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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Zawahiri's New Video: Why No Mention Of September 11?

Brian Fishman at Foreign Policy had an interesting take on Ayman Al Zawahiri's new video, which was released around the anniversary of September 11 but notably does not mention the date or the attacks.

Fishman suggests, if I am reading this correctly, that Al Qaeda may think that recounting its September 11 triumph has gotten old and that its audience "expects more" than a rehash of old triumphs.

I would expand on that view just a bit. In recent years, Al Qaeda's public image has suffered a lot of ups and downs, and most quantifiable data suggests the downs have been worse than the ups. Al Qaeda did not succeed in rousing the wide Muslim world to rally behind its cause. Instead, it has lost ground. AQ in Iraq was irretrievably tarnished by its own actions, appearing to most observers as a bloodthirsty band of slaughterers who targeted Muslims as readily as Crusaders. AQ in Afghanistan has been driven deep underground, and while franchises like AQIM and AQAP have made headway, they trade on mostly local issues and come off in the public arena as if they are separate operations (reality notwithstanding).

I see two key elements in the Zawahiri speech, which can be read in its lengthy entirety at the Flashpoint Partners site.

The first element is a strong effort to demonize Muslims who do not share Al Qaeda's values. He repeatedly refers to Pakistanis as deviants who have abandoned true Islam, even suggesting that the recent floods were Allah's punishment for said deviation.

His arguments in this message struck me as particularly Islamically wonky, even for Zawahiri, aimed at influential thinkers, clerics and intermediaries in the Muslim world rather than a mass audience of believers.

Most important thinkers who are not with Al Qaeda (including recent defectors from the jihad) have condemned or renounced 9/11, even if they agree with other parts of AQ's platform. For instance, in a recent conversation with a cleric who is a former advocate of military jihad and who is today no fan of the United States and its current wars, he claimed that military jihad has become "corrupted" and that he discourages people from going.

Zawahiri is stubborn, but he's not stupid, and he may have been persuaded that mentioning 9/11 is counterproductive to what he really wants to achieve in his heart of hearts, which is to lead a populist movement.

The second element is recasting the jihad as defensive. This isn't exactly a new tactic; Al Qaeda's argument has always been that its actions were a response to American and Western aggression and occupation of Islamic holy places. Virtually no one in the broader spectrum of jihadist thought sees himself as an aggressor conducting an offensive war.

In this particular message, Zawahiri argues:

The government of Pakistan and its army and security organs have become deeply involved in waging war on the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and Pakistan, whose only crime is that they challenge, resist and perform Jihad against the unbelieving Crusader invader trespassing on the realms of the Muslims and their sanctities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Emphasis mine. One of Al Qaeda's biggest problems has been that it's tough to convincingly cast the 9/11 attacks as a truly defensive act due to their inherent nature. September 11 was a sneak attack on civilians in a country which was not engaged in combat against Muslims at the time. Mentioning 9/11 undercuts the claim that the mujahideen are being persecuted "only" because they are resisting invasion.

A crucial factor in the decline of Al Qaeda's ideology is the loss of the high ground. At the height of the jihadist movement's popularity and public image, Muslims were stirred to action by singular, ethically clear provocations, first in Afghanistan by the Soviets, then in Bosnia by the Serbs.

Actions have consequences, and even those who agree with Al Qaeda's world view know that Al Qaeda invited the current conflict with its actions. To succeed in the court of popular opinion and re-create the glory days of the jihad, Zawahiri needs to strip away the moral ambiguity created by Al Qaeda's actions and portray himself as the leader of a pure resistance movement. Reminding people of September 11 doesn't really further that goal.

Rewriting the narrative at this late date is, of course, the pinnacle of wishful thinking. But from Zawahiri's perspective, it probably can't hurt to try.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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