Posted by Aron Lund on Thursday, June 6th, 2013
by Aron Lund for Syria Comment
Like his late predecessor Osama bin Laden, and indeed many grumpy old men, he has a habit of haranguing the world for its faults while angrily wagging his finger.
Today, for example, al-Qaida’s al-Sahab media agency issued a 20-minute voice recording of Zawahiri marking the 65th anniversary of the creation of the “occupation state of Israel”. In it, Zawahiri talks very little about Israel itself – because what is there to talk about, from his perspective? It’s evil, end of story – but he spends a lot of time using the Palestine issue to advance his own pet agenda. That’s also a habit he picked up from his predecessor.
Zawahiri’s first target is the USA. Obviously not a new enemy of his, but he’s unusally energetic in trying to redirect Muslim antipathy for Israel towards its main ally. He spends several minutes lambasting Washington as the driving force behind Israeli criminality, saying that the Americans are responsible for creating it, funding it, arming it and aiding it in every conceivable way. The US is also held to account for protecting corrupt Arab dictatorships which in turn help protect Israel.
Which brings us to his second target: the Muslim Brotherhood, or Ikhwan. They and other reformist Islamists are blamed for keeping the peace with Israel, for failing to implement sharia, and for helping to cover up the culpability of the USA. This is also not a new argument for al-Qaida, but it has gained a whole new importance since the 2011 revolutions, which brought some of these groups into positions of power.
He singles out a few places of concern: Tunisia (ruled by al-Nahda, a pseudo-Ikhwani group), Egypt (ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood itself), Palestine (partially ruled by Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood franchise) and Libya (which isn’t really ruled at all, but where Ikhwanis and other Islamists are very active in what passes for politics).
To bolster his argument, Zawahiri then runs a clip by Omar Abderrahman, the Egyptian “blind sheikh” who is imprisoned in the USA for his involvement in the 1993 WTC bombing. On the recording, Abderrahman describes Egypt’s ex-president Anwar al-Sadat (and by extension his successors and anyone else responsible for upholding the peace with Israel) as being “a traitor, an infidel, an oppressor, and corrupt”. In 1981, Zawahiri was part of the organization that assassinated Anwar al-Sadat, to widespread acclaim among his fellow Islamists.
These days, of course, it is the Muslim Brotherhood that is upholding Sadat’s peace agreement, and therefore…
Omar Abderrahman is a religious heavyweight, and his word carries much greater weight than Zawahiri’s own – particularly in Egypt. So a radical fringe politician like Zawahiri has every reason to try to piggy-back on the blind sheikh’s credibility among more mainstream Islamists.
Having made these two arguments, which basically constitute the pre-2011 and post-2011 parts of the al-Qaida agenda (refocusing local struggles on the USA & undermining more moderate Islamists which threaten to sap his base of support), Zawahiri moves on to the rest of the world.
He first runs through the list of al-Qaida affiliates across the world, to praise the mujahedin in Somalia, Iraq and elsewhere. This is a standard feature of Zawahiri statements. It’s not like he and his guys in Pakistan are contributing much to the cause, so he needs to keep the base happy by giving credit where credit is due.
Zawahiri on Syria
The last third of the tape is exclusively dedicated to Syria. There’s no limit to the importance that Zawahiri attaches to this conflict. He presents the jihad in Syria – for which he uses the word al-Sham, which can also refer to the wider Levant – as a panacea for all ills afflicting the Muslim world.
Like with Israel, Zawahiri doesn’t pay much attention to Bashar al-Assad and the Baath, which is written off as an adjunct of the vast Shia conspiracy against Islam. Rather, the jihad in Syria is described as a two-front war against the USA and Iran.
Zawahiri claims that jihad in Syria is a way of achieving all goals of the Muslim world: it will aid in re-establishing a caliphate, in imposing sharia law, and in overthrowing the corrupt Arab and faux-Islamist governments now in place; it is also a way of combating Shiism and the global US hegemony, and therefore, so conveniently, a great way to liberate Jerusalem.
The USA is accused of trying to exploit the sacrifices of the Muslim world. It wants jihadis to do the heavy lifting in the battle against the Baath, while it is quietly building up a pro-Western opposition that can swoop in and seize power after Assad falls. This will serve the purpose of (again momentarily recalling his original subject) securing Israel’s borders. He calls on his followers to realize the danger and avoid falling into this trap – don’t leave the trenches and do not put down your arms until you’ve set up a proper Islamic state, he says.
To realize this goal, Doc Zawahiri says all Muslims must support the jihad in Syria, either by going there or by – for example – sending money. Such support is, by his reasoning, a “fard ein”, an individual duty incumbent on every able-bodied Muslim. It’s not something you leave to your government, or to the mosque, or to anyone else: but something YOU must do or suffer God’s punishment for neglecting.
He makes no similar call for the conflicts in Algeria, Somalia, Mali, Afghanistan, Iraq and so on – at this moment in history, it’s to Syria you should go. The priorities are clear.
The Jabhat al-Nosra and ISI split
In his statement, Ayman al-Zawahiri makes no explicit mention of Jabhat al-Nosra or the Islamic State of Iraq, or of the recent confusion about whether they should merge under the ”Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” name or not. (Background here & here, and a recent piece by Aymenn Al Tamimi here.)
This is entirely in keeping with his tradition. Zawahiri has never even mentioned Jabhat al-Nosra by name. Instead, in the very vaguest of terms, he just calls on jihadis in Syria to unite around their common goals and rise above narrow party interests – and that’s all he says on the topic most important to al-Qaida in Syria right now.
But don’t let that fool you. This is just al-Qaida playing by the book. The original Jabhat al-Nosra and ISI statements in April came on the heels of a similarly vague Zawahiri statement. The timing then was probably no coincidence, and it is now likely to repeat itself. Just hours after the Zawahiri release, a leading Jabhat al-Nosra figure who goes by the nom de guerre of al-Gharib al-Muhajer al-Qahtani announced on Twitter (of all places) that “good news” about the unity of jihadis will be coming within two days.
So, it is possible that some form of an agreement has been reached on the future name, leadership and structure of the Syrian al-Qaida affiliate, in so far as there was a dispute about this before. Whether or not Zawahiri himself has been involved in deciding or mediating, we don’t know – but it seems very likely given the weight of the issue.
The intended timing of this statement is a little tricky to pin down. He speaks about how “these days” it’s 65 years since Israel’s creation was “announced”, which – if true – should put its production date sometime around May 14, three weeks ago. But it’s quite likely that its release now could be somehow coordinated with a statement from the Syrian branch(es), and that lends additional credibility to al-Gharib al-Muhajer al-Qahtani’s talk of “good news”.
So – keep your eyes on the jihadi forums, because big news about Jabhat al-Nosra may be about to arrive. Perhaps the al-Qaida wing in Syria will go by the new name of the ”Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham”, or perhaps it will stick with “Jabhat al-Nosra”; and perhaps there will be a merger with the Iraq organization, or perhaps not; perhaps there was really an internal split, or … perhaps not. Everything is still very unclear, but perhaps we’ll know one day, and perhaps that day will be Friday or Saturday.
— Aron Lund