Ayman al-Zawahiri defends 9/11 hijackings in anniversary address

Ayman al-Zawahiri defends the 9/11 hijackings in a video released on the 18th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s most devastating attack. The production, released by al-Qaeda’s As Sahab propaganda arm, is titled “And They Shall Continue to Fight You.”

Although the production was transcribed in English, Zawahiri’s main audience includes Islamic scholars throughout Arabic-speaking countries.

Indeed, the al-Qaeda leader is defensive throughout much of the video, seeking to explain his organization’s actions on 9/11 and thereafter.

Zawahiri chastises unnamed Islamic scholars for decrying the murder of innocent civilians in the World Trade Center, pointing to the Pentagon as a legitimate military target. Zawahiri also asks these same sheikhs whether it is permissible to strike the U.S. Capitol Building or the White House. One of these buildings could have been struck by Flight 93, which was crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. The implication is that these are perfectly acceptable targets because they are the seats of America’s political power. Zawahiri claims all of the religious objections to 9/11 have been “refuted.”

Ayman al-Zawahiri defends the 9/11 hijackings against its Islamic critics.

Zawahiri mocks the allegedly “[b]acktracking ‘scholars’ and the ‘jurists’” for claiming that al-Qaeda’s jihad is defective. He argues that even according to their beliefs there are plenty of legitimate targets to strike.

“If you want jihad to be focused solely on military targets, the American military has presence all  over the world, from the East to the West,” the al-Qaeda emir says. “Your countries are littered with American bases with all the infidels therein and the corruption that spread. So let us see your jihad, free of ‘defects.’” 

Zawahiri uses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to frame much of his argument. The video footage is preceded by an audio clip of an old quote from Osama bin Laden: “To our brothers in Palestine, we say, verily the blood of your sons is the blood of our sons, and the revenge for destruction is destruction. We hold Allah as our witness that we shall not let you down, until victory is achieved or we taste what Hamza bin Abdul Mutallib (R.A.) tasted.”

Al-Qaeda has repeatedly attempted to tie its global jihad to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But this is mainly for rhetorical reasons, as the organization has had little to do with that decades-long conflict from an operational perspective. The conspiratorial notion of a “Zionist-Crusader” alliance against Muslims has been a convenient foil for al-Qaeda since the 1990s.

“With each passing day, America exposes more of its Zionist-Crusader materialistic enmity towards Islam and Muslims,” Zawahiri says. “Trump followed his announcement of shifting the American embassy to al Quds (Jerusalem) with his recognition of the occupied Golan heights as part of Israel, revealing thereby America’s true face and its deeply inimical disposition vis-à-vis the Muslim world.” 

As-Sahab includes extensive footage of Trump and Netanyahu.

As-Sahab includes footage from a lengthy press conference featuring President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to underscore America’s close relationship with Israel.

“No dividing line between the local and global battle”

One way Zawahiri attacks the scholars he finds objectionable is by pointing to all of the jihadist battlefields they could support, but don’t.

For Zawahiri, the “nature of the battle” is such that “it is a global Crusader war against Muslims, and there is no dividing line between the local and the global battle.” 

That is a key point that is often missed in analyses of al-Qaeda. The group is not solely focused on attacks in the West, but instead views its jihad as a contiguous conflict against a wide range of parties across the globe.

Addressing the reluctant scholars, Zawahiri points out that “British, French and NATO forces are present the world over, especially in the Muslim world.”

“So attack them as reprisal for their crimes in Palestine and their support to Israel,” Zawahiri says. The al Qaeda leader continues: “The French forces are occupying Mali and attacking Muslims in the Sahel and the Sahara. Why do you ignore them and abandon your Muslim brothers as sacrificial lambs to be slaughtered by them? Is this not a battle against a Crusader invading enemy that violates the sanctities of Muslims? Where is your role in it?” 

In a bitter swipe at Islamic critics of 9/11, Zawahiri says: “Israeli embassies and interests are spread all over the world. So come on strike them, instead of wasting your time on arguing about the WTC [World Trade Center].”

Al Qaeda’s regional branches and affiliated groups featured

As-Sahab emphasizes that there are multiple theaters to wage jihad in by including footage of several al-Qaeda leaders stationed around the globe. As-Sahab also uses the graphic below to illustrate the cohesion of the organization’s network across these theaters.

The logos of al-Qaeda’s various media arms.

The image displays the logo for As-Sahab and the media houses of four other al Qaeda branches: Az-Zallaqa (Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, JNIM, or the “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims”), Al-Andalus Media (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Al-Malahem Media (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), and Al-Kataib Media (Shabaab in Somalia). The As-Sahab emblem in the middle represents both al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. There is no watermark for any group in Syria, because there is no officially recognized al-Qaeda branch in the Levant as a result of leadership and strategy disagreements. However, there are several al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria, including Hurras al-Din (or the “Guardians of the Religion” organization).

“And They Shall Continue to Fight You” includes archival footage of representatives from each of these al-Qaeda groups. The representatives are: Khalid Batarfi of AQAP, Abu Ubaidah Yusef al-Annabi of AQIM, Mohammed Kofa of JNIM, Abu Abdurahman Mahad Warsame of Shabaab and Sami al-Uraydi of Hurras al-Din. Another clip features Abdul Haq al-Turkistani of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which fights in Afghanistan and Syria as part of al-Qaeda’s global network.

These men testify to the fact that Muslims face various “occupation” forces or other oppressors in regions across the world, and they encourage Muslims to pick up the banner of jihad.

AQAP’s Khalid Batarfi.

AQAP’s Khalid Batarfi is a veteran who has long served as a prominent ideological voice. “Our real duty, without the fulfillment of which Jerusalem shall not be liberated nor Masjid al Aqsa be cleansed of the filth of the Jews, is exerting our efforts in the Way of Allah,” Batarfi says. Jihad is “solely for raising high the word of Allah…giving victory to Islam and Muslims and liberating Islam’s sacred sites.”

Batarfi adds that a pure jihad “does not recognize national or regional boundaries, nor artificial nationalities created to divide Muslims.” And the real jihad “does not differentiate between the oppressive occupier and the one who supports and protects him,” Batarfi says. The “Palestinian Muslim and his Arab and non-Arab brothers are all equal.”

Only by waging jihad will the land be “liberated” and the “sacred sites…cleansed of the filth of the disbelievers,” Batarfi claims.

The footage of Batarfi is intended to reinforce Zawahiri’s criticism of Islamic scholars.

“Muslim scholars must fear Allah and play their role in fulfilling the heavy duty that has been placed on their shoulders,” Batarfi says. He adds: “They must fulfill their covenant with their Lord by explaining to the Ummah [worldwide community of Muslims] the scale and extent of the conspiracy against it. They must clarify that Palestine is not merely a Palestinian or Arab cause; it is a cause of every Muslim.”

“The strength and energy of Muslims – specifically the youth — must be organized to wage jihad against Americans,” Batarfi argues. “It is by their fall and defeat that the evil occupation of Palestine shall come to an end, with the permission of Allah.” 

AQIM’s Abu Ubaidah Yusef al-Annabi.

AQIM’s Abu Ubaidah Yusef al-Annabi is another major ideologue in al-Qaeda’s global network.

“Our Muslim people in Mali are suffering from a flagrant direct and hateful Crusader occupation led by Crusader France, the old and new enemy,” al-Annabi says in the repurposed clip. Al-Annabi elaborates: “It has mobilized in order to achieve its interests what it could from its agents and allies. All those are permitted targets to us by virtue of sharia and reason, wherever they are in their country or in our country, until they leave our territory and the alliance with the devil, with France in Mali.”

AQIM helped establish JNIM in 2017. One of its founding leaders is Amadou Kouffa, who is identified as Mohammed Kofa in the 9/11 anniversary video. Kouffa led the Macina Liberation Front (MLF) prior to its merger with other al Qaeda-affiliated groups under the banner of JNIM.

Amadou Kouffa (Mohammed Kofa), middle, as seen in the 9/11 anniversary video.

In the footage, Kouffa addresses Muslims on behalf of Iyad Ag Ghali, JNIM’s overall leader. Kouffa calls on the Fulani people “in every place…in Senegal, in Mali, in Niger, in Burkina Faso, in the Ivory Coast, in Ghana, in Nigeria and Cameroon…” to wage jihad.

Shabaab’s Abu Abdurahman Mahad Warsame.

Abu Abdurahman Mahad Warsame is one of Shabaab’s most prominent spokesmen. He has defended the jihadists’ controversial violence in Somalia and elsewhere.

“The atrocities and crimes of the disbelievers against the Muslims of Somalia is something plain to see and evident to you all,” Warsame says in the clip. “I ask you by Allah, how are you content watching the disbelievers enslave you in your own homes, kill your elderly and plunder your resources at both land and sea?”

Sami al Uraydi is a Zawahiri loyalist in Syria.

Sami al-Uraydi is an ideologue who was once a senior sharia official in Al-Nusrah Front, al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria until July 2016. Some months after Al-Nusrah was rebranded, a bitter dispute pitted al-Uraydi and others against their former comrades. Al-Uraydi has most recently served as a major figure in Hurras al-Din, one of several al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria. Al-Uraydi has been a vocal critic of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and its emir, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, even though they had once led Al-Nusrah together.

“This is among the most binding of obligations as has been declared and agreed upon by the Muslim scholars,” al-Uraydi says. “They have ruled that repelling the aggressing enemy that corrupts the religion and the worldly life of Muslims is the greatest of obligations.”

“We surely know that a large number of the sons of the ummah shall join the caravan of change, revival and jihad,” al-Uraydi says. “They will do so using different means and to achieve a variety of objectives, each according to his level of understanding and awareness.” He accuses the jihadists’ enemies of waging a “war against the ummah” with an “attack on the religion and the rule of the sharia.” Al-Uraydi accuses the West and others of deliberately “spreading immorality” among Muslims.

TIP leader Abdul Haq al-Turkistani.

The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) has long been affiliated with al-Qaeda, which seeks to use the Chinese government’s heavy hand in western China to recruit new jihadists. “Chinese forces are occupying Eastern Turkistan,” Zawahiri reminds viewers. “What have you [scholars and others] contributed in waging jihad against them and supporting the Turkistan Mujahideen?” 

“This land is for Muslims alone,” Abdul Haq al-Turkistani says in his clip. “The mere presence of the disbelievers on this land should be a sufficient reason for Muslims to set out for jihad.” He adds that “jihad is a collective obligation,” which “is obligatory on every Muslim in Turkistan.”  

In addition to these regions, Zawahiri himself describes the situation in Kashmir as dire, as Muslims are supposedly trapped between their “Hindu” occupiers and the duplicitous Pakistani intelligence services. The al-Qaeda leader also briefly mentions Russia and its campaign against Muslims.

Cites Hamas’s co-founder

Although al-Qaeda has been critical of Hamas at times, Zawahiri has repeatedly cited a article by Dr. Abdul Aziz al-Rantisi, cofounder of Hamas. Zawahiri has said previous that he found the article, titled “Why don’t we besiege America?,” online. In it, according to Zawahiri, al-Rantisi describes the various types of sieges that “we could employ against America, ranging from economic sieges, to psychological terror sieges, media sieges, and even tourism sieges.”

Zawahiri reads “Why don’t we besiege America?,” an article by Abdul Aziz al-Rantisi.

Zawahiri returns to al-Rantisi’s words in his 9/11 anniversary message: “At a time when America deprives us of our security in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines, Chechnya, Kashmir, and other places, where America targets us either directly or supports our enemies logistically so that they may play this role on behalf of America, we must, in response to this aggression, besiege America with fear.”

“It is simply impermissible for us to allow those who deprive us of our security to live in security,” al-Rantisi added, Zawahiri says. “Americans did not intervene in a Muslim country except with the aim of exercising some form of aggression.”  

Accuses Iran of having a deal with the U.S.

“In addition to the American war against what it calls ‘terrorism,'” Zawahiri says, “Safavid Iran participates in this campaign in its own way.” He then offers a misleading view of Iran’s relations with the U.S.

“The truth remains that Iran was a participant in America’s wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as its campaign in Syria,” Zawahiri says. “The Americans have given Shia militias the green light to operate in Syria, and there is a clear division and allocation of roles overseen by the Americans.”

The al-Qaeda leader makes only one mention of the Islamic State in his 9/11 anniversary video, and it is in reference to America’s cooperation with Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. There is truth in Zawahiri’s claim here.

Zawahiri explains that Iranian militias worked with the Americans to dismantle the so-called caliphate. He says: “It is ironical that when the Shia militias were fighting in Iraq against the self-proclaimed Caliph, Ibrahim al-Badri [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi], with American air and artillery cover, and under the leadership and planning of American advisors, at the same time, from the battlefield, with American aircrafts hovering overhead, these militias would boast on the media that they had overcome the terrorists on their own!”

The “point” for Zawahiri “is that Iran has an understanding with the Americans in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.” Outside of Iraq, that isn’t true, but it makes for a good talking point — especially for Sunni jihadists opposed to Iran’s expansion throughout the region.

Says the Taliban forced America to negotiate

Although Zawahiri views the “local” and “global” conflicts as part of the same war, he again encourages jihadists to attack the U.S., its interests and allies.

“Surveil the enemy and make your preparations,” Zawahiri says to aspiring terrorists. “Do not expect anyone to help you, except very little help perhaps. Seek help from Allah alone, and do not show any weakness.”

Zawahiri encourages would-be terrorists to be “inventive and creative in your methods.” He reminds people that Osama bin Laden and “his brothers…turned airplanes into weapons of mass destruction.”

Zawahiri recounts a meeting between Ustadh Muhammad Yasir and bin Laden in the Tora Bora Mountains in late 2001. “Hijackers who would hijack planes before 9/11 would find themselves in a dilemma,” bin Laden explained. “They would try to land them in airports only to be turned away or trapped. However, today if someone hijacks a plane, he may use it as a weapon against his enemy.’”

The al-Qaeda leader sees attacks on America as a necessary part of the jihadists’ agenda.

Zawahiri claims the Taliban forced America to negotiate.

“My Muslim brothers the world over! America does not understand anything except the language of force,” Zawahiri claims. “Those who inflict damage on America, America tries to negotiate and arrive at an understanding with them. Those who retreat in the face of its power, America does not spare them until it has complete overcome them.”

Zawahiri then offers an intriguing example to prove his point — the Taliban, which calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

“The Islamic Emirate dealt severe blows to America,” al-Qaeda’s global emir claims. “This is why the Americans showed keenness to negotiate with them a withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

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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