Zawahiri: Internationalizing Jihad, Uniting Muslims and Trumping Saudi Clerics

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 30

Ayman al-Zawahiri’s July 27 statement on the Israel-Hezbollah conflict deftly advanced al-Qaeda’s own interests, as well as al-Qaeda’s goal of putting the world’s multiple ongoing Islamic insurgencies into the context of a single, Shiite-and-Sunni struggle against “the Zionist-Crusader aggression.” The struggles in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan are all connected, al-Zawahiri said, and “the whole world is an open field for us. As they attack us everywhere, we will attack them everywhere” [1]. For the first time, al-Zawahiri went a step further, by urging that “all oppressed and wronged people in the world, the victims of Western oppressive civilization led by America: Stand by Muslims in the face of this injustice which humanity has never witnessed before” [2].

Al-Zawahiri’s statement focused on themes that have dominated al-Qaeda’s rhetoric since Osama bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war. First, al-Zawahiri claimed that the conflict in Lebanon underscored the fact that Muslim blood is worthless in the West’s eyes. “Nobody cared about 10,000 prisoners in Israeli prisons,” al-Zawahiri said, “while the world went into an uproar after three Israeli soldiers were captured” [3]. On this issue, al-Zawahiri seems to have caught the Muslim world’s mood. Writing in Jeddah’s Arab News, for example, Lubna Hussain wrote on July 28 that the war “in Lebanon once again provides us in the Arab world a superfluous, all too frequent and unnecessary reminder that our blood is cheap…The return of two Israeli soldiers equate to the deaths of hundreds of innocent Lebanese civilians” [4].

Second, al-Zawahiri cited the Levant conflict as yet another instance where the ruling Arab regimes are unable to protect their nationals against Israel and the United States. “O my Muslim nation,” al-Zawahiri said, “it has become known to you without doubt that the governments of the Arab and Muslim states…are paralyzed and defeatist and you are left in the field alone” [5]. Referring to the Arab League’s denunciation of Hezbollah’s hostage-taking and Saudi King Abdullah’s condemnation of Hezbollah’s “uncalculated adventures” [6], al-Zawahiri told Muslims that the regimes had combined their impotence with being “involved in collusions” with the United States and Israel [7]. In this vein, al-Zawahiri’s words blended tellingly with those of many other critics of the Arab regimes, which, by week’s end, caused the Saudi king to backpedal and announce that “if the option of peace fails as a result of Israeli arrogance, then the only option remaining will be war” [8].

Third, al-Zawahiri strove to portray the Islamist insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine as parts of a single jihad meant to drive the United States and its allies from the Middle East and all Islamic territory. “The war with Israel is not about a treaty, a cease-fire agreement, Sykes-Picot borders, national zeal or disputed borders,” al-Zawahiri explained. “It is rather a jihad for the sake of God until the religion of God is established. It is jihad for the liberation of Palestine, all of Palestine, as well as every land that was a home for Islam, from Andalusia to Iraq” [9]. Specifically, al-Zawahiri said that the insurgency in Iraq was the key to liberating Palestine, citing the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s claim that, “we are fighting in Iraq, while our eyes are on Jerusalem” [10]. Encapsulating bin Laden’s stubborn insistence that a successful Islamist insurgency requires a geographically contiguous safe haven for basing and operational staging, al-Zawahiri reminded his listeners that “Iraq is characterized with its proximity to Palestine. The Muslims must support its mujahideen so that a mujahid Islamic emirate can be established there [Iraq] which can, with the will of God, move jihad to the borders of Palestine. Then the mujahideen inside and outside Palestine can unite and the great conquest will arrive, God willing” [11].

Al-Zawahiri went on to claim that “the shells and missiles that tear apart the bodies of Muslims in Gaza and Lebanon are not purely Israeli. Rather, they come from and are financed by all countries of the Crusader alliance.” The target of the U.S.-led coalition, al-Zawahiri argued, is the whole Muslim world, and so the mujahideen must unite and “target the interests of all the countries that took part in the aggression against Muslims in Chechnya, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. According to the Sharia, all these governments and people are fighting the Muslims” [12].

Fourth, and finally, al-Zawahiri took advantage of the unexpected war in the Levant to advance the effort bin Laden began after al-Zarqawi’s death to reassert al-Qaeda’s longstanding position that Sunni vs. Shiite conflict must be subordinated to building a united Islamist movement to drive the United States from the Middle East and to destroy Israel and the apostate Muslim regimes. Speaking to all Muslims, al-Zawahiri said, “We cannot just stand idly by while we see all these shells fall on our brothers in Gaza and Lebanon. We must target Jewish and American interests everywhere.” Al-Zawahiri then said that Muslims can find the models for such action in Islamic history, invoking the examples of courage and resistance set by the first Caliphs and the companions of the Prophet. In listing these names, al-Zawahiri underscored the need for sectarian unity by including—apparently for the first time in al-Qaeda’s history—the names of Ali and Husyan, two of the most revered Shiite leaders and heroes. Not forgetting al-Qaeda’s need to continue reducing its anti-Shiite reputation in Iraq, al-Zawahiri called on all Iraqi Muslims—not just Shiites—to cease their cooperation with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s regime and the U.S.-led coalition. “Perhaps, the events of the Crusader-Zionist aggression on Muslims [in Lebanon and Gaza],” al-Zawahiri said, “may push the traitors in Iraq to end their disgrace and treason and stop justifying and supporting the U.S.-Crusader presence in Iraq” [13].

Al-Zawahiri fully supported the activities and Islamic virtue of Shiite Hezbollah, in what is a daring departure from al-Qaeda’s traditional practice of not saying much about Hezbollah beyond praising its 1980s attacks on U.S. forces. Besides this effort to work toward sectarian cooperation, al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda took the risk of alienating some of their Sunni supporters and benefactors in Saudi Arabia by defying the official Saudi religious establishment. On July 22, the ultra-conservative Saudi cleric Sheikh Muhammad Bin-Abdallah al-Habadan backed Saudi King Abdullah’s initial condemnation of Hezbollah, demanding that Sunnis not support Hezbollah in terms that made al-Qaeda sound absolutely ecumenical. “It is not imperative that anyone who happens to be the enemy of the Jewish state should be considered our [the Sunnis] friend,” al-Habadan declared. “As the Jewish state is our enemy, also people who have declared the companions of the Prophet, may God’s peace and prayers be upon him, as infidels, and are creating mayhem in today’s Iraq against the Sunnis are our enemies, too. The latter [Shiites] are not less of a threat against the nations than the Jews themselves…[Events in Lebanon are] nothing but a war between two antagonistic evils” [14].

On the day of al-Zawahiri’s message, the Saudi clerical establishment again thundered out another vitriolic anti-Shiite message. The Shiites, said Dr. Muhammad al-Abdah, adhere to Ayatollah Khomeini’s “fallacy, hatred and fanaticism” and are “a barrier in the way of the Sunni tide.”

Al-Qaeda has long condemned and derided the Saudi clerical establishment as “the sultan’s scholars,” but had not previously taken them on over such a fundamental theological question as the Sunni-Shiite divide. As the saying goes, though, “He who dares, wins.” Beginning on the evening of July 27, the outside-Saudi Arabia cavalry of Sunni scholars arrived and explicitly and implicitly supported al-Qaeda’s position. “We believe that this speech [al-Zawahiri’s] contains new and very important meanings,” said Faysal al-Mawali, secretary general of the Islamic Group of Lebanon, a leading Sunni organization. “This new attitude [of al-Qaeda] represented by the call for a large-scale alliance involving all the oppressed in the world means, of course, an alliance between the Sunnis and the Shiites, in particular, against the Zionist aggression and the U.S. tyranny. We also consider this to be a very important and advanced step” [16].

Then, on July 28 and July 30, several Sunni heavyweights delivered the coup de grace to the Saudi clerics, and implicitly approved al-Qaeda’s non-sectarian approach to war-fighting. The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Ali Gomaa, said that Israeli actions in Lebanon are “injustice itself” and that “Hezbollah is defending its country and what it is doing is not terrorism.” Then, Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood publicly and specifically rejected the rulings of the Saudi sheikhs which prohibited Sunni support for the Lebanese Shiites [17]. Finally, Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the Islamic world’s most influential and televised scholars, condemned the Saudi clerics’ rulings as “fanaticism” and derided the fear of “some Arab regimes” that is apparent in their belief that “Israel is an invincible state.” Al-Qaradawi played down Sunni-Shiite differences, hailed Hezbollah’s resistance as a “noble act” and—echoing al-Zawahiri—said that “It is the duty of Muslims around the world to support the Lebanese resistance.”

Overall, bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda have taken full advantage of the unexpected opportunity provided by the Israel-Hezbollah conflict. In an al-Sahab video of unprecedented quality—al-Zawahiri was made to appear as if he was in a professionally lit studio—al-Qaeda’s deputy chief effectively explained the inter-connectedness of all Islamic insurgencies, focused Muslims worldwide on the “Zionist-Crusader” threat and brushed aside arguments that Shiites and Sunnis must not cooperate in resisting that threat. In doing so, al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda provided Muslims with an international context in which to view the Levant war through their own words, as well as by leveraging the blessings of Hezbollah by prominent Sunni scholars—which blew the usually unquestioned Saudi scholars out of the water—and exploiting an environment in which Muslims worldwide are watching real-time coverage of the carnage in Lebanon.


1. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “The Zionist-Crusader Aggression on Gaza and Lebanon,” As has been noted previously in Terrorism Focus, the division of rhetorical labor between Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri generally finds the latter speaking about current events and specific theaters of war, while the former focuses on the United States, Saudi Arabia and religious issues. Al-Zawahiri’s July 27 speech followed that pattern with the exception of a passage in the middle of the speech that seems to threaten the United States with another 9/11-type attack. In the passage, al-Zawahiri relates an instance in 2000 when the late-al-Qaeda military chief Abu Hafs al-Masri is asked by 9/11-commander Muhammad Atta, “How can we then resist the aggression in Palestine?” Al-Zawahiri does not relate al-Masri’s answer, but says “America knows the rest of the story very well. The Muslim nation, which produced the 19 persons who toppled the landmarks of America, is capable, with God’s help, to produce many more.” It is unclear whether al-Zawahiri was foreshadowing a coming attack in the United States; trying to make a post-facto association between the 9/11 attack and the Palestinian insurgency; or both.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Arab News, July 28, 2006.

5. Al-Zawahiri, op. cit.

6. Associated Press, July 28, 2006.

7. Al-Zawahiri, op. cit.

8. Associated Press, op. cit.

9. Al-Zawahiri, op. cit.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Nur al-Islam (Internet), July 22, 2006.

15. Islam Today (Internet), July 27, 2006.

16. Al-Jazeera Television, July 27, 2006.

17. Reuters, July 28, 2006.

18. Ibid.; Gulf Times, July 30, 2006.