Al-Qaeda’s Completed Warning Cycle – Ready to attack?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 5

DCI Porter Goss’s testimony before Congress on February 16 that Soviet nuclear material could be in al-Qaeda’s hands is a troubling coda to speeches by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in late 2004. Bin Laden’s October 30 speech was treated by the media as an attempt to influence the election. Most post-speech commentary also claimed the speech moved bin Laden away from war and toward political discourse. That the speech was directed to the American people is clear. What received little notice, however, is that the speech – and Zawahiri’s in November 2004 – completed a cycle of statements warning Americans, and preparing the Muslim world, for an al-Qaeda attack more severe than 9/11.

After 9/11, bin Laden received sharp criticisms from Islamist scholars that dealt with the al-Qaeda chief’s failure to satisfy several religious requirements pertinent to waging war. The critique focused on three items: (1) insufficient warning; (2) failure to offer Americans a chance to convert to Islam; and (3) inadequate religious authorization to kill so many people. Bin Laden accepted these criticisms and in mid-2002 began a series of speeches and actions to remedy the shortcomings and satisfy his Islamist critics before again attacking in the United States.

Bin Laden devoted most attention to warning Americans that, to prevent another 9/11-type attack, they had to elect leaders who would change U.S. policies toward the Islamic world. He focused especially on the U.S. presence in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and Afghanistan, unqualified support for Israel, as well as support for Muslim tyrannies in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. Animosity toward these policies had long been a staple of bin Laden’s statements, but since 2002 he has spoken directly to Americans about what they – not their leaders – must do to avoid another attack.

In America’s democratic system, bin Laden said, U.S. leaders are elected by the people and stay in office only if the people support their policies. Arguing that the U.S. policies perceived by Muslims as attacks on Islam have been in place for decades, bin Laden said it is clear that the American people as a whole approve of anti-Islamic policies. “The American people have the ability and choice to refuse the policies of their Government and even to change their Government,” bin Laden said in October 2002, “yet time and again polls show that the American people support the policies of the elected Government.” On this basis, bin Laden warned Americans on four occasions between mid-2002 and October 2004 that they would be responsible for any military disaster that befell them if they did not elect leaders who would change the policy status quo. Indeed, bin Laden’s speech of 30 October 2004 appears to be an exceptionally explicit warning. It was largely devoid of the religious and historical allusions usually present in his speeches, as if he wanted to ensure that translators would get his warning to Americans quickly and clearly. (Al-Jazeera, 30 October, 12 Nov 02;, 26 Oct 02)

Parallel to the warnings, bin Laden on two occasions since 2002 asked Americans to convert to Islam as the means of terminating the war al-Qaeda is waging against the United States. “We call you to Islam,” bin Laden said on both occasions, addressing himself to President Bush – as the leader of the American people – and asking him to lead his countrymen to Islam. He also offered to serve as guide and teacher for the American people, urging them to “follow the right path” to Islam. “I am an honest adviser to you.” bin Laden concluded, “I urge you to seek the joy of life and the after life…. I urge you to become Muslims….” (Al-Jazeera 6 Oct 02;, 26 Oct 02)

To remedy the criticism of inadequate religious authorization for mass American casualties, bin Laden received the necessary sanction from a young, radical Saudi Shaykh named Hamid bin al-Fahd. In May 2003, al-Fahd published a fatwa on his website entitled “A Treatise on the Legal Status of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction Against Infidels.” (FBIS, May 23 2003) In this lengthy work, al-Fahd affirmatively answered the question of whether it was permissible under the four schools of Sunni Islam for the mujahideen to use nuclear weapons against the United States. Bin al-Fahd concluded that each school did permit the use of such weapons and that the mujahideen would be justified in inflicting millions of casualties in the United States. “Anyone who considers America’s aggression against Muslims and their lands during the last decade,” al-Fahd maintained, “will conclude that striking her is permissible merely on the rule of treating one as one has been treated. Some brothers have totaled the number of Muslims killed directly or indirectly by their [America’s] weapons and come up with the figure of nearly ten million.”

Thus, when bin Laden spoke to Americans in October 2004, he was tying up loose ends leftover from 9/11 and telling Americans again that changing the “policy of the White House … [is] the ideal way to prevent another Manhattan….” (Al-Jazeera 30 Oct 04) By then he had repeatedly warned Americans that al-Qaeda would attack unless U.S. policies were changed. Strange and even comic sounding to American and Western ears, bin Laden’s warnings and invitation to conversion are meant to satisfy Islamic scholars, and Muslims generally, that al-Qaeda has abided by the Prophet Muhammad’s instructions of offering a warning to the enemy before launching an attack. Likewise, Shaykh al-Fahd’s treatise attempts to overcome the lack of religious grounding for mass casualties for which Islamic scholars criticized the 9/11 attack, and will be used by bin Laden as such after his next attack against the United States.

In this overall context, the November 28 2004 speech by deputy al-Qaeda chief Zawahiri seems to have brought closure to the warning cycle begun by bin Laden in 2002. In his speech, Zawahiri spoke more in sorrow than anger when he gave Americans “a final piece of advice.” He said that Americans had again elected leaders who would keep the status quo in U.S. foreign policy toward the Islamic world. Noting that al-Qaeda had repeatedly warned against this course of action, Zawahiri implied that Americans would get no more warnings and that they would have only themselves to blame for future disasters. “The results of your elections don’t concern us,” Zawahiri said about the policy status quo, “What matters to us is the way in which the United States behaves toward Muslims.” (AFP, 30 November 2004)

Since November 2004, Zawahiri and bin Laden each have made two statements. They focused on Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the continuing threat of “The Crusaders”; none warned Americans or even specifically addressed the United States. These recent statements mirror the non-specific statements that were issued by bin Laden and Zawahiri before earlier attacks -such as 9/11 (2001), The USS Cole (2000), and the East Africa Embassy bombings (1998)- and suggest that bin Laden believes he has satisfied his post-9/11 critics. If Zawahiri’s November 28 speech did conclude al-Qaeda’s warning cycle, it probably means the group is ready to attack in the United States, a situation that makes DCI Goss’s statement that Soviet nuclear materials may be held by al-Qaeda all the more troubling.

Michael Scheuer served in the CIA for 22 years before resigning in 2004. He served as the Chief of the bin Laden Unit at the Counterterrorist Center from 1996 to 1999. He is the once anonymous author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror and Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America.