Zawahiri asserts al Qaeda’s independence in new message

On the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 hijackings, Al Qaeda has released a lengthy screed from Ayman al Zawahiri. In last year’s anniversary message, Zawahiri attempted to rebuke Islamic critics of al Qaeda’s deadliest day. This year, Zawahiri’s ire is directed at another target: Al Jazeera. In particular, the al Qaeda emir critiques a feature produced by the television network, claiming it is propaganda that is intended to undermine the mujahideen’s cause.

It is a curious subject to make the centerpiece of a message released on this day, but the video’s release was likely timed to coincide with the normalization of relations between Israel and the Kingdom of Bahrain. The video, which was produced by As Sahab, al Qaeda’s longtime media arm, is titled “Deal of the Century or the Crusade of the Century.”

Much of the production is aimed at an Al Jazeera video released in 2019. It focused on the story of Muhammad Saleh Ali Muhammad, an alleged former al Qaeda member who claimed that the monarchy in Bahrain hired the jihadists to hunt down members of the Shiite opposition. Zawahiri bristles at this claim, arguing that Muhammad Saleh was never in al-Qaeda’s ranks and that his story doesn’t add up.

One of Zawahiri’s key arguments is that Muhammad Saleh’s testimony is inconsistent with al Qaeda’s “General Guidelines for Jihad,” which were posted online in 2013. The text of those guidelines is displayed onscreen, as well as in the As Sahab transcripts (in both English and Arabic) that accompany the video message.

“It is not hidden from the brothers that our work in this stage has two aspects: the first military and the second propagational,” the 2013 guidelines read. The guidelines make it clear that al Qaeda views both the U.S. and various local rulers throughout the Muslim-majority world as its enemies. The video transcript adds: “The military work targets firstly the head of international disbelief, America and its ally Israel. Secondly, it targets their local allies who rule over our lands.”

The guidelines further stipulated that although al Qaeda prefers to attack “the head of international disbelief,” Muslims still have the right to wage jihad against any regimes or parties “who oppress them.” And while al Qaeda has a “policy of non-engagement militarily with the local regimes,” this does not apply to the instances in which these same governments are deemed proxies of American forces, such as in Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula or Somalia. The mujahideen also have the right to wage jihad against governments that don’t accept their existence, such as “in the Islamic Maghreb, Syria, and Iraq.” Thus, al Qaeda is not myopically focused on striking the West, but instead has developed a wide target list.  

Given that America’s “local allies” are al Qaeda’s enemies, Zawahiri reasons, “it is clear that we consider the apostate traitor, the King of Bahrain, as one of our enemies.” The al Qaeda leader then asks: “How can this enmity be reconciled with Muhammad Saleh Ali Muhammad’s keenness to please the King, his insistence that his work is for the country’s benefit- a country controlled totally by the King… that he visited the King after his return and the King reassured him?”

Zawahiri claims that Saleh’s story contradicts not only the policies set forth in al Qaeda’s 2013 guidelines, but also Osama bin Laden’s various directives, as well those specified in other publications, such as the group’s “Document for the Support of Islam.”

Criticizes Abu Bakr al Baghdadi

The al Qaeda leader also uses the guidelines to blast Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who headed the Islamic State until his death in an American raid last year. In 2013 and 2014, Baghdadi and his men defied Zawahiri’s authority and declared their own caliphate, turning their guns on their former jihadist comrades.

Zawahiri says that the 2013 guidelines are “a public document that was released after consultation with the local branches of al Qaeda.” The guidelines were “sent a year before its public release to Ibrahim al Badri [Baghdadi].”

“He, however, did not comment on it,” Zawahiri says. “When it [the guidelines document] was released, he still did not comment.” It was only after al Qaeda’s general command issued decisions “against him and he was expelled from the Organization [meaning al Qaeda]” that “he mobilized his deceitful media machine (to raise objections).” Zawahiri adds: “And can there be any cure for those who are addicted to lies!”

Zawahiri previously raised this same issue in correspondence with the Islamic State that was posted online by al Qaeda supporters. In brief, Zawahiri is saying that Baghdadi and the Islamic State of Iraq (as it was previously known) were given the opportunity to comment on or object to al Qaeda’s general guidelines, just like all other regional al Qaeda branches. But Baghdadi and his men did not object to the document’s contents until after they decided to become al Qaeda’s rivals. Indeed the Islamic State regularly objects to the guidelines and other al Qaeda policies on doctrinal grounds, seeking to sow further discontent with Zawahiri’s ways.

Zawahiri claims Jundallah has no links to al Qaeda

The elderly al Qaeda emir chastises Al Jazeera for also attempting to link Jundullah, a Baluchi group, to his organization. “Al Qaeda, as per Al Jazeera’s spin, is linked to Jundullah,” Zawahiri sneers. Zawahiri claims that Al Jazeera traced Jundallah’s ties through Abu Hafs al Baluchi, “who is in turn linked to the Bahraini Intelligence” and therefore “al Qaeda is linked to the Bahraini Intelligence.” This is “slander” and an example of “America’s war of dirty propaganda,” Zawahiri argues.

“The spokesman of Jundullah said in a press interview that his group has no links with the Taliban or al Qaeda and claimed that these accusations were leveled by the Iranian Interior Ministry,” Zawahiri says. “Hence, Al Jazeera’s attempts to link al Qaeda with Jundullah are in line with the media policy of the Iranian Interior Ministry.” But “Abu Hafs al Balochi did not say in his recording that he was a member of Jundullah.”

Instead, according to Zawahiri, when Abu Hafs decided “to fight the Iranian government” he “created his own organization, Ansarullah, which later joined Jama’at al Furqan.” This “group renamed itself as Ansar al Furqan.” (Al Qaeda-linked online channels have promoted Ansar al Furqan.)

Disputes claim that Abu Zubaydah was tied to three Saudi royals

“As for the third illusion which Al Jazeera tried to sell, it concerns the former American Intelligence official who claimed that he found a pocket diary with Abu Zubaydah containing the telephone numbers of three princes in the Saudi royal family,” Zawahiri says. Zubaydah was captured in early 2002 and subjected to harsh interrogation methods, some of which amounted to torture. Some have claimed that Zubaydah wasn’t really a part of al Qaeda, but his dossier is filled with details connecting him to al Qaeda’s upper echelon. And Zubaydah declared his fealty to Osama bin Laden in a video he produced.

Zawahiri points to the harsh treatment Zubaydah was subjected to while in American custody and repeatedly asks Allah to “hasten his release.” Zawahiri argues that Abu Zubaydah’s alleged ties to the Saudi royals are not mentioned in the 9/11 Commission’s final report, despite the fact that Zubaydah is “mentioned in the report 50 times” and he is referenced on two other occasions in the report by one of his aliases. Zubaydah’s alleged connection to the Saudi royals appeared in a book written by a former CIA officer, John Kiriakou. As Sahab features excerpts from Kiriakou’s book in the newly released video, arguing that he isn’t a credible source and that he has offered contradictory versions of the story.

Al Qaeda doesn’t work for any foreign governments, Zawahiri stresses

Zawahiri says that all of these stories can be traced to the “criminal America, the petro-robber, the occupier of our lands, the creator of Israel, the instigator behind the Judaization of Jerusalem who spreads his forces in our lands and his naval fleets in our seas…who implants treacherous toadies to rule over us.” He claims that Al Jazeera has participated in “America’s dirty propaganda war” by airing the above claims, which portray the mujahideen in a negative light.

He is especially angry that al Qaeda “has been unjustly accused” by various intelligence agencies of being a client for patron states. “They accuse us of being agents of America, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Russia, and Egypt… and so on,” Zawahiri claims.

Al Qaeda is accused of being dishonorable in other ways as well, he laments. But if any viewers want “to judge us,” then they “should see the message of al Qaeda, which is the most precious thing we possess.” Zawahiri claims that the “reception and acceptance of this message by the Ummah [worldwide community of Muslims] is our real victory.”

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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