Al Qaeda released a new message from its leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 hijackings earlier today. Titled “How to Confront America,” the talk is intended to rally jihadists and supporters against their common perceived enemy. Much of the message is not a how-to so much as it is a restatement of al Qaeda’s anti-American view.
Zawahiri portrays the US as the chief enemy of Muslims around the globe. Of course, al Qaeda has repeatedly plotted and called for terrorist attacks inside the West. But that is not the only way Zawahiri thinks the jihadists should continue to fight the Americans.
“We must wage the war – in any part of the Islamic World – as if it is a single war with different fronts against a united enemy,” Zawahiri explains. The wars in “the tribal areas in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen, Mali, Somalia and elsewhere” are not just “between the Muslims and the local governments only,” according to Zawahiri. Instead, these conflicts have “always been between the Muslims and the system of the major international criminals – America being the foremost.”
In Zawahiri’s framework, there is no firm line between al Qaeda’s so-called far and near enemies, as they are all part of the same global war.
Zawahiri would undoubtedly like to be able to directly attack America again, but this is only one of the ways he wants to weaken the world’s strongest power. In addition to “hitting hard at America,” the jihadists are “bleeding it to death economically and militarily, until it departs from our lands defeated – with the permission of Allah – just as it had departed from Vietnam, Aden, Iraq and Somalia.”
His references to Aden and Somalia are likely intended to evoke images of al Qaeda’s first attacks on American targets in the early 1990s. The part about bleeding the US “economically and militarily” is a reference to the various insurgencies the jihadis are waging.
Zawahiri on America’s supposed “Judeo-Christian bias”
The message from Zawahiri today contains many echoes of the past, especially al Qaeda’s longstanding “Zionist-Crusader” conspiracy theory, which views events around the world through a single distorted lens.
Zawahiri begins his 9/11 anniversary message with an odd bit of framing, claiming: “Seventeen years have passed since Bush launched his Crusader war against Muslims – a war linked with the historical enmity directed towards Islam from its dawn to this very day.”
But it was seventeen years ago today that al Qaeda operatives hijacked four planes inside the US. The US-led invasion of Afghanistan would not have occurred had it not been for the 9/11 hijackings — the act that really “launched” a war.
The al Qaeda leader goes on to argue that the “hand of the secular Crusader West,” especially under the “leadership of America,” is “behind all of the conflicts involving Muslims today” either directly or through the West’s “silent approval, connivance, collusion, or intrigues.”
Zawahiri claims that a “religious enmity” derived from the West’s “Zionist Crusader bias” is what really drives this war, even if economic, political or other interests are also involved, and despite the West trying “to hide [the] religious nature” of the conflict “with all shades of propaganda and lies.” He insists this religious motivation exists even though “many in the West have abandoned Christianity and become secularists overtly, without adherence to any religion.” He claims that President Trump’s decision to move the American embassy and “recognition of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel…is a clear-cut articulation of this Judeo-Christian bias.” Zawahiri also blasts the supposed “stupidity” of the move.
The al Qaeda honcho argues that America’s supposed “enmity for Islam has touched almost the entire Muslim world” and there is “hardly a Muslim country” that America hasn’t “meddled” in. He blames the US for spoiling the jihadists’ gains in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings, and warns Muslims that they should avoid elections and other Western ways, as these will only lead to losses. He points to the alleged compromises made by Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia, claiming that only by waging jihad can Muslims avoid their failures.
In his expansive view, Zawahiri ties America to numerous conflicts, including ones that the US isn’t really involved in. He lists wars, events or other actions in: Kashmir, Pakistan, Burma, Afghanistan, the Philippines (from the 20th Century onward), Chechnya, Bosnia (during the 1990s), Iraq, Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Palestine, the Islamic Maghreb, Somalia and East Africa, and the Sudan.
However, this narrative has many holes. For example, the US has little to nothing to do with Russia’s actions inside Chechnya. The US intervened mainly on the side of Muslims in Bosnia in the 1990s. Zawahiri blames the US for backing General Khalifa Haftar in Libya, but his patronage, such as it is, has come mainly from other sources, as Haftar and the US have been at odds over Libya’s political future.
Zawahiri points to Iran, saying it has colluded with the US in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen, but this is a selective reading of events. It is true that the US-led war against the Islamic State and other actions have cleared a path for Iranian expansion, especially in Iraq where Iran and the US entered into a de facto alliance against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s men. But the situation is far more complex in Syria and Yemen, both of which are embroiled in multi-sided wars.
Decades after the Iranians first made the author Salman Rushdie a target, Zawahiri blasts Rushdie as a man who has “insulted the Greatest of Prophets (peace be upon him).” Zawahiri asks and answers his own question: Who “then welcomed him [Rushdie] in the White House? It is America.” This part is inserted in a somewhat haphazard manner, adding to the grab bag of grievances Zawahiri employs.
Critique of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State
Zawahiri offers his own description of America’s strategy for fighting the jihadists, claiming it is multi-faceted, and involves assembling alliances, backing proxies and sowing division in the mujahideen’s ranks before dealing a “final blow with the use of airpower.”
Zawahiri wants to connect his description of America’s supposed war-fighting strategy to the Islamic State, tying the two together in the minds of his listeners. His presentation is disingenuous, but it is worth recounting what he says.
The al Qaeda emir sets up his critique by claiming that America “turns a blind eye to deviant movements and lets them surge in an illusory manner so that their manpower is consumed in senseless battles and so that they keep the Mujahideen engaged with their relentless attacks.”
The chief “deviant” movement he has in mind here is clearly the Islamic State. “After letting them off for a while so that they may wreak havoc in the ranks of the Jihadi movement, America finally moves in to crush these movements with ruthless use of airpower,” Zawahiri says. “What transpired in Iraq and Syria is evident of this strategy.”
At this point, Zawahiri essentially accuses the Islamic State of serving America’s designs.
“Therefore, everyone who sows discord in the ranks of the Mujahideen, strives to break their unity and disperse their gathering, and everyone who ignites the fire of internal fighting and strife between the Mujahideen, in reality secures American objectives with his own hands,” Zawahiri says. “By doing so, he saves the Americans great efforts, enormous expenses, human and financial losses- irrespective of the claims or doubts raised by the propagators of discord and seekers of power.”
It is difficult to miss Zawahiri’s bitterness here, as the Islamic State’s rivalry with al Qaeda did great damage to the jihadists’ cause inside Syria. But the American “strategy” in Iraq and Syria was initially blind to the possibility of a group like the Islamic State rising in power. Under President Obama, the US withdrew from Iraq in order to bring a “responsible end” to the war, even though it was anything but that. And once the US did intervene once again in 2014, it was principally to stop the Islamic State. The US conducted only infrequent air strikes against Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria at the time.
Therefore, Zawahiri’s retelling of the wars in Iraq and Syria is highly selective.
Nevertheless, the al Qaeda leader uses this anti-American framework to encourage jihadist unity.
“If the Ummah condemns the efforts of breaking unity, dividing ranks, violating sanctities, and spilling blood unlawfully, the perpetrators of these crimes will think a thousand times before committing them,” Zawahiri says. “Therefore, a broad consensus must be established in all segments of the Ummah against those who commit these crimes so that the Ummah’s general opinion stands in the way of their evil designs.”
Zawahiri goes a step further, deeming it impermissible to cooperate with the US under any circumstances — including even against al Qaeda’s dreaded rivals in Baghdadi’s enterprise. “We must not seek help from America or help America in fighting Muslims; even if it is against innovative extremists who declare takfir on us and deem our blood permissible, and against whom we may be forced to fight,” Zawahiri explains, in another clear allusion to the Islamic State. “This is so because we must obey Allah regarding them, even if they disobey Allah regarding us.”
Regular messages from al Qaeda’s leader
Since mid-2015, al Qaeda has regularly released messages from Zawahiri. As Sahab, the group’s propaganda arm, has disseminated several messages from the al Qaeda leader in the past two months alone. Wherever Zawahiri is, he is clearly able to record and distribute his commentary on a frequent basis.