The past week produced messages from the new leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who uses the name Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and may be an Egyptian by the name of Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and al-Qaeda deputy chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. While there is nothing startlingly new in either message, both provide occasions for examining al-Qaeda’s ability to stay on message, to learn from and try to redress serious errors and to deploy Islamic history and tradition in support of its case for a “defensive jihad” against the United States and its allies.
Al-Muhajir was first out of the box on September 28 with a statement that again focused on al-Qaeda’s efforts to mend its virulently anti-Shiite reputation in Iraq, as well as to solidify what apparently had become a shaky relationship between the group and Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq. Al-Muhajir’s message appears to be a continuation of the effort he has made—and to which Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have publicly contributed—to clearly distinguish among Shiites, between those who are supporting the coalition-backed Iraqi government and those who are neutral toward it or actively resisting it. He used the opening of the holy month of Ramadan to reassure the latter of al-Qaeda’s willingness to live and let live, while offering the former a chance to repent, join the resistance and save their lives, but only if they do so before the end of Ramadan. (NB: This offer presumably also applies to Sunnis working for the regime.) “I say to those traitors in this blessed month, the month of pardon and forgiveness,” al-Muhajir wrote, “that we are declaring a general pardon for all of them, forgiving them for our blood that was spilled by your hands and your treachery. We welcome you once again. Return to your religion and homeland before we defeat you, and you will have peace and security. We will not touch you but with kindness. You must first declare your sincere repentance in front of your tribes and families and inform us by whatever means, lest we make a mistake [and kill you]. You should put your hands in the hands of your brothers and sons, the mujahideen, for peace and security to return to our homes and expel the invader and to expel the occupier from our midst in this blessed month” .
Al-Muhajir also took another step toward undoing some of the anti-al-Qaeda alienation Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had created in Iraq’s Sunni community. Knowledge of those al-Zarqawi-created difficulties was boosted last week when West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center released a December 2005 letter from al-Qaeda’s headquarters in South Asia in which al-Zarqawi was warned that his approach to the war contained “negatives…things that are perilous and ruinous.” The letter was signed by a senior al-Qaeda leader—believed to be a Libyan named Atiyah Abd al-Rahman—and included a judgment that al-Zarqawi might have to step down as chief in Iraq “if you find at some point someone who is better and more suitable than you” .
In his statement, al-Muhajir seemed to be trying to redress al-Zarqawi’s failure to abide by an order contained in al-Rahman’s letter; al-Rahman had written that al-Zarqawi was not to “to kill any religious scholar or tribal leader who is obeyed, and of good repute in Iraq from among the Sunnis, no matter what” . (NB: There have been a number of such killings in Sunni-dominated al-Anbar Province since al-Rahman’s letter was written.) Al-Muhajir confronted this issue directly on September 28, and strongly implied that the success of al-Qaeda in Iraq and, indeed, that of all the Iraqi resistance depended on the leadership of tribal elders. “My second message is to those who sacrificed greatly, and endured pressures of which only God knows,” al-Muhajir said . “To the tribal leaders who supported and stood by us in secret and in public, provided us with men and money, I say: May God reward you well. You are the people of chivalry, generosity, bravery and fearlessness. If one with knowledge and status swore that the most generous people among the people of the earth are the Iraqi people, I do not think he would be lying. The day will come upon you, o most noble sheikhs, when we will place you on our shoulders, nay on our heads, and say to the masses: These are our fathers, we challenge you to find their likes…”
On the heels of al-Muhajir’s message, Ayman al-Zawahiri released a statement on September 29 entitled “Bush, Pope of the Vatican, Darfur and the Crusader Wars.” Also taking advantage of the holy month of Ramadan, al-Zawahiri adroitly used his message to speak to the long historical memory of Muslims. Interestingly, al-Zawahiri directed his discussion of Pope Benedict’s recent remarks about Islam—quoting the negative views of a Byzantine emperor—directly to his Muslim audience; the video ceased providing English subtitles when the subject turned to the Pope’s words.
Al-Zawahiri took two traditional avenues in attacking the Pope’s comments. He first dismissed any claims that Islam was in any way lacking in reason because it included the duty of jihad. Al-Zawahiri claimed that the reverse was true. Catholicism’s claims to being a reason-based, monotheistic religion “cannot be accepted by a sound mind because it includes superstitions like the trinity, the crucifixion, redemption, the original sin, the infallibility of the Pope and the church’s forgiveness of sins” . This is the traditional Islamic scholar’s condemnation of Catholicism and Christianity, and al-Zawahiri completed it by citing the revelatory nature of the Quran, and reminding the Pope that “the book he deems holy [the Bible] does not have an authentic source and did not descend upon Jesus [as did the Quran upon Muhammad], peace be upon him. Rather it is about what was written about Jesus, peace be upon him…”
Having pointed out the sharp differences between Catholicism and Islam—and having offered the Pope and all Christians a chance to convert—al-Zawahiri launched an attack on the “charlatan Pope,” indicting him as one “who blasphemed God and insulted the reverend Prophet [Muhammad], peace and prayers be upon him…” Seeking to place the Pope’s remarks in the context of perpetual assaults by Christendom on Islam, al-Zawahiri explained that the Pope’s “insolence” follows in the wake of imprisoned and mistreated Muslim prisoners, the caricatures of the Prophet, Salman Rushdie’s book and France’s ban on the headscarf for Muslim women. The Pope’s words, al-Zawahiri concluded, are clearly part of the medieval Catholic crusades that have been renewed in the form of the “crusader U.S. campaign against Islam and Muslims.”
“The [talk of the] charlatan Benedict XVI reminds us of the speech delivered by his predecessor Pope Urban II in Claremont in France, in which he instigated the people of Europe to fight Muslims and wage crusade wars because the pagan Muslims, the enemies of Christians, as he claimed, desecrate the grave of Jesus Christ, peace be upon him,” al-Zawahiri said. “He [Urban II] deliberately lied to the mob of the West and ignored crystal-clear facts; namely, that Muslims are not pagan and eradicated paganism wherever they go…He also ignored the fact that Muslims cannot be the enemies of Jesus Christ, peace be upon him, because they believe in his prophecy and consider him an apostle messenger of inflexible purpose…”
He continues, arguing that “the result of this charlatanism [by Urban II] was crusade wars that lasted for about two centuries and ended with the utter defeat of the crusader West. Benedict XVI fabricated lies against us, but we respond to this insult by benevolence, inviting him and all Christians to Islam…However, if they insist on their failed crusade war, let them have the same fate of Urban II and those who obeyed him and believed his lies” .
This review of the statements by al-Muhajir and al-Zawahiri are not exhaustive; topics such as Darfur, the role of clerics in jihad, the West’s imprisonment of Muslim scholars and the Afghan and Iraq wars were also discussed. The issues covered above, however, are all central parts of the doctrine al-Qaeda has developed for trying to enroll the Muslim masses in the war against the United States and its allies: publicly admit and study your mistakes, and try to rectify them using Islamic themes; never forget the centrality of religion to the war and its unique ability to push your agenda forward and to help repair errors; and, in public statements, never forget the resonance and mobilizing power of Islam and Islamic history among Muslims. In their remarks, al-Muhajir and al-Zawahiri validated a point recently made by Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of al-Quds al-Arabi. “People in the West do not often fully understand the deep connection many Muslims feel with their past,” Atwan said . “After centuries of decline, they view bin Laden as having brought hope and dignity back to a people under a shadow of humiliation and exploitation, and having squared up to the bullies of the West.”
1. Statement by Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, September 28, 2006.
2. Washington Post, October 2, 2006.
4. Statement by Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, September 28, 2006.
5. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Bush, Pope of the Vatican, Darfur and the Crusader Wars,” September 29, 2006.
7. Abdel Bari Atwan, “The Secret History of al-Qaeda,” Los Angeles: University of Californian Press: 2006, pp. 40 and 66.