…as al-Zawahiri Tries to Boost Jihadi Morale

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 23

An extended audio statement from Ayman al-Zawahiri, believed to have been made in mid-September, was posted on December 9 on the al-Safinat jihadi forum ( Under the rubric “Four years on since the attacks on New York and Washington,” and dated Sha’ban 1426 (September 2005), the 48-minute tape was produced by al-Sahab Media Productions, an organization that has come to be known as al-Qaeda’s video production company. The statement is worth examining in detail since, amid the rhetoric of denunciation and challenge, it reveals much about the present state of morale within the al-Qaeda organization.

The presentation, entitled Mu’awwiqat al-Jihad (Obstacles to Jihad), is provided with English subtitles and is hence intended for the widest possible circulation. It starts off in a buoyant tone: “I wish to speak to you about the victory that, with Allah’s permission, is imminent … for a simple reason, that the key to victory is in our hands.” Subsequently, however, the tone shifts, indicating some exasperation at the lack of the “final push” required to ensure the success of the jihad, outlining that “the primary cause of defeat is in ourselves.” As if to counter a mood of despondency, al-Zawahiri underlines how the jihad has already achieved successes. In Iraq, he maintains, the resistance “stabs America every day and makes it scream and search feverishly for a way out of its predicament there.” And in Israel—”were it not for the mujahideen’s confrontation of Israel and its agents (our rulers) Israel would have now expanded to many times its current size.” The mujahideen have also, he asserts, effectively defended Islam from the “puppet rulers,” under whom “the corruption … would have worsened and they would have sought to eradicate Islam.”

Al-Zawahiri spends most of the tape discussing the situation in Afghanistan. Keen to stress the unity of ranks between the Taliban and the mujahideen, despite all that has happened, al-Zawahiri reverses the interpretation of the New York attacks leading to the downfall of the Islamic Emirate, and instead speaks of the victory that galvanized the jihad. He maintains that the emirate’s structure under Mullah Omar is firm and “controls large, extensive parts of eastern and western Afghanistan.” Al-Zawahiri is particularly sensitive to the impression that the alliance between al-Qaeda and the Taliban has faded since the U.S. invasion, stressing the comments made by top Taliban commander and former intelligence chief Mullah Dadullah in an al-Jazeera interview that “we sacrificed our government for the mujahideen of al-Qaeda” as “our Islamic obligation” in the face of “a shared enemy.” Al-Zawahiri then pointedly holds up Mullah Omar as a paragon of a jihadi emir, in comparison to those who subsequently apostated “at the feet of America and Israel.” The Taliban are similarly regarded as uniquely steadfast against the infidel enemy.

The entire passage appears to be an extended vote of gratitude to the Taliban for sheltering al-Qaeda. Interestingly, throughout this long paean to the Taliban, al-Zawahiri speaks little of Osama Bin Laden—save to say that they protected a hero of Islam, and somewhat cryptically writes off the question of Osama as “no longer an issue of an individual but has become the question of the honor of Islam. ”

Tone and the Appeal

For all the bullish talk of triumph, the message of al-Zawahiri’s address appears equally crafted as a last-minute appeal for support to help prevent the defeat of the mujahideen. “The key to victory is in our hands,” he states, “and in turn, the primary cause of defeat is in ourselves.” This part of the message is particularly noteworthy, in that the reproach and call for jihad contradict the image of success he maintains the jihad has already achieved. Al-Zawahiri gives his diagnosis for the problems besetting the jihad: “The first battle we must win is our battle with ourselves, our battle with out weakness and helplessness and clinging to the earth… our preference for small gains.” He then goes on to encourage the mujahideen by belittling the enemy as having little else but technology on their side, and “driven only by fear and desire … in the field they don’t make a stand in any honest encounter.” At root of the problem of the lack of victory is Muslims’ “fear and ignorance of fighting” and their “submission to [the regimes’] terrorism and intimidation.” Al-Zawahiri then develops this theme on the disastrous passivity of the Muslims; taking the example of the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat by Khalid al-Islambouli, he notes how everyone subsequently abandoned them to their fate and contented themselves with “passive praise.” Another example is Saudi Arabia, where Muslims who called for reform were “left to fight alone” and—in a probable reference to the penitent Saudi jihadi shaykhs—”some callers to reform relapsed and turned around to stab their brothers, the Mujahideen … in their backs.”

Al-Zawahiri appears genuinely exasperated at the lack of enthusiasm in the Muslim community for the rigors of jihad and the ability of the broader community to content itself with the war of words. He scoffs, from his position out there on the front line in the hills, at the armchair commentators. “If each one of us wants to turn into a debater, analyst, and specialist who dresses in elegant clothes, attends seminars and appears on screen, then returns to his house safe from the tyranny of the Crusaders and their agents, then there is no hope for deliverance.”

There is also a tone of negativity in al-Zawahiri’s response to practical criticism: “if the Jihad brings on loss and disaster, then show us what you’ve got in your quiver! … What have you done to confront these disasters other than shedding crocodile tears and issuing condemnations and giving sermons and writing books?” Doubts concerning the legitimacy of jihad are similarly dismissed. To the argument distinguishing attacks on America and Israel from attacks on Muslim leaders, “we ask them: with which Book and which Sunnah have you differentiated between the foreign enemy and his domestic agent?” To the argument of timing al-Zawahiri is no less scornful: “If you want us to postpone the jihad, and be patient, and resort to your easy, comfortable methods, then how long must we wait for your barren ways to bear fruit? Another 100 years?”

This is a remarkable document from al-Zawahiri, indicating some serious doubts at the top of al-Qaeda as to the prospects of the success of jihad. While exhortations to jihad are commonplace, as are criticisms of laziness in the Muslim youth or vigorous calls to develop an appropriate jihad-consciousness, the present tape appears to take the form of an eleventh-hour warning, addressed this time not to the opponents, so much as the rightful supporters of jihad. “History,” al-Zawahiri warns, “shall hold it against you that when the Mujahid vanguards rose … and hope was awakened in the ability of the Muslim Ummah to resist, you stabbed it from behind… As long as this malignant illness continues to survive within us there is no hope for victory”