On the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, al-Qaeda’s media production unit presented a 70-plus-minute videotape of an interview with second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri . Unlike videos issued to commemorate earlier 9/11 anniversaries, al-Zawahiri’s video was not dedicated solely or even primarily to the actions of those he calls the “blessed 19.” Rather, the tape appears to be primarily directed toward Muslims and to serve as a summation of where the “defensive jihad” against the United States stands and where it is going.
Interestingly, it nearly coincided with Osama bin Laden’s September 2, 1996 Declaration of War Against the United States. Al-Zawahiri covered many of the same topics that bin Laden covered a decade ago, especially the incompetence and treason of Muslim regimes and the UN’s anti-Muslim actions. He also continued al-Qaeda’s efforts to distance itself from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s indiscriminate attacks on Iraqi Shiites and used that issue as the basis for aggressively reasserting the immediate need for Muslim unity in the face of the U.S.-led enemy. Perhaps ominously, al-Zawahiri closed his speech with a vivid, impassioned reminder to his Muslim audience that he, bin Laden and al-Qaeda had done all that is possible to find a peaceful settlement to Islam’s war with the United States, but to no avail.
In the interview’s opening, al-Zawahiri used the recent Hezbollah-Israel conflict to revalidate bin Laden’s 1996 claim that Muslim regimes cannot protect their nationals and indeed often meant them harm. “The Muslim nation should know,” al-Qaeda’s deputy chief explained, “that the governments of Arab and Islamic countries are helpless and even colluding with the enemies of the nation [ummah]…Our basic problem is the domination of corrupt and rotten regimes, which do not govern by Sharia and open the land for the foreign enemy…” Pointing to the United Nations—which in 1996 bin Laden described as Islam’s enemy—and its Resolution 1701, which installed the Israel-Hezbollah cease-fire, al-Zawahiri argued that:
“The governments of all Arab and Muslim countries have recognized the legitimacy of the United Nations which is trying to bury Palestine, erase it from existence and replace it with Israel…At the same time the Israeli bombers were demolishing houses in Gaza and Lebanon, the traitors in our countries were shaking hands with the Crusaders, embracing them, currying favor with them and conspiring with them. Among the most prominent of these conspirators are the rulers of Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula and Jordan and the traitors in Iraq who shade themselves with the cross of America, the Great Satan…[For these regimes] the slogan ‘death to America, death to Israel’ has gone to be replaced by ‘rule from America and peace with Israel.'”
Al-Zawahiri then used the interviewer’s request for an assessment of conditions in Iraq to urge immediate moves toward Muslim unity. Noting first that “the martyrdom of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi…is a loss to jihad and [the] mujahideen,” al-Zawahiri said al-Qaeda was still strong in Iraq and cited approvingly the claim of U.S. officials that “the activities of al-Qaeda in Iraq have not been affected by the killing of Abu Musab.” Al-Zawahiri claimed that the mujahideen in Iraq were growing stronger, that “America is embroiled in a historic mess in Iraq” and that al-Qaeda even now “deemed” U.S. forces in Iraq—and Afghanistan—”to be defeated.” He also said that the mujahideen were ready to open new fronts against Israel and oil producers on the Arabian Peninsula.
For the first time, however, al-Zawahiri suggested that al-Zarqawi’s murderous behavior toward the Shiites had not been sanctioned by bin Laden; Shiites were to have been attacked only if they attacked Sunnis or supported the U.S.-backed regime. “Let me be frank and explicit on this point,” al-Zawahiri said. “The instructions of Sheikh Osama, may God protect him, to the brothers in Iraq, chief among them Abu Musab…were that they focus their efforts on the Americans and neutralize the rest of the powers as best they could.” Al-Zawahiri dismissed the interviewer’s claim that many thought al-Qaeda initiated the Shiite-Sunni fighting, saying that “al-Qaeda has not done anything to them [the Shiites] because al-Qaeda in Iraq is too busy with jihad against the Crusader occupation…Someone busy fighting the Americans will be more eager than anyone to lessen his enemies and increase his friends.” Still, al-Zawahiri did candidly admit that “we are very happy about the transfer of the banner of jihad and resistance [in Iraq] to Abu Hamza al-Muhajir” and again reached out to the Shiites and Kurds, saying, “As far as anyone who resists the Americans and seeks to establish the rule of Islam in Iraq, we are prepared to talk and come to an understanding with him.”
Al-Zawahiri continued by stressing the immediate need for Muslims to unite and resist the “crusaders, the Zionists and their agents.” Muslims are, he said, “one nation, waging one war on multiple fronts.” He again referred to the recent joining of al-Qaeda by a faction of Egypt’s Gama’a al-Islamiyya and then announced that “Our mujahid Sheikh and the lion of Islam Osama bin Laden…has instructed me to give the good news to Muslims in general and my mujahideen brothers everywhere that the Salafist Group for Call and Combat [in Algeria] has joined al-Qaeda of Jihad Organization. We ask God that it will be a bone in the throats of the Americans and French Crusaders and their allies…” He also added that, overall, “many groups have joined al-Qaeda, some of which have been announced and others have not.”
These additions to al-Qaeda, al-Zawahiri said, should remind all Muslims “of the necessity of unity since it is the gateway to victory and it is the legal duty of Muslims when facing their enemies.” Al-Zawahiri concluded his discussion of unity by underscoring for Muslims—as did bin Laden in 1996 and the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century—that even non-Muslim allies should be temporarily welcomed to join in Islam’s fight against the depredations of the United States. He said:
“I invite all of America’s victims to Islam, the religion which rejects injustice and treachery. If they don’t convert to Islam, then they should at least take advantage of the Muslims’ defensive campaign to repel America’s aggression against them and overcome them [the Americans], each in his own way, under his own banner, and with whatever is at his disposal. This is their historic chance because America is reeling from the blows of the mujahideen in Iraq and Afghanistan, thanks to God.”
Al-Zawahiri closed the video by answering the interviewer’s question as to whether he had a message for “Western peoples.” Al-Zawahiri said he did have such a message, and while he framed his argument in terms that seemed to refer to all Westerners, it was clearly meant for U.S. and British consumption, and even more to assure his Muslim audience that al-Qaeda had done all it could—in accord with the Prophet Muhammad’s guidance—to foreclose the need for further war. He advised Muslims not to believe those who claim al-Qaeda has made no “serious offer to the West” to end the fighting.
He said, “I tell them your leaders are concealing from you the true size of the disaster which will shock you. The days are pregnant and they will give birth to new events with God’s permission and guidance. I tell them: You have provided us with all the legal and rational reasons to fight you and punish you. You have committed ugly crimes, breached treaties that you used to impose on others to abide by. For our part, we have repeatedly warned you and repeatedly offered you a truce. So now we have legal and rational justifications to continue fighting you until your power is destroyed or you surrender…We have repeatedly declared our political offer to the West, but the leaders of the West, especially Bush and Blair, are keen on causing confusion about that. Sheikh Osama bin Laden, may God protect him, offered a truce to America and the West. I have already told the West that the way to peace is the withdrawal from our countries, stopping the plunder of our resources and ending support for the corrupt governments in our lands.”
In sum, al-Zawahiri’s performance in the September 11 video was both a summary and a stage-setter. He hit the main themes of al-Qaeda doctrine that have been in place since 1996: the need to drive the United States from the Middle East to open the path for the mujahideen to destroy the apostate Arab regimes and Israel; the preservation of Islamic energy resources; the enhancement of Muslim unity and placing Sunni-Shiite strife on the backburner; and the installation of Sharia rule across the region.
Al-Zawahiri claimed satisfactory progress in all of these areas and left his listeners with a hint that al-Qaeda is ready to turn the page and again attack in the United States. “The mujahideen,” he asserted, “should strike any targets that would weaken the aggressive Crusader-Zionist campaign on the land of Islam.” He said they focus on Americans, who are “in the eyes of the Sharia a fighting people who are at war with Muslims because they choose their leaders and parliaments by their own free will, meaning they choose the executive authority that commits aggression against Islam and Muslims…”
1. All quotations by al-Zawahiri are drawn from the September 11 videotape interview.