Al Qaeda Leader Reappears to Revive Islamist Jihadi Ideology

Despite the emergence of the November 2020 rumors about Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death, the elderly Egyptian leader of Al Qaeda has recently reappeared in several videos after having tactfully remained out of sight for an extended period of time.

Despite the emergence of the November 2020 rumors about Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death, the elderly Egyptian leader of Al Qaeda (Qa’idat al-Jihad in Arabic) has recently reappeared in several videos released by Al Qaeda’s official media arm, As-Sahab Media, after having tactfully remained out of sight for an extended period of time. Before these videos had emerged, there was predictive conjecture naming Sayf Al-’Adl, a senior Al Qaeda official believed to have been imprisoned or under house arrest in Iran, as al-Zawahiri’s “soon-to-be” successor. The head leader’s reappearance not only provides recent proof of life but more significantly, also indicates his intent to revive the group’s Islamist jihadi ideology and promote anti-Western propaganda. His reappearance also underscores how the Al Qaeda leader capitalizes on the new freedom granted to him by his long-time allies, the Afghan Taliban, to resurface and provide critical ideological guidance to jihadis around the world from South Asia to North Africa.

Throughout 2019 and 2020, the top ideologue and operations chief of Al Qaeda tactfully refrained from appearing to comment on trending global issues, causing many to conclude he had died and talk about Al Qaeda after al-Zawahiri. The timing of al-Zawahiri’s repeated reappearance is extremely significant and alarming; as it follows the botched August 30, 2021, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan which handed the country over to Al Qaeda’s allies: the Afghan Taliban. Al Qaeda had hailed the deal as a “historic victory” for the Taliban, viewing the Taliban’s jihad and victory as a model for jihadis all over the world to imitate. Therefore, al-Zawahiri’s reappearance now renews questions about the Al Qaeda leader’s whereabouts and reinforces the likelihood the leader of the Islamist jihadi group had already returned to Afghanistan, just like Osama bin Laden’s security chief Amin al-Haq, to enjoy the Taliban’s hospitality.

By examining the key Islamist messages propagated by al-Zawahiri in his latest three appearances, it appears that the Al Qaeda leader, emerging from his reclusive life, is attempting to rekindle his group’s Islamist jihadi ideology and sending a “we are a united ummah [community], waging one war on different fronts” message to jihadis around the world.

Lauding Bin Laden’s Jihadi Legacy

The first video, and al-Zawahiri’s latest appearance, was released by As-Sahab Media on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app. In it, the top Al Qaeda leader commemorated the eleventh anniversary of the death of Al Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden, lauded the survival of his jihadi legacy, and listed the greatest deeds of the slain Islamist.

In the twenty-eight-minute message, titled “The Imam’s Call to the Ummah of Islam,” al-Zawahiri appeared with a pistol placed in front of him and a background portrait of Bin Laden, who was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, during a U.S. raid led on May 2, 2011. Commemorating Bin Laden’s “martyrdom,” al-Zawahiri said: “His call remains alive, becomes widespread and embraced, and the number of its supporters grows, despite the eagerness of the enemies of Islam to eradicate it through war, deception, and lies.” He continued: “It is a call to liberate all the occupied lands of Muslims; to halt the plundering of their resources; to liberate the ummah from tyranny and dictatorships; to choose its leaders and hold them accountable or remove them, if they desire. It is a call to all the Muslims to unite and close ranks against their enemies.”

Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri noted, transformed the call of the slain Al Qaeda ideologue ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam that jihad is an individual duty for every Muslim, which had culminated in the September 11, 2001, attacks. He also stressed Bin Laden’s goal for Muslims to become “one ummah,” quoting his famous statement: “We are redrawing the map of the Islamic world so that it would be one state under the umbrella of khilafah [caliphate], Allah willing.”

With regards to Palestine, which Al Qaeda seeks to portray as a top priority issue, al-Zawahiri highlighted Bin Laden’s call to the Islamic movements in the area to jettison secular constitutions and beware of national unity and “secular sellers of Palestine.” “Bin Laden indicated the practical path to the liberation of Palestine and all the occupied Muslim lands comes through attacking the head [namely, the United States] so as to force it to withdraw and negotiate,” he noted.

Accusing the United States of tarnishing Bin Laden’s image and reputation, al-Zawahiri denounced what he called the “compounded ludicrous lies” contained in the July 22, 2004, 9/11 Commission final report. He added that much of what is being said about Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and himself are lies, noting that “we know, and we should expect, that the enemies of Islam will attempt using every means to distract Muslims away from this path and deviate them from the right religious line.”

Highlighting America’s weakness, al-Zawahiri claimed America is now defeated eleven years after Bin Laden’s death, while his predecessor’s call for jihad is “victorious.”

America was defeated at home when the knights of Osama Bin Laden ... attacked it. America was defeated when it withdrew from Iraq. Then it was defeated when it withdrew from Afghanistan. America is weak in the face of our Muslim ummah, if only it unites. America is in a state of weakness and decline, with Allah’s help. After its defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan, after the economic disasters caused by the September 11 conquests, and after the Corona pandemic, it is now abandoning its ally, Ukraine, as prey for the Russians. Hence, America and its allies and other enemies of Islam seek to divide the unity of Muslims ... Therefore, one of the most important weapons in confronting it [America] is uniting around monotheism.

Finally, al-Zawahiri eulogized Bin Laden with a poem praising the slain leader for perpetuating the 9/11 attacks and sacrificing his own sons for the sake of jihad, and threatening retaliation against the United States. He concluded by urging Al Qaeda supporters to translate his video into English and share it online. The video closed with an on-screen religious statement taken from Bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of jihad: “Expel the Polytheists From the Arabian Peninsula.”

Calls for Jihad in Kashmir and the Indian Subcontinent

The second video was released by As-Sahab Media in English, Arabic, and Urdu. In it, al-Zawahiri argued the “tragedies” of Muslims in Kashmir and Palestine are identical and compared India to Israel in its anti-Muslim campaigns.

It is not the first time al-Zawahiri called for jihad in Kashmir. In July 2019, the Al Qaeda leader appeared in a fourteen-minute video titled “Do Not Forget Kashmir” and argued the fight in Kashmir is not a separate conflict, but instead part of the Islamic ummah jihad against a vast array of forces. He also called on the mujahideen in Kashmir to liberate their jihad from the clutches of the Pakistani intelligence agency and advised them to “single-mindedly focus on inflicting unrelenting blows on the Indian army and government, so as to bleed the Indian economy and make India suffer.”

In the forty-eight-minute video, released on May 2, 2022, al-Zawahiri began by declaring: “Our people and our brothers in Kashmir … Your wound is one of the many wounds of a badly wounded ummah from Mali, Somalia, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan, all the way to India and Burma.”

The video compared the deal of the century announced by former U.S. president Donald Trump on Israel and Palestine to the deal of the century in Kashmir, calling it “the forgotten wound of the [Islamic] ummah” which was accomplished when “the vile Hindu fanatic, [Indian prime minister] Narendra] Modi, announced the complete merger of Kashmir with the Indian State.” Al-Zawahiri then described the Indian government’s move to annex Kashmir as “a slap on the face of the governments ruling over Muslim lands.”

Al-Zawahiri noted: “This is a long war which must be patiently waged as a single united ummah fighting on different fronts in a single jihad.” He then addressed Muslims in Kashmir, saying: “Our people in Kashmir! You will never attain your rights, liberate your lands, protect your honor, and rule by your sharia except by jihad, martyrdom, imprisonment, and sacrifices in the way of Allah.”

Presenting the Taliban as a “great example” to emulate, an Arabic-speaking narrator reminded Muslims in Kashmir that “the best example for you to continue your journey on the path of jihad and martyrdom until cow worshippers are defeated, just as your brothers in Afghanistan defeated the cowboys in an epic war that lasted two decades.”

Citing “failed experiments of begging for democracy in Egypt, Sudan, and Algeria,” al-Zawahiri warned the mujahideen of pursuing democracy and cautioned Muslims against imitating the Pakistani model.

Reciting the Ghazwat-ul-Hind hadith, commonly used for recruiting new jihadis and justifying jihad in the Indian Subcontinent region, al-Zawahiri urged Kashmiri Muslims to expand jihad into the entire Indian Subcontinent: “Our people in Kashmir! Your battle is the battle of the entire Muslim Ummah! Your theater is not just Kashmir, but the entire Indian Subcontinent! So prepare yourselves for bleeding your enemies to death in the entire Subcontinent.” He concluded by saying: “Since our ummah is one and our jihad is one, it is a duty on this ummah to support its brothers in Kashmir both morally and materially.”

Al-Zawahiri Shares His Islamist Take On Hijab Row In India

The final third video was released on April 5, 2022, in which al-Zawahiri delivered a short speech. In it, he praised a Muslim Indian female student as “the noble woman of India” for refusing to remove her hijab, the traditional Islamic head covering, back in February 2022.

This is not the first time al-Zawahiri presented his Islamist take on hijab and framed the issue as part of the “crusader” war being waged against the ummah of Islam to force Muslims to renounce the doctrine of monotheism. In an August 7, 2019, video titled “The Battle of the Hijab,” al-Zawahiri warned Muslim women of the war raging against the ummah of Islam with the aim of forcing them to abandon their religion and their hijab. “Oh noble and honorable women, you are one of the first targets in the war against our Islamic ummah,” he said.

Through the nine-minute video, released with English subtitles by As-Sahab Media, al-Zawahiri praised the female Muslim student, Muskan Khan, for boldly defying the hijab ban and even recited a poem for her. “May Allah reward her for defending these principles with her hijab and her attachment to her religion, and for offering practical proof of the superiority of the Islamic Ummah — in its creed, norms, and shariah — over the creed of the polytheists and the moral degeneration of Western atheists,” al-Zawahiri announced. He also praised media operatives who had uncovered this incident, calling on them to continue to expose “injustice.”

Addressing Muslims in the Indian Subcontinent, he called on them to “stop being deceived by the mirage of the pagan Hindu democracy of India” which is “a tool to oppress Muslims.” He also decried Western countries, including France, Holland, and Switzerland, as well as Muslim-majority countries like Egypt and Morocco as “enemies of Islam” for banning hijab and waging “a war on Islam, its core doctrines, its laws, ethics, and etiquettes.”

Al-Zawahiri then suggested, “the way out is by holding on to our shariah, uniting as a single ummah, from China to the Islamic Maghreb, and from the Caucasus to Somalia; a united ummah facing a concerted war in several fronts.”

He also reminded Muslims in the Indian Subcontinent that the governments of Pakistan and Bangladesh are imposed on them, highlighting they “do not defend us; rather, they defend the very enemies that they have empowered them to fight against us.” In conclusion, al-Zawahiri shared a poem venerating “our mujahid sister” and saying that her Allahu Akbar (“Allah is the greatest”) chats were raised in India and echoed by believers in Jerusalem and Kashmir.

The video ended with an on-screen Ghazwat-ul-Hind hadith: “Two groups of my ummah have been saved from hellfire by Allah. The group that conquers the Indian Subcontinent and the group that will be with Jesus, the son of Mary.”

Al Qaeda Leader Must Not Be Overlooked

The aforementioned three appearances clearly show al-Zawahiri’s persistent attempts to propagate and revive his Islamist ideology in order to rejuvenate his group’s global jihad and present it as a defender of Muslims’ grievances. This dangerous guidance role is frequently overlooked or missed in our understanding of the survival of Al Qaeda’s global jihad. Recently, for instance, experts diverged over assessing the threat posed by Al Qaeda, while others shared views deeming al-Zawahiri as an uninfluential and impotent jihadi preacher and leader who had lost touch with global affiliates and even called for his retirement. Nevertheless, a careful examination of al-Zawahiri’s recent appearances and the Islamist messages he is propagating demonstrate that such views lack a proper understanding of Al Qaeda’s adaptation to the current reality.

Additionally, al-Zawahiri’s appearance refutes official assessments downplaying the role of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and claiming it has been “restricted” by the Taliban, which in reality until this very moment has not broken its ties with Al Qaeda. While it is true that Al Qaeda will likely continue to lay low until the Taliban consolidates its grip, completes the establishment of its Islamist system in Afghanistan, and seeks international recognition, al-Zawahiri’s reappearance reveals a deliberate and premeditated effort to resume mentoring jihadis of a sprawling international network, resurrecting Bin Laden’s jihadi legacy, and spreading his Islamist ideology among young Muslims.

For this very reason, deeming al-Zawahiri as an impotent jihadi leader and overlooking his recent Islamist messages to jihadis and Muslims, particularly after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and rebranding it to be the ​​Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, would drastically undermine efforts to address the underlying drivers of Al Qaeda’s survival, perception, and readiness for the next phase of its global jihad.

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