Ayman al Zawahiri warns against ‘nationalist’ agenda in Syria

LONG WAR JOURNAL, BY THOMAS JOSCELYN,  April 23, 2017:

Al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, As Sahab, released an audio message from emir Ayman al Zawahiri earlier today. The audio file, which was spliced together with images from the Sunni jihad in Syria, is just over six minutes long. It was released via social media, including on As Sahab’s Telegram channel.

Zawahiri warns that the Syrian war shouldn’t be considered an exclusively “nationalist” effort, because this is what the Sunni jihadists’ enemies want. Instead, he says the Syrian conflict should be viewed as the “cause of the entire Ummah,” or worldwide community of Muslims.

Zawahiri’s comments are potentially interesting in light of Al Nusrah Front’s rebranding last year, and then the group’s merger with several others to form Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (“Assembly for the Liberation of the Levant”) in January. Various al Qaeda actors and other jihadists inside Syria have debated how to best portray themselves to the world. Al Nusrah’s relaunch in July 2016 was blessed beforehand by Zawahiri’s deputy, but some al Qaeda figures rejected it.

Zawahiri does not specifically mention Hay’at Tahrir al Sham or any other group in Syria, so we can only speculate if he is commenting on some specific debate within jihadist circles. But that appears likely.

Zawahiri does explicitly endorse the insurgency in Syria, saying that it is a “guerrilla” war and the jihadists should not focus on holding territory at this time. Instead, Zawahiri says, they must focus on weakening their enemies.

“To begin with, I would like to tell our beloved people in Sham [the Levant] that your wounds are the wounds of the entire Ummah, and your pain is the pain of the entire Ummah. You are in our prayers at every moment, and we wish to sacrifice our souls for you,” Zawahiri begins his message, which was released with an English transcript.

“If anything stands in our way,” Zawahiri continues, “it is the fact that we are engaged in fighting the same Crusader enemy which you are up against, though on a different front.”

The al Qaeda chieftain claims that the “only reason” Sunni Muslims in Syria “are being targeted” is that they “want Islam to rule over the land of Sham.” The “International Satanic Alliance will never accept this, and it will spare no effort to stop this Islamic tide,” Zawahiri says.

Consistent with al Qaeda’s messaging in the past, Zawahiri portrays the US and the West as being in league with Iran and Bashar al Assad’s regime. Indeed, he advises the people of Syria to “prepare” themselves “for a protracted war against the Crusaders and their Rafidhi [derogatory term for Shiites and Iran] and Nusayri [meaning the Assad regime] allies.”

Zawahiri praises the people for having “taken up the path of jihad in the way of Allah to raise the flag of Islam and jihad on the land of Sham, and to liberate it from oppression, tyranny and corruption.”

“So do not backtrack,” he says. “Know no wavering or compromise. Die honorably, but never accept a life of humiliation.”

The al Qaeda head reiterates his organization’s call for unity within the insurgency. Since the beginning of the war, with a few exceptions, al Qaeda’s men have attempted to remain as closely allied with other rebel groups as possible. This strategy was upset by the rise of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State in 2013 and 2014, but al Qaeda’s arm continued to cooperate with other Islamist, jihadist and Free Syrian Army-branded outfits.

“Unite and close your ranks with your Muslim brothers and mujahideen not just in Sham, but the entire world, for it is a single Crusader campaign being waged against Muslims the world over,” Zawahiri says.

He then pivots to a critique of anyone who thinks the Syrian war can be separated from the jihad elsewhere around the globe.

Speaking to the jihadists in Syria, Zawahiri says that some “wish to deceive you into buying the myth that only if you were to change your jihad to an exclusively nationalist Syrian struggle, [then] the leading international criminals would be pleased with you.”

“My people and my brothers in Sham,” Zawahiri says, “I would like to offer here a few words of advice as a reminder to you and myself.” Then, somewhat cryptically, he adds: “We must constantly review our actions, and retract ourselves from everything which is capable of hindering victory. For we can never be better than the Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him), who were denied victory when they disobeyed. Critical reassessment and correction of mistakes is the first step in the patch to victory.”

Zawahiri does not say which “mistakes” he has mind.

“In my humble opinion,” the al Qaeda head continues, “the strategy for jihad in Sham must focus on a guerrilla war aimed at wearing down the enemy and bleeding it to death.” This “has been the weapon of choice of the oppressed against arrogant transgressors in every age,” Zawahiri says. “Do not occupy yourselves with holding on to territory, instead focus on destroying the morale of your enemy. Take the enemy to the point of abysmal despair by inflicting unrelenting blows and unbearable losses on its forces.”

For the second time in his short message, Zawahiri again warns against treating the Syrian conflict as a “nationalist” struggle. The “cause of Sham is the cause of the entire Ummah,” he says. “We must not present it as merely a cause of the people of Sham, and then further narrow it down to a cause of Syrians alone, for this is precisely the enemy’s plan and his much sought after objective.”

“The enemy seeks to transform the jihad in Sham from a cause of the Muslim Ummah to an exclusively nationalist Syrian cause, then turn the nationalist cause to an issue of specific regions and localities, and finally reduce this to an issue of a few cities, villages and neighborhoods,” Zawahiri argues. Therefore, it “is incumbent upon us to confront this evil strategy by declaring that the jihad in Sham is the jihad of the Muslim Ummah aimed at establishing the rule of Allah in the land of Allah. This must coincide with encouraging the entire Ummah to participate in the jihad of Sham with its sons, wealth, efforts, and energies.”

Zawahiri provides a short list of Muslims who have “defended Sham earlier in history,” including Salahuddin and the Ottoman Turks. He points out that “none” of the people on his list “were Syrians, but were Muslims and mujahids before anything else.” This is likely a reminder to jihadists to treat the many foreign fighters in Syria who have joined the anti-Assad insurgency as equals.

The al Qaeda leader closes by saying that the jihadists should not seek to placate the West, or any others. “We must not submit therefore to the dictations of the leading criminals, who seek to intimidate us with accusations of ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism,’” Zawahiri says. He warns that this will lead to the same fate as that suffered by Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who briefly served as president of Egypt.

“These are the same forces that did not even spare Mohamed Morsi, inspite of the fact that he had given them all they had asked for,” Zawahiri says. He adds: “I ask Allah to give our people in Sham steadfastness. May Allah bless them with His victory and support, and guide them to take a common stance alongside their Mujahideen brethren the world over against a common united enemy.”

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

Also see:

Zawahiri says jihadists should prepare for guerrilla war in Iraq

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn,  August 26, 2016

ZawahiriAs Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, released the third episode of Ayman al Zawahiri’s “Brief Messages to a Victorious Ummah” series on Aug. 25. The latest installment is subtitled “Fear Allah in Iraq.” The al Qaeda leader clearly expects the Islamic State to continue to lose ground, arguing that the Sunnis of Iraq should “reorganize themselves” for a “protracted guerrilla war to defeat the neo-Safavid [Iranian]-Crusader occupation of their regions as they did before.”

Zawahiri critiques the Islamic State’s approach to waging jihad in Iraq in his brief message, which is just over four minutes long. His arguments further highlight how al Qaeda and the Islamic State have evolved very different strategies for waging jihad. Whereas al Qaeda wants to be viewed as a popular revolutionary force, serving the interests of Muslims, the Islamic State deliberately markets itself as a top-down authoritarian regime that seeks to overtly impose its will on the populace. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State share the same long-term goal, as they both want to resurrect an Islamic caliphate. But they diverge on the steps that should be taken to achieve this goal.

Al Qaeda’s senior leaders think that the Islamic State’s methodology for waging jihad alienates the Muslim population and therefore makes it easier for the Sunni jihadists’ enemies to defeat them.

Zawahiri lays out a way forward for the jihadists in Iraq should the Islamic State’s caliphate continue to crumble.

Zawahiri says the jihadists in Iraq “must review their prior experiences to save them from the mistakes that led to their separation” from the Muslim community. These mistakes caused the jihadists to fall into “the abyss of extremism” and “takfir” (the practice of declaring other Muslims to be nonbelievers). They are also guilty of the “spilling forbidden [Muslim] blood,” Zawahiri says, and this path only serves the “proxies of America.”

In a telling passage, Zawahiri calls on “our brethren, the heroes of Islam, the mujahideen of the Levant” to assist “their brethren in Iraq in reorganizing themselves.”

Zawahiri famously sought to keep Al Nusrah Front in Syria, which was recently rebranded as Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS, or Conquest of the Levant Front), separate from Baghdadi’s Islamic State. Zawahiri ruled that Baghdadi’s organization should be confined to Iraq, but the Islamic State refused to comply with his order.

Zawahiri now says the “battle is one,” with the Levant being “an extension of Iraq” and Iraq serving as “the depth of the Levant.”

That is, Zawahiri wants the jihadists in Iraq to follow the same strategy employed by al Qaeda in Syria. Under Zawahiri’s guidance, the group formerly known as Al Nusrah deeply embedded itself within the anti-Assad opposition and cultivated roots within the Syrian society.

Al Qaeda’s senior leadership publicly approved of Al Nusrah Front’s recent rebranding as JFS. This rebranding was spun as a clear “break” between Al Nusrah and al Qaeda. But Zawahiri’s own deputy, Abu Khayr al Masri, blessed the move shortly beforehand.

There is no hint in Zawahiri’s message that he feels betrayed by the jihadists in Syria. On the contrary, he wants the jihadists in Iraq to follow their model. When Zawahiri asks the “mujahideen of the Levant” to help their “brethren” in Iraq, he is clearly referring to JFS and others who have been following al Qaeda’s strategy.

The al Qaeda master further connects the jihad in Iraq to Syria by pointing out that Iranian-backed “militias and mercenaries” fight in both countries. Zawahiri says this is because Iran and its allies seek to annihilate Sunnis across the Middle East. He claims that Sunnis are being tortured and slaughtered in Iraq under the “pretext” of fighting Baghdadi’s Islamic State, but the supposed real reason for this can be found in the Iran’s expansionist goals. Zawahiri claims that the Iranians and the Americans have reached an “accord” that will allow a Crusader-Iranian-Alawite coalition (meaning an alliance of Western, Iranian and Assad regime forces) to swallow the whole region.

Even as Zawahiri rails against Iran, however, some of al Qaeda’s most senior leaders are stationed inside the country today.

All three episodes of Zawahiri’s “Brief Messages to a Victorious Ummah” series have been released this month. As Sahab has suffered production delays over the past two years, but the current pace of releases indicates that the official media shop for al Qaeda’s senior leadership is able to regularly churn out content once again. In the first episode of the new series, Zawahiri blasted the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. In the second, he called on Muslims to support the Afghan Taliban and reject the Islamic State’s upstart presence in Afghanistan.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

Al Qaeda chief calls for jihadist unity to ‘liberate Jerusalem’

Ayman al Zawahiri says the jihadists must strike the West and build states in the Levant and Egypt in order to “liberate” Jerusalem.

Ayman al Zawahiri says the jihadists must strike the West and build states in the Levant and Egypt in order to “liberate” Jerusalem.

The Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, November 2, 2015:

Al Qaeda has released a new audio message from Ayman al Zawahiri, who addresses recent events at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The audio speech is embedded in a video that is nearly 16 minutes long and features archival footage of Osama bin Laden, a still image of Zawahiri, and scrolling text throughout.

Zawahiri begins by alleging that “Muslims everywhere” are upset by the “Jews’ repeated attacks on the blessed Al Aqsa Mosque,” according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. He then praises the knife attacks that have been carried out against Jews, saying they are “a new epic of jihad,” in which people “defend Palestine and Al Aqsa with knives, cars, stones, and everything they own.” Zawahiri asks Allah “to bless these martyrdom-seekers who dare to stab the Jews even as they are almost certain that they will be killed at the Jews’ hands.”

The al Qaeda leader argues that two things are required to “liberate” Jerusalem. First, the jihadists must strike “the West, and especially America, in its heartland” and also attack Western interests everywhere they are found. Zawahiri cites a number of previous attacks in the West as part of his call for more terror, including the September 11, 2001 hijackings and the Boston Marathon bombings carried out by the “two Tsarnaev brothers.”

Second, Zawahiri says that Muslims must establish a “state” in Egypt and the Levant in order to “mobilize the ummah to liberate Palestine.” The al Qaeda chieftain uses this point to emphasize one of his key themes. Establishing such states, based on al Qaeda’s radical version of sharia law, “requires unity,” avoiding “disputes and ending “hostilities” between “the mujahideen.” This is a reference to the infighting between the Islamic State, led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and its jihadist rivals in Syria and elsewhere.

Therefore, Zawahiri once again calls for jihadist unity against the “mujahideen’s” common enemies. He does not endorse Baghdadi’s self-declared “caliphate.” He has already set forth his extensive critique of Baghdadi’s state in previous messages. And he takes a swipe against Baghdadi’s state again in his latest message, saying that al Qaeda is fighting to resurrect the caliphate based on the “prophetic method,” which requires shura (consultation). Baghdadi did not consult recognized jihadist authorities before declaring that his organization now rules over a “caliphate” covering large portions of Iraq and Syria.

But Zawahiri wants the fighters within Baghdadi’s ranks to stop fighting Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, and its allies, as well as jihadists elsewhere, so that they can focus on the supposed alliance between America, Europe, Russia, the “Rejectionists” [meaning Shiites and Iran], and the Nusayri [a derogatory reference to Bashar al Assad’s Alawite regime]. Zawahiri alleges that all these parties are “coordinating their war against us” in a joint alliance. He asks why the jihadists are not able to set aside their differences and “direct” all of their “efforts” against them.

Addressing jihadists “from every group” around the world, Zawahiri says that the Levant and Egypt are the “two historical gates of Jerusalem” and the battle in those two areas is a fight against the “Crusader-Rejectionist alliance.” The ummah [community of worldwide Muslims] must support this battle however it can, Zawahiri says, because it is a battle “to show” what it means for Muslims to wage an “acceptable jihad” that elevates Allah’s sharia and does “not empower the secularist and national regimes.”

Zawahiri wants to build popular support for the jihadists’ efforts, seeing this as key to their victory. “It is a political jihad battle so we could convince the ummah that our conduct is in line with what we call for and does not contradict it and does not drive away the Muslim people from the mujahideen,” Zawahiri says. Thus, the jihadists must “hone our conduct in order to convince our Muslim people that we are really keen to be ruled over by sharia if we are called to implement it” and do not label other Muslims as non-believers. The jihadists must convince Muslims that they “are the most merciful of people toward our people” and “do not seek to oppress Muslims.”

Al Qaeda’s bottom-up approach is, therefore, very different from the Islamic State’s. While they both want to build governments based on sharia law, al Qaeda is much more focused on building legitimacy for its ideological project in the hearts and minds of Muslims. Al Qaeda and its allies want to gradually implement sharia law and eventually resurrect a caliphate. Zawahiri’s organization has adopted this strategy, in part, because it knows that most Muslims are not pining for al Qaeda-style rule.

Through its top-down authoritarianism, the Islamic State seeks to convince Muslims that it is a caliphate today and that its version of sharia law, with its graphic executions and punishments, is divinely justified. (Al Qaeda generally avoids propaganda that focuses on its implementation of sharia’s penalties, whereas the Islamic State explicitly advertises its decapitations and amputations.) From the Islamic State’s perspective, Muslims who do not accept its legitimacy as a “caliphate” are to be terrorized into submission.

Zawahiri is not only critical of the Islamic State, with its hard stance, but also other Islamist groups that have adopted softer approaches to achieving their goals.

In this “political jihad battle,” Zawahiri says, the Muslim people should be shown that groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, salafists who support the Egyptian regime, and Rached Ghannouchi (a Tunisian Islamist who co-founded the Ennahda Movement in his home country) have erred by allying themselves with the secular governments and corrupt politicians who oppress Muslims. Zawahiri also accuses these Islamists of submitting themselves to agreements that recognize Israel’s legitimacy, “because they have realized that the price for reaching power is the acceptance of the secular constitutions and submission to Israel.”

The “mujahideen in Palestine” should fight to build an Islamic government, Zawahiri says, arguing that a “secular government that rejects sharia” in Jerusalem would be unacceptable.

Toward the end of his message, Zawahiri again ties Jerusalem to the jihadists’ efforts in the Levant and Egypt. “We must work to establish a Muslim government in the lands neighboring Israel,” he says, and the jihadists’ infighting distracts from this key mission.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 6.19.35 AM

Archival footage of Osama bin Laden is included at the beginning and the end of the al Qaeda production. The clip at the end is used to emphasize that al Qaeda seeks to resurrect a caliphate. A common misconception in the West is that while the Islamic State seeks to conquer territory, al Qaeda only plots terrorist attacks.

“Today, praise be to Allah…we are redrawing the map of the Islamic world to make one state under the banner of the caliphate, Allah willing,” bin Laden says in the clip. From Zawahiri’s perspective, the jihadists’ battles in the Levant and Egypt are key to making this goal a reality.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

Also see:

Zawahiri calls for jihadist unity, encourages attacks in West

Screen-Shot-2015-09-13-at-3Long War journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, Sep. 13, 2015:

Al Qaeda has released the second installment in its “Islamic Spring” series, which features Ayman al Zawahiri delivering lectures. Zawahiri’s audio message is accompanied by a still image (seen above).

Zawahiri calls on all of the “mujahideen” in Iraq and Syria to cooperate and “help each other,” because the jihadists’ enemies are supposedly waging a vicious “crusade” against them. And he wants Muslims living in the West to help by attacking the “crusader” countries.

“I call on all Muslims who can harm the countries of the crusader coalition not to hesitate. We must now focus on moving the war to the heart of the homes and cities of the crusader West and specifically America,” Zawahiri says, according to Reuters.

Zawahiri does not offer his approval for the Islamic State’s caliphate, saying it was established in “secret” without proper consultation. (Al Qaeda and its allies frequently make this argument, which hinges on the idea that the Islamic State, by refusing to consult other recognized jihadist authorities, has not followed the appropriate “prophetic method.”)

Still, the al Qaeda leader says he cannot ignore the Islamic State’s accomplishments. He claims to support the Islamic State’s efforts when its members assist their jihadist brethren, but not when they sow discord in the “mujahideen’s” ranks. As in the first episode of the Islamic Spring series, Zawahiri says he would fight alongside Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s “faction” against the “Crusaders,” “secularists,” and “Safavids” (a derogatory term used by Sunni jihadists for Shiites).

Al Qaeda’s call for unity against the jihadists’ common enemies isn’t new or surprising, despite the enmity between the two sides. Zawahiri has repeatedly attempted to broker a peace deal. Al Qaeda’sregional branches have as well. It is likely that while al Qaeda considers Baghdadi and most of his inner circle to be a lost cause, the group still hopes that part of the Islamic State can be reconciled. At a minimum, Zawahiri hopes to limit the fitna (discord, or strife) that plagues the jihadists’ efforts, and so he hopes to convince followers of the Islamic State to avoid targeting their ideological cousins in al Qaeda-affiliated groups.

In one segment of the message, which has been translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, Zawahiri calls for “Muslim youths” who want to carry “martyrdom-seeking” operations to strike inside the West instead of traveling abroad for jihad. Zawahiri repeats al Qaeda’s longstanding claim that the “Crusader West” is the ultimate power behind the jihadists’ opposition.

“Therefore, if we strike the head, then the wings and the body will fall, and if the war reaches the home of the great criminals, then they would stop the war and revise their policies, Allah permitting,” Zawahiri says, according to SITE’s translation.

Al Qaeda’s emir says that such operations do not always require explosives, and can be carried out using other weapons.

He also calls on Muslims in the West to emulate jihadists such as: Ramzi Yousef (who masterminded the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993), Mohammed Atta and “the eagles of martyrdom” (meaning Atta and his fellow 9/11 hijackers), Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shahzad Tanweer (two of the suicide bombers who struck in London on July 7, 2005), Major Nidal Malik Hasan (who carried out the Fort Hood shooting in 2009), Umar al Farouq (or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day 2009), Tamerlan and Dzohar Tsarnaev (the brothers who bombed the Boston marathon in 2013), Mohammed Merah (who carried out three shootings in France in 2012), and “the brave knights of the Paris invasion” (a reference to the Kouachi brothers, who were responsible for the Charlie Hebdo massacre earlier this year).

Although Zawahiri encourages young recruits to follow in these terrorists’ footsteps on their own, there is a noteworthy difference between “lone wolf” attacks and most of the operations he lists. Almost all of the jihadists mentioned by Zawahiri either received professional training, or were specifically directed to carry out the operations they executed. The one known exception is Nidal Malik Hasan, who sought approval for his attack from Anwar al Awlaki, an AQAP ideologue, but does not appear to have received any direct assistance from jihadist organizations. It is not clear if the elder Tsarnaev brother received some training in the Caucasus region during his travels abroad.

Zawahiri says that Muslim recruits who want to learn more about such operations should consult As Sahab’s productions (As Sahab is al Qaeda’s official media arm) or AQAP’s Inspire magazine. The latest edition of Inspire, which also advocates attacks by “lone mujahideen,” underscores al Qaeda’s direct role in preparing Said Kouachi for the assault on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris.

The release of al Qaeda’s “Islamic Spring” series has long been delayed and, therefore, includes odd references. For example, in the first installment, Zawahiri notes that the Islamic State has caused problems by calling for jihadists to break their bayat (allegiance) to Mullah Omar. But the Taliban leader was likely dead at the time Zawahiri made the recording. The Taliban has since admitted that it covered up Omar’s death.

***

Also see:

Al Qaeda Does Not Recognize IS as Legitimate

Zawahii and BaghdadiCenter for Security Policy, by Nicholas Hanlon, Sep. 11, 2015:

Seeing the IS group in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a clear and existential threat, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has revealed his true feelings about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and they are not warm.

“We preferred to respond with as little as possible, out of our concern to extinguish the fire of sedition, but Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his brothers did not leave us a choice, for they have demanded that all the mujahideen reject their confirmed pledges of allegiance, and to pledge allegiance to them for what they claim of a caliphate.”

Zawahiri apparently recorded this message before Mullah Omar died since he restated al Qaeda’s loyalty to Omar.  Just for kicks, one might draw comparisons between the handling of IS by al Qaeda and the Obama administration.  Zawahiri claims that he had avoided taking issue with al Baghdadi for fear of giving him legitimacy.  As a strategy, that turned out to be irreverent because IS has succeeded in making themselves such a problem for the Taliban and al Qaeda, they are now forced to admit as much.

The U.S. administration also tried to act like IS was no big deal.  Thanks to great reporting by the Daily Beast we now know that it was a policy to suppress intelligence analysis from Centcom about IS.  Despite the continual global spread of IS with propaganda upgrades on social media that can sometimes make al Qaeda look like your grandmother’s global jihadists, the U.S. administration is not likely to say ‘uncle’ no matter how hot the world burns.   The administration sees itself as having already said the final word on the matter.  In their version of history, the air strikes are the answer to IS just like the ‘deal’ is the answer to the Iranian nuclear program.  Don’t expect much more than that.

Also see:

Analysis: Osama bin Laden’s son praises al Qaeda’s branches in new message

Screen-Shot-2015-08-14-at-7

This image appears throughout much of Hamzah bin Laden’s newly-released audio message. Hamzah’s face is not shown in the production.

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, August 18, 2015:

In the months leading up to his death in early May 2011, Osama bin Laden was worried about the fate of his son Hamzah. Files recovered in the terror master’s Abbottabad compound show that he repeatedly discussed ways to prevent Hamzah from falling into the hands of al Qaeda’s enemies. Osama wanted his son to avoid Waziristan, where the drones buzzed overhead, at all costs. And he suggested that Hamzah flee to Qatar, where he could lie low for a time.

Last week, more than four years after Osama’s death, al Qaeda released a lengthy audio message by Hamzah.

Osama’s son does not show his face in the al Qaeda production. This is most likely for security purposes. Most of the videos and pictures circulated online show Hamzah as a young boy, before he could possibly understand the true extent of his father’s mission. But it is clear from his new statement to the world that Hamzah has taken up his father’s business. Hamzah’s lengthy speech has been translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 7.51.07 AM

Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir, offers a brief introduction for Hamzah, describing him as “a lion from the den of [al Qaeda].” A screen shot of the still image used during Zawahiri’s speech can be seen on the right.

Before turning over the mic to Hamzah, Zawahiri apparently alludes to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’soffices in Paris in January. Zawahiri asks Allah to “reward our brothers in” al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) “for they have fulfilled his promise and healed the chests of the believers.” This language is a reference to al Qaeda’s current campaign against alleged blasphemers, who have supposedly wounded “believers” with their words and images. AQAP claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo assault, saying it was carried out according to Zawahiri’s orders.

Hamzah then begins to speak about current affairs. However, an Arabic transcript posted with the message indicates his audio was recorded in May or June of this year, meaning it is somewhat dated. Indeed, Hamzah praises Taliban emir Mullah Omar, saying he is the “hidden, pious sheikh” and “the firm mountain of jihad.” Hamzah asks Allah to “preserve” Omar, indicating that he thought the Taliban chieftain was alive when his audio was recorded.

Hamzah also renews his bayat (oath of allegiance) to Omar.

“From here, in following my father, may Allah have mercy on him, I renew my pledge of allegiance to Emir of the Believers Mullah Muhammad Omar, and I say to him: I pledge to you to listen and obey, in promoting virtue and waging jihad in the cause of Allah the Great and Almighty,” Hamzah says, according to SITE’s translation.

According to some sources, including Afghan intelligence, Omar passed away in April 2013, or more than two years before the Taliban officially announced his death. If true, then this means that Hamzah and al Qaeda’s senior leadership reaffirmed their loyalty to a corpse.

It is possible that Omar did die in 2013 and al Qaeda somehow did not know this. Given al Qaeda’s close relationship with the Taliban’s new leadership, including Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who served as Omar’s deputy and is now his successor, this would more than a little surprising. It is also possible that al Qaeda’s leaders knew Omar was dead and decided to pretend that he was alive for their own sake, as part of an attempt to unite the ranks in the jihadist community. Or, it could be the case that Omar finally perished more recently than the Afghan government and other sources have said.

In any event, Hamzah clearly refers to Omar as if he was alive just a few months ago.

While praising Zawahiri as a jihadist leader, Hamzah does not swear allegiance directly to him. This is different from the leaders of each regional branch of al Qaeda, all whom have sworn their fealty to Zawahiri.

While al Qaeda’s branches respected Mullah Omar as the “Emir of the Faithful,” their loyalty has always been to al Qaeda’s overall emir, who, in turn, has pledged his allegiance to Omar. Zawahiri first pledged himself to Omar and, earlier this month, to Mansour. Therefore, al Qaeda’s regional operations are loyal to Mansour through Zawahiri.

Hamzah honors the leader of each al Qaeda branch. He begins with Nasir al Wuhayshi, who led AQAP until he was killed in a US drone strike in June, just weeks after Hamzah’s recording session. Wuhayshi was succeeded by Qasim al Raymi, who quickly reaffirmed his own allegiance to Zawahiri. Interestingly, Hamzah refers to Wuhayshi as al Qaeda’s “deputy emir,” indicating that he held the same position that Zawahiri himself once did under Osama bin Laden.

In addition to being the head of AQAP, Wuhayshi’s role as al Qaeda’s global general manager from 2013 onward has been widely reported. But under bin Laden that job was separate from the deputy emir’s slot. Al Qaeda’s general manager at the time of bin Laden’s death was Atiyah Abd al Rahman, who was subsequently killed in a US drone strike. Wuhayshi’s status as deputy emir of al Qaeda was never publicly announced by the group.

Osama’s heir continues with a roll call of other al Qaeda regional emirs, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) Abdulmalek Droukdel, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent’s (AQIS) Asim Umar,Shabaab’s Abu Obaidah Ahmed Omar, and Al Nusrah Front’s Abu Muhammad al Julani. Hamzah does not mention Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s al Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State, but he clearly had Baghdadi’s men in mind when addressing Julani, whom he describes as the “bold commander.”

“We thank your jihad, your firmness, and your great, unique sacrifices through which you have revived the feats of the ancestors of Islam,” Hamzah says to Julani, according to SITE. “But we were pained and saddened…due to the sedition that pervaded your field, and there is no power or strength but with Allah. We advise you to stay away as far as possible from this sedition.” Here, Hamzah is clearly referring to the infighting between the jihadists in Syria. The conflict has repeatedly pitted Julani’s Nusrah against Baghdadi’s Islamic State.

A standard motif in al Qaeda’s productions is to call for influential and well-known jihadists to be freed from their imprisonment. Thus, Hamzah tips his hat to  Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman (a.k.a. the “Blind Sheikh,” who is imprisoned in the US on terrorism charges), Sheikh Suleiman al Alwan (a famous al Qaeda-affiliated cleric detained in Saudi Arabia), and 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (held by the US at Guantanamo).

Hamzah spent a number of years in detention in Iran. And he calls for some of the al Qaeda leaders he was detained with there to be freed.

“And from among my sheikhs through whose hands I was educated: Sheikh Ahmed Hassan Abu al Kheir, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al Masri, Sheikh Saif al Adl, and Sheikh Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, may Allah release them all,” Hamzah says. His mention of Saif al Adl, one of al Qaeda’s most senior military commanders, is especially intriguing. Hamzah indicates that al Adl is imprisoned. Various reports have claimed that al Adl was freed from Iranian custody, but his status at any given time has always been murky. Abu Ghaith, a former al Qaeda spokesman, is imprisoned in the US, but was also detained inside Iran for a time.

Much of the rest of Hamzah’s talk is devoted to the supposed Zionist-Crusader alliance that al Qaeda has made the centerpiece of its mythology. Hamzah’s words contain echoes of his father’s speeches from nearly two decades ago, when al Qaeda’s founder first declared war on America and the West. Like his father, Hamzah calls for continued attacks in the West. And he encourages so-called “lone wolf” attackers to strike.

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 8.01.49 AM

“One operation from a loyal knight from your knights who chose his target and did well in his selection, and did his job and did well in his job, it would shake the policy of a great nation in a dire fashion,” Hamzah says. “So then, what would tens of operations do?”

Towards the end of the video, al Qaeda includes footage of various protests from throughout the Middle East. The protesters, many of whom are young men, can be heard chanting, “Obama, Obama, We are all Osama!” (A screen shot of this video footage can be seen on the right.)

Al Qaeda clearly hopes that Hamzah will help represent this new generation of al Qaeda followers.

***

New Taliban emir accepts al Qaeda’s oath of allegiance

Left: Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, from a handout released by a Taliban spokesman. Right: Ayman al Zawahiri, from his latest tape declaring allegiance to Mansour.

Left: Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, from a handout released by a Taliban spokesman. Right: Ayman al Zawahiri, from his latest tape declaring allegiance to Mansour.

Long War Journal, by Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn, August 14, 2015:

The Taliban’s new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, has accepted the oath of allegiance (bayat) from al Qaeda emir Ayman Zawahiri, as well as the pledges to him from “Jihadi organizations spread throughout the globe.” Mansour’s statement was released just one day after al Qaeda released an audio message from Zawahiri in which he gave bayat to Mansour.

Mansour’s statement accepting Zawahiri’s pledge was released today on Voice of Jihad, the Taliban’s official website. In the statement, the Taliban emir thanked “all those respected brothers who have sympathized with us in this critical juncture of the Islamic Ummah, have sent messages of condolence about the passing away of Amir ul Mumineen [Mullah Omar] or have pledged allegiance with us as the new Amir (leader) of the Islamic Emirate and servant of the Muslims.”

Mansour places Zawahiri’s oath of fealty above all others.

“Among these respected brothers, I first and foremost accept the pledge of allegiance of the esteemed Dr. Ayman ad-Dhawahiri [al Zawahiri], the leader of international Jihadi organization (Qaedatul Jihad) and thank him for sending a message of condolence along with his pledge and pledge of all Mujahideen under him,” Mansour said.

“Similarly those Mujahideen protecting the Jihadi frontlines, Madaris (religious seminaries), teachers of universities and centers for learning, national figures and all Islamic and Jihadi personalities as well as Jihadi organizations spread throughout the globe who have sent messages of condolence or pledge allegiance with us as leader of Jihad, I reciprocally thank them and implore Allah Almighty to grant me and all our brothers success to properly serve Islam and Muslims,” he continued.

Mansour’s acceptance of Zawahiri’s oath should come as no surprise. The new Taliban emir issued a pro-al Qaeda statement in June, before Mullah Omar’s death was announced. In the statement, he described al Qaeda’s leaders as the “heroes of the current jihadist era” and bin Laden as the “leader of mujahideen.” Mansour’s statement contained parallels to al Qaeda’s messaging and he took al Qaeda’s side in its dispute with the rival Islamic State.

Mansour’s leadership team also indicates his close ties to al Qaeda. As The Long War Journal reported on July 31, Mansour appointed Siraj Haqqani, the operational leader of the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network, as one of his top two deputies. Files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound and other evidence show that Siraj has worked closely with al Qaeda for years. [See LWJ report, The Taliban’s new leadership is allied with al Qaeda.]

The public acceptance of Zawahiri’s pledge demonstrates that Mansour has no intention of breaking with al Qaeda.

Indeed, the statement from the new Taliban emir is a dramatic gesture. Since last year, al Qaeda has repeatedly broadcast its enduring allegiance to Mansour’s predecessor, Mullah Omar. In July 2014, al Qaeda released a video from mid-2001 of Osama bin Laden explaining his loyalty to Omar. But the Taliban’s public-facing propaganda has been far less explicit about the relationship. For instance, after al Qaeda reaffirmed its allegiance to Omar on July 20, 2014, the Taliban did not publish a statement attributed to Omar acknowledging the pledge.

Therefore, while the Taliban and al Qaeda have long been closely allied, Mansour’s official statement is a bold proclamation of the relationship between the groups.

***

Also see: