Shortly after President Trump announced on Dec. 6 that the US would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, al Qaeda and its regional branches released several statements decrying the move and inciting violence. Others, of course, are doing the same. But al Qaeda launched its own media campaign targeted at jihadists and possible sympathizers.
The general leadership of al Qaeda, which is part of the organization’s senior management, posted a statement online that begins with a quote from Osama bin Laden. “I swear by Allah, America and those who live in America shall never even dream of peace until we experience it as a reality in Palestine,” bin Laden said.
Al Qaeda uses its founder’s words, describing it as an “oath,” to emphasize America’s supposed role as “the head of international disbelief.”
“It is the oath of the martyr [bin Laden] of the Ummah who paved the way for a momentous state in the Ummah’s history; a stage in which it became obvious that the head of international disbelief, that is leading the war against Islam and Muslims, violating their sanctities, plundering their wealth, and supporting the Zionists and the tyrants of the Arabs and the Orient, is none other than America,” al Qaeda’s statement reads.
Al Qaeda’s leadership claims that the recognition of Jerusalem “as the capital of the Zionist entity is a blatant aggression by the Crusader Trump against the sanctities of Muslims – a high-voltage shock for the Muslim Ummah, which may perhaps awaken from its slumber.”
Bin Laden’s outfit has long sought to tie the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to its mission, even though the group has had little to do with it. Small groups of al Qaeda loyalists have operated in Gaza and the West Bank, but their operations have been minor. That could change in the future. In any event, al Qaeda has consistently used Israel as a rhetorical foil, portraying it as part of an imaginary Zionist-Crusader plot against Muslims everywhere. This has been a consistent theme in the organization’s propaganda since the 1990s.
And the jihadists are using America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in their attempt to spread this same idea.
“If we fail to act — today rather than tomorrow — this aggression will be followed by further resolutions, conferences, agreements threatening our very existence as a Muslim Ummah and subjugating completely our Muslim World to the Zionist-Crusader Alliance and its Rafidhi [Shiite] and apostate allies of the Arabs,” the statement continues.
This, too, has been a consistent part of al Qaeda’s messaging. The group papers over all of the differences and conflicts within the Middle East to claim that there is a grand alliance of not just the Jews and Crusaders, but also including the Shiites of Iran and “apostate” Arab rulers. Of course, there is no such coalition. And while the various wars raging throughout the Middle East often make for strange bedfellows (for example, the US and Iran have both fought the Islamic State in Iraq), there is no grand conspiracy against Sunni Muslims.
For instance, al Qaeda points to the Saudi regime as a central component of this supposed scheme, even though the Saudis oppose Iranian expansion throughout the region.
“The Ummah must recognize the fact that the Zionist-Crusader alliance would never have mustered the courage to ridicule Muslims so arrogantly had it not secured itself first by ensuring the complete submission of the puppet regimes — specifically the government of the Family of Saud — who are responsible for paving the way to this crime,” the statement reads.
It is possible that al Qaeda will plot attacks or other information operations in light of the announcement, using it as a pretext for terror. Al Qaeda and its branches have attempted to use controversial issues for their own purposes in the past.
For instance, al Qaeda planned attacks against Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, after it published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005. Newly-released files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound in May 2011 show that al Qaeda made this a priority, although its plotting didn’t come to fruition. In one 2008 memo, Ayman al Zawahiri relayed an order from bin Laden to the leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) to “focus” on the issue of the cartoons in their “speeches” and “media.”
Al Qaeda operatives and affiliated jihadists used the trailer for the video “Innocence of Muslims” to incite anti-American protests in several countries in 2012. AQAP and Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) have both executed attacks that are framed as revenge for supposed offenses to Muslims. In Jan. 2015, a pair of brothers executed a well-planned assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. AQAP specifically targeted the publication after it published its own cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The brothers who executed the attack said it was carried out on behalf of AQAP.
The purpose of all these operations was to portray al Qaeda as a defender of Islam. So it is conceivable that al Qaeda could do the same in the wake of this week’s announcement. In the meantime, al Qaeda and its regional branches are trying to exploit discontent over the issue.
In addition to al Qaeda’s general leadership, AQAP, Shabaab, and AQIM have all released statements inciting violence in response to the US announcement. Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), which is the middle of a heated leadership dispute with al Qaeda’s senior leaders, has also staged rallies in Idlib. Other al Qaeda-linked ideologues — such as Sheikh Abdullah al Muhaysini, Sheikh Abu Qatadah and Sheikh Abu Mohammed al Maqdisi — have all weighed in. The Taliban has as well, claiming that the decision has “exposed” America’s “colonialist face and declared enmity towards Islam,” as well as its “support” policies “of occupation and colonization of Muslim lands.”
It remains to be seen if al Qaeda can follow through on its threats.