firas had reached Syria.
Abu Khalid also offered his “solution” to the conflict with Baghdadi’s group, which became a major problem for al Qaeda in 2013. According to Zawahiri, Abu Khalid advised that he should issue a statement filled with advice, but if Baghdadi’s organization did not accept it, then Zawahiri should declare the “dissolution of the group.” Zawahiri followed this course, but Baghdadi and his men refused his orders.
The al Qaeda emir summarizes his reply to Abu Khalid, saying that he asked Abu Khalid to present his “greetings” to Abu Firas. Zawahiri also let Abu Khalid know that, in his view, the main priority of “senior jihadists” such as Abu Khalid and Abu Firas was “to gather the mujahideen under the banner of one single jihadist” entity, which would work to implement sharia.
“I also requested him [Abu Khalid] to be, alongside Abu Firas, in charge of the task of guiding and advising our brothers in the Al Nusrah Front,” Zawahiri says, according to a translation obtained by FDD’s Long War Journal.
As Sahab’s video then cuts to a clip of a video of Abu Firas that was released by Al Nusrah Front in March 2014. It was Abu Firas’s first video appearance. He discussed at length his attempts to broker an end to the dispute between the Islamic State and Al Nusrah Front. Abu Firas al Suri mentioned his meeting with Abu Khalid al Suri, saying that he had warned Abu Khalid that Baghdadi’s men wanted to kill him. The warning did not work, as Abu Khalid was killed the following day.
Abu Firas said that he and others, including Sheikh Abdullah al Muhaysini, met with one of Baghdadi’s most senior lieutenants, Abu Ali al Anbari, in an attempt to broker a ceasefire. But according to Abu Firas, Anbari was obstinate and rejected a proposal for an independent sharia court to arbitrate the dispute. Anbari also justified the killing of an Al Nusrah official in Raqqa on the grounds that he accepted pledges of allegiance from members of the Free Syrian Army.
In July 2014, Al Nusrah Front was embarrassed when a speech by the group’s emir, Abu Muhammad al Julani, was leaked online. Julani could be heard saying that it was time to establish an emirate, or jihadi state, in northern Syria. Julani also said that his organization would fully govern according to sharia law in the parts of Syria they controlled. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report: Leaked audio features Al Nusrah Front emir discussing creation of an Islamic emirate.]
The audio was controversial for several reasons, especially because Al Nusrah’s closest allies had not yet agreed to establish a so-called emirate. Al Nusrah quickly disavowed the contents of Julani’s leaked speech.
Weeks later, in Aug. 2014, Abu Firas was called upon to repair any residual damage that had been done to Al Nusrah’s relations with other groups in Syria. In another video released by Al Nusrah, he explained that the group had not declared an emirate and would not do so without first consulting its allies, as well as respected, jihadi-approved scholars.
Zawahiri revisits this episode in his eulogy, praising Abu Firas for “reassuring” Muslims that “an emirate in the Levant” would “not be established without deliberation” and consultation with people and “scholars around the world.”
As Sahab’s production then cuts to a clip from Abu Firas’ Aug. 2014 video, in which he said that Al Nusrah would not establish an “independent emirate…without consulting all of the Islamic factions that are working to establish Allah’s sharia” inside Syria, or without first consulting with “people of knowledge” and prominent Syrians. According to a translation obtained by FDD’s Long War Journal, Abu Firas specified that “secularists” and “liberals” would have no say in establishing the jihadists’ emirate, as the consultation would be limited to only those with an “Islamic orientation.”
Zawahiri also praises Abu Firas for his belief that “jihad is not to be waged for the victory” of any specific organization, but instead so that the word of Allah is established. This is a not-so-subtle dig at the Islamic State’s leaders, who put devotion to the so-called caliphate above all else.
As Sahab’s video includes footage from an interview Abu Firas gave to Bilal Abdul Kareem, who operates a small media outfit in Syria named “On The Ground News.” A screen shot from the video can be seen above. During the interview, Abu Firas stressed that jihadists do not fight for groups such as Al Nusrah Front, or Jund al Aqsa, but instead for the word of Allah.
Zawahiri concludes by saying that in the next episode of his video series he will eulogize Rifai Ahmed Taha Musa, an Egyptian al Qaeda veteran who was killed in an American drone strike in April 2016.