Is Zawahiri Striving for Islamist Unity in Preparation for New Attack?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 23

When Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he had a “gut feeling” that the United States faces an increased chance of a domestic terrorist attack in the months ahead, he brought into sharp relief the fact that al-Qaeda has been working since 2001 to prepare Islamist organizations to take advantage of its next U.S. attack. Given al-Qaeda’s own statements, Chertoff’s sense of timing is roughly in the ballpark. Senior al-Qaeda lieutenant Sayf al-Adel has written that after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, al-Qaeda and the Taliban estimated that the Taliban would return to power in Afghanistan in about seven years, and that its return would be accomplished as part of and “in harmony with a well-examined plan that will defeat the Americans and their supporters” [1]. This coming October will mark the sixth of those seven years and that fact might well bestir Chertoff’s “gut.”

Another hint that al-Qaeda’s pre-U.S.-attack phase may be winding down is found in the intense emphasis the group’s deputy commander, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has put on promoting unity among jihadi groups—Sunni and Shiites—since mid-2005. Disunity is particularly dangerous at this time, al-Zawahiri warned on July 4, because at “the stage preceding victory…there is most [often] seen an increase in conspiracies, plots and inciting of discord, in an attempt by the enemy, who has begun to see his defeat approach, to push back and delay the defeat as much as he can” [2]. Al-Zawahiri first firmly established this theme in a July 2005 letter to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then al-Qaeda’s commander in Iraq. Warning al-Zarqawi “that things may develop faster than we imagine” in regard to the defeat and exit of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, al-Zawahiri explained that the mujahideen must be united and ready to fill any political void. Al-Zawahiri said that “the mistake of the Taliban” in not expanding participation in their government must be recalled and avoided by all Islamist groups. When the mujahideen take over in Iraq or elsewhere, al-Zawahiri wrote, insurgent leaders must direct political as well as military action “by [working for] alliance, cooperation and gathering of all leaders of opinion in the Iraqi arena.” Al-Zawahiri pointedly noted that this meant Shiite-Sunni cooperation and not just intra-Sunni unity [3].

Worthy of a parenthetical digression is the question of what al-Zawahiri’s letter to al-Zarqawi and his consistent subsequent emphasis on unity among all mujahideen groups—Sunni and Shiites—means vis-a-vis the veracity of claims by Western officials and media that Al-Qaeda in Iraq is the driving force of the Sunni vs. Shiite violence there. In each of the statements by al-Zawahiri under consideration in this article, al-Zawahiri has urged unity of all mujahideen and on several occasions has stressed that the most iconic figures of Shiite Islam—Imam Ali, and his sons Hasan and Husyan—would be demanding such cross-sect unity at this time [4]. In addition, since al-Zarqawi’s death, al-Qaeda’s new leader in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, has said virtually nothing that could be regarded as gratuitously anti-Shiite, thereby implementing the advice al-Zarqawi refused to accept. Finally, bin Laden has consistently stressed that Sunnis must not seek a final score-settling with the Shiites—unless they or some Sunnis aid the U.S.-led coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan and thereby become killable apostates—until after the United States is driven as far as possible from the Middle East and the incumbent Arab regimes and Israel are destroyed. Therefore, based on the combination of the documentary record and bin Laden’s oft-stated and seemingly ironclad strategic priorities, it seems exceedingly unlikely that al-Qaeda is the driving—or even a major—force fomenting Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq

As noted, al-Zarqawi continued to push for unity after his letter to al-Zarqawi, and in the last six months he has markedly increased his focus on the issue in his media messages, moving beyond the Iraqi theater and addressing Sunni and Shiite Islamist groups worldwide. In speaking to Islamist fighters in Palestine, Algeria, Sudan, Kurdistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt, Philippines, Kashmir, Chechnya, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Somalia, al-Zawahiri said that without unity Muslims would only be able to live “on the margins of the New World Order…under the control of the arrogant enemies of Islam, dishonored, humiliated, plundered and occupied, with them meddling in your beliefs and true religion.” In such a condition, al-Zawahiri concluded, the Muslim world would be subject to “bombing, destruction, torture, occupation, abuse and infringement…not eligible for human rights, due to it being a species of animal which has attacked its Western masters.” To prevail, al-Zawahiri argues, Muslims must understand that the U.S.-led West only fears war and that only the united mujahideen will “intimidate” the West. Without unity, no one in “the Islamic world [will] gain their freedom because lambs have no place in the middle of a world of wolves” [5].

In addition to playing down sectarian differences, al-Zawahiri has tried to breakdown inter-group barriers that derive from each group’s pride and concern for its organizational independence and sovereignty. He has, for example, made a point of not specifically speaking to Abu Hamza al-Muhajir’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq when addressing the Iraqi resistance, but rather addressing “the amir of the Islamic State of Iraq, the Mujahid Sheikh Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and all the groups of the champion mujahideen engaged in jihad in defense of Iraq and the caliphate. And I call on them to unite and be as one in accordance with the command of Allah, the most high and glorious, and his messenger, peace be upon him” [6]. In doing so, al-Zawahiri has begun to ease the anger generated among Iraqis by al-Zarqawi’s blatant attempt to impose non-Iraqi leadership on the Iraqi insurgency.

Further afield, al-Zawahiri has delivered the same message of unity time and again, explaining that Islamist groups must aim only at making God’s word the most high, and that they cannot be regarded as legitimate if they are merely the agents of personal, sectarian, or nationalist aspirations. Muslims must not be “restrained by the shackles of organizations and foundations from entering the fields of battle,” he explains. “We must destroy every shackle which stands between us and our performing his personal duty. The reason for joining the Islamic organizations and foundation is to attain obedience to Allah, so if these organizations become an obstacle to performing Allah’s obligations, then we must free ourselves from their shackles and confinement” [7].

He further states: “As for the point of view of doctrine and Islam, the Muslim umma and its mujahid vanguard do not make alliances and hold animosities on the basis of tribalism and nationalism, nor to help the Arabs against the Persians, or the Kurds against the Arabs, or the Amazight against the Arabs. Rather, Islam commands us to fight for Allah’s word to be supreme. We ally ourselves to the helpers of Islam, even if they be Afghans, Persians, Turks or Kurds, and we are hostile to its enemies who collude with the Crusaders and Jews, even if they are pure-blooded Hashemite, Qurayshite Arabs…I ask my Muslim bothers in general and the callers and the mujahideen and their media organizations in particular to highlight the concept of Islamic brotherhood and disown all partisanship, loyalties, and animosities based on nationalism, and I ask them not to allow the wrongdoing of a faction or entity to motivate to speak evil of that party’s entire people or race” [8].

“And I think these are the emotions [toward unity] of all mujahideen in Iraq—and indeed, in all lands of Islam—toward each other, even if their opinions and judgments differ,” al-Zawahiri continues. “But the thing which I want to emphasize is that we must strengthen one another, and guide one another, and advise and instruct our brothers, even if we differ with them, and that we must study how to take the upright middle path, in order to make use of and benefit from every achievement by our mujahid bothers and develop and support it with brotherly affinity, faith-based love, doctrinal brotherhood and jihadi companionship, even if we see in it shortcomings or something less than perfection…Thus, the mujahideen must solve their problems among themselves…And I don’t see any benefit for them in making public the problems of the mujahideen for all to see. In fact, I believe that its harm is much greater than its good” [9].

Clearly, al-Zawahiri has focused on promoting worldwide Islamist unity more in recent months than at any other time since the September 11 attacks. Yet making the effort does not guarantee success, and measuring the progress he has made is most difficult. One possible measure is the more than 40 Islamist groups that have pledged fealty to al-Qaeda’s philosophy and leadership in the past several years (Terrorism Focus, April 3). Another may be the independent cells that have been caught and dismantled since 2005 in Australia, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, each of which was found—after their disruption—to have been inspired by bin Laden’s leadership and al-Qaeda’s actions and propaganda.

Whatever the true measure of al-Zawahiri’s success, it seems clear that he and bin Laden want the broadest possible degree of Islamist unity to be in place before the next attack, using al-Qaeda’s core organization to apply what al-Zawahiri has described as “the new theory which al-Qaeda brought with it,” which is “confrontation with the central states, comprising the United States and Europe…by taking the war from the outlying states [in the Muslim world] to the central states, in which case the damage and consequences of this damage will take place in the central states” [10]. It is impossible to know whether al-Qaeda’s leaders are satisfied that enough unity has been achieved to attempt another attack in the United States, but the demonstrable progress toward greater unity they have made, together with the U.S. government’s assessment that al-Qaeda core is as strong as it was on September 11, suggests that Chertoff’s “gut” may have good reason to be astir.


1. Peter Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know, New York, Free Press, 2006, p. 356.

2. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “The Advice of One Concerned,” July 4, 2007.

3. Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, July 9, 2005,, October 11, 2005. Al-Zawahiri’s mention of the Taliban’s problem in consolidating power in Afghanistan is often teamed by him and bin Laden by pointing to the example of the even greater failure of the Afghan insurgents of the anti-Soviet jihad era to consolidate power and prevent civil war after the Red Army withdrew.

4. The dates of the al-Zawahiri statements reviewed for this article are: July 9, 2005; December 21, 2006; December 30, 2006; January 5, 2007; January 22, 2007; February 13, 2007; March 12, 2007; May 5, 2007; May 23, 2007; July 4, 2007; July 10, 2007; and July 11, 2007. The transcripts used in this article were published by IntelCenter. In regard to al-Zawahiri’s statements toward Imam Ali and his sons Hasan and Husyan, on December 21, 2006 he described each of the latter two men as “our chief,” while on May 5, 2007 he termed all three “our masters.” Furthermore, al-Qaeda’s leaders also publicly supported Lebanon’s Shiite organization Hezbollah during the latter’s 2006 war with Israel and urged all Sunni Islamists to do likewise.

5. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Realities of the Conflict Between Islam and Disbelief,” December 21, 2006; Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Congratulations on the Eid to the Ummah of Tawhid,” December 30, 2006; and Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Rise up and Support Your Brothers in Somalia,” January 5, 2007.

6. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Congratulations on the Eid to the Ummah of Tawhid,” December 30, 2006.

7. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Statement on President Bush’s Surge,” January 22, 2007.

8. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Lessons, Examples, and Great Events in the Year 1427,” February 13, 2007.

9. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “The Advice of One Concerned,” July 4, 2007.

10. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “The Advice of One Concerned,” July 4, 2007.