Tag Archives: Ayman al Zawahiri

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Qaeda’s Senior Leadership

With recent events in Mali and Algeria, there is a notable uptick in interest in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). One question commentators are asking is what the relationship is between AQIM and al Qaeda’s senior leadership (AQSL) in Pakistan, under Ayman al Zawahiri. The word I’ve seen employed most frequently to describe the links between the two is “murky.”

I agree with the characterization that the relationship between AQIM and AQSL is murky; but when it is translated into popular discourse, murkiness is often inaccurately understood as “we don’t know if there are ties between the two.” For example, Max Fisher writes at the Washington Post, “It’s tough to know the exact connection between leaders in the Algeria-based AQIM and those in far-away Afghanistan and Pakistan…. It’s entirely possible that AQIM’s links to al-Qaeda already are, are becoming, or will become closer to al-Qaeda than we think.” The clear implication is that there may be some connections between AQIM and AQSL, but that it is impossible to know whether they exist, and if so, to what extent. Likewise, Jason Burke writes in The Guardian, “The ties binding AQIM to the leadership of al-Qaida far away in south-west Asia have always been tenuous. The difficulties in communication, let alone travel, precluded any tight co-operation.”

But the documents captured from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad do reveal communications between AQIM and AQSL that extend over the span of four years, and include discussion of strategic and operational issues. While it is possible that after bin Laden’s death, when Ayman al Zawahiri became AQSL’s emir, these communications were crippled or otherwise ceased, there’s no reason that this should be our a priori assumption. This entry is designed to add granularity to the discussion of AQIM and AQSL through a look at the Abbottabad documents. It concludes by agreeing that the AQIM/AQSL relationship is murky, but explaining that commentators can do a better job of representing the ambiguities.

The Abbottabad Documents on AQSL and AQIM

Four of the released Abbottabad documents make referfence to the AQSL/AQIM relationship. I examine these documents in the chronological order in which they were written:

Document 11, circa early 2007. The author states that he is in in contact with members of AQIM, who are doing fine. He includes an upbeat message from AQIM (“the brothers in Algeria”) saying that “things are steadily improving: morale is rising, support is growing, and military activity has been improving recently. Every week there is a bombing, an encounter or ambushes.” The message from AQIM says that “the enemy,” presumably the Algerian military, was “thrown off by the recent strikes and have responded with continuous random shelling of the mountains. This has been very good for the brothers, as much of the ammunition has not detonated and the brothers are using it.” AQIM records five casualties within the week preceding their message.

There are tactical notes from AQIM regarding the fight against the Algerians. They state their concern “about the Russian Cobra helicopters (MI-34) with laser-guided missiles; they are impacting on the four-wheel-drive vehicles, which are indispensible in the Sahara Desert. Underlying that is the problem of badly needed money for good-quality weapons to counter these menacing helicopters; the mujahedin don’t have single one of them, nor a single missile.” The Algerians’ infrared sensors are singled out as being of particular concern.

The correspondence records that the “commander of the east” informed AQIM that they received four Libyan recruits in the past week, following a group of thirty the week before that. (Note that this precedes al Qaeda’s formal merger with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group by around a year, indicating that Libyans were already joining AQIM before the merger occurred.) The Libyan recruits were being trained at Tabsa, which is about 600 kilometers east of Algiers, and featured in late 2006 AQIM/GSPC propaganda.

Document 19, circa May/June 2010. This letter, from bin Laden to ‘Atiyya, requests (p. 26) that messages be sent to the leadership of AQIM and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) asking them to coordinate with Yunis al Mauritani (“Shaykh Yunis”) in “whatever he asks of him.” In particular, bin Laden asks ‘Atiyya to “hint” to AQIM that they should provide al Mauritani with “financial support that he might need in the next six months, to the tune of approximately 200,000 euros.” Bin Laden specifies that al Mauritani should be given a name that doesn’t divulge his nationality, and asks ‘Atiyya to set up “a secure method of communications and coordination” between al Mauritani and both AQIM and AQAP. Bin Laden stresses the need for “the utmost secrecy” regarding al Mauritani’s doings, and says that knowledge of his operations should be restricted to AQIM and AQAP’s leadership.

Document 15, October 21, 2010. In this letter from bin Laden to ‘Atiyya, Abu Yahya al Libi is appointed as ‘Atiyya’s first deputy, and a big part of his mission is providing religious guidance (“sharia research”) to both AQIM and Somalia’s al Shabaab. With respect to AQIM, bin Laden writes (p. 5): “The brothers in the Islamic Maghreb might experience divisions. To avoid this, the research that you said that you are going to prepare on dealing with the apostates should be sent to them. It should be complete and comprehensive and it should include the opinions of the scholars.”

Bin Laden also sends a messages to Abu Musab Abd al-Wadud (the head of AQIM) through ‘Atiyya, stating that ‘Atiyya should add an attached file “to the files of brother ‘Abd-al-Wadud or you can send it to them [i.e. AQIM] as part of your correspondence to them.”

Further, bin Laden advises AQIM (p. 11) that “planting trees helps al mujahedin and gives them cover” from satellites and spy planes. He notes that trees “would give al mujahedin the freedom to move around especially if the enemy sends spying aircraft to the area.” He suggests that they get trees from plantations, “or they can even create their own plantation.”

Document 10, April 26, 2011. In this letter to ‘Atiyya, Bin Laden writes about French hostages being kept by AQIM. At the time, France was involved in military operations against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. Bin Laden warns that because the French are involved in this way, French hostages should not be killed because “the atmosphere after the French standing towards the Libyan people does not condone killing the French, due to what will follow of negative reflections, after it became evident that most of the common people are supporting Sarkozy.”

Bin Laden advises AQIM to keep the hostages until after the 2012 French elections; and if this isn’t possible, he wants to exchange half of them, and keep the other half (“the higher ranking and the more important ones”). He does not want the negotiations between AQIM and the French government to be public, but he does want the hostage issue to remain a political liability for Sarkozy. AQIM appears to have largely handled the hostages in a manner consistent with bin Laden’s directives, though obviously it is difficult to ascribe causality to bin Laden’s letter.

Conclusion

Only a fraction of the Abbottabad documents that U.S. forces captured have been released publicly. However, the limited released material indicates ongoing communication between AQSL and AQIM that goes beyond current implications in the public discourse that we do not know if they were in touch. This communication extended over several years — 2007 through 2011 — and survived changes in AQIM’s leadership and also attrition within AQSL’s ranks.

There are most definitely ambiguities within this evidence due to the fact that we’re only seeing a shadow of the overall relationship. For example, we are only seeing one side of the correspondence: in every instance, we do not know the response prompted by the letters that were sent. It is worth noting, though, that nowhere in these documents do we see indications that bin Laden thought AQIM had been unresponsive to him, nor that the length of time it took to communicate precluded effective contact or some form of cooperation between AQIM and AQSL.

Al Qaeda and its various branches and affiliates did not operate as a perfectly hierarchical organization even before bin Laden’s death. An article that I continue to recommend detailing the relationship the senior leadership had with other entities is Leah Farrall’s “How Al Qaeda Works,” which was published in Foreign Affairs in early 2011. Farrall wrote, “Due to its dispersed structure, al Qaeda operates as a devolved network hierarchy, in which levels of command authority are not always clear; personal ties between militants carry weight and, at times, transcend the command structure between core, branch, and franchises. For their part, al Qaeda’s core members focus on exercising strategic command and control to ensure the centralization of the organization’s actions and message, rather than directly managing its branch and franchises.”

The Abbottabad correspondence fits well with Farrall’s framework. One may adopt a minimalist or maximalist interpretation of what the Abbottabad documents mean. On the maximalist side:

  • AQIM was sending situation reports back to AQSL, which may indicate that they sought its strategic guidance or even approval.
  • Bin Laden was providing significant guidance into how AQIM should fit into al Qaeda’s plans in other theaters. Al Mauritani, for whom bin Laden was trying to ensure both AQIM and AQAP’s cooperation, was at the time preparing a terrorist plot for Europe, news of which would break later that year.
  • The religious guidance that bin Laden wanted provided to AQIM in Document 15 suggests that he sees AQSL as influential enough to heal potential rifts within the group.
  • One can argue that the fact the French hostages whom bin Laden wrote about in April 2011 were handled consistent with his advice may indicate his influence over AQIM.
  • One can argue that Document 11 indicates that communication between AQIM and AQSL may have been relatively fast. The correspondence refers to events that were happening during the past week, which may indicate that AQIM thought AQSL would receive the missive while it was still timely.

On the minimalist side:

  • One can point to the language bin Laden used to suggest that he did not consider himself to have a great deal of control over AQIM. For example, in Document 19, rather than just ordering AQIM to provide Mauritani with financial support, he asks ‘Atiyya to “hint” to AQIM that they should do so.
  • One can argue that the path of the correspondence indicates that it was likely slow. Bin Laden was communicating with ‘Atiyya rather than communicating directly with AQIM, and ‘Atiyya may have in turn needed to pass the message through another intermediary.
  • Further, the indirect nature of the communication may have diminished the sway bin Laden could have over AQIM through the force of his personality.

Of course, when you are seeing only a fraction of a relationship, there will be a great deal of questions about the whole. But the Abbottabad documents are indicative of long-running communication between AQIM and AQSL preceding bin Laden’s death that goes beyond the public commentary suggesting that we don’t even know if there are “ties” between them. This does not mean the AQIM/AQSL relationship isn’t murky — it is — but our discussion of that murkiness should certainly take note of the data points that are available to us.

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Ayman al Zawahiri’s New Video Messages

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri released a new two-part installment of his video series focusing on Egypt, which was posted on Oct. 24. It seems there was a delay in releasing this installment, as Zawahiri apologizes for the delay of the release, and blames “the vicious war” that has been waged by “the Crusader alliance in Afghanistan and Pakistan against the mujahedin.” Thus far these messages have not generated much reaction on jihadi web forums.

In this entry, I analyze the first part of Zawahiri’s new installment, which seems to have been recorded in the run-up to Egypt’s presidential election. It features not only Zawahiri’s speech, but is also spliced with footage of other figures. The italicized texts below are either excerpts from Zawahiri’s characteristically long speech (based on a translation I obtained) or else descriptions of footage of other figures. If Zawahiri is speaking, rather than the italicized portion being a description of other footage, I enclose his words in quotations. My commentary follows each excerpt.

The video features footage of the son of the recently deceased extremist scholar Shaykh Rifa’i Surur speaking on his father’s position regarding the Egyptian elections. He states that Surur “saw the invalidity of democracy,” as democracy ceded the right of legislation to humanity rather than God. Any results from such a foundation would inevitably “not be respected and not be the result of good.”

Within the first year of salafi jihadi reactions to the events of the “Arab Spring,” there still wasn’t a clearly delineated position throughout the movement’s major organs on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of elections. The position being expressed by Rifa’i Surur’s son, and attributed to Surur, is representative of traditional salafi jihadi position. However, as Will McCants has noted, Islamist parliamentarians pose challenges to both the salafi jihadi outlook, and also al Qaeda’s outlook specifically.

“I urge Muslims everywhere, and especially those in countries neighboring Syria, to rise up to support their Syrian brethren in every way possible. I urge them not to deprive these Syrians of anything which they might have to offer, should it help rid the Syrians of this criminal and cancerous regime which has safeguarded Israel’s borders for nearly forty years.”

Syria is a frequent theme in jihadi propaganda. In this release, Zawahiri is particularly interested in the impact of regime change on Israel, arguing that “Cairo and Damascus are the two gates to Jerusalem.” I recently conducted a review of salafi jihadi perceptions of the Arab Spring in the first year of the revolutionary events that will be published in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism in November, and not surprisingly found that harm to Israel was a recurring theme. Due to the longstanding Egyptian peace treaty with Israel, jihadis perceived the fall of Hosni Mubarak as a significant strategic setback for the Jewish state (as Zawahiri noted, Cairo is seen as one of the gates to Jerusalem).

Malcolm X makes three appearances in the video, and is identified on-screen as “The martyred preacher, as we consider him, Haj Malik al Shabazz (Malcolm X), may God have mercy on him.”

Malcolm X has previously been featured in Zawahiri’s releases. This indicates that al Qaeda likely thinks that African-Americans are a promising demographic for recruitment. One interesting question is whether the idea to use Malcolm X has been promoted by a particular Zawahiri media adviser (my guess), or whether it was done on Zawahiri’s own initiative. If it was pushed by a media adviser, that decision could well reflect the particular interests and outlook of the adviser.

“I am seizing this opportunity to repeat and affirm our support for our people in Syria and their sons, the lions of the Levant and Islam, who have thrown themselves into Islam’s battle against the forces of secularism, corruption, and injustice in the Levant of the frontline and jihad.”

Zawahiri and other salafi jihadi ideologues have a particular way of framing revolutionary events in the region. When explaining what the people are rebelling against, secularism is always at the top of their list. Indeed, in the fourth episode of his ongoing series on Egypt (posted on March 4, 2011), Zawahiri explained at length that the Egyptian people have “repeatedly demanded that the Islamic sharia be the source for laws and legislation.” Secularism, Zawahiri argues, was forcibly imposed: the Egyptian people themselves never chose it. (It goes without saying that if you were to compile the major grievances that Syrians had against the Assad regime, secularism would not be their top problem.)

“I think that our father and shaykh, Shaykh Hafiz Salamah, learned from me of the maneuvers that were being undertaken so that sharia would not be established in Egypt. Among the examples of these maneuvers were the games played by the Military Council in the presidential elections. Guided by the Military Council, the committee overseeing the presidential elections brought about the disqualification of Hazim Salah Abu-Isma’il, despite a ruling from the judges in his favor, while they affirmed Ahmad Shafiq, despite a judicial ruling against him. The disqualification of Hazim Salah Abu-Isma’il is a lesson for every Muslim who thinks that sharia can be established in Egypt by way of secular constitutions that give sovereignty to the people, whereas in Islam, this right goes to God alone.”

A significant portion of Zawahiri’s speech focuses on how Egypt’s implementation of sharia will be watered down. He speaks, for example, of the inadequacy of constitutional provisions stating that sharia is the principle source of legislation, saying that “resorting to texts like these, so full of holes, will not achieve sharia rule.” Among other things, the inadequacy of Egypt’s sharia provides an ongoing justification for opposing the Egyptian state.

The video also features footage of several Egyptian jihadi clerics whom Zawahiri endorses. These include Ahmad Ashush and Abd al Hakim Hassan (a.k.a. Mujran Salim).

Ashush is one of several salafi jihadi figures who have given interviews to Arab television stations over the past few months; Muhammad al Zawahiri is another. When he appeared on Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr (Al Jazeera Egypt Live) in July, Muhammad al Zawahiri said that it was “the first time I have been allowed — not me as a person but we as a trend — to speak about ourselves.” He continued, “We were the only trend prevented from airing our views. The media always paint us in a false and brutal light, so that America’s aims of tarnishing the image of Islamic jihadist trend are achieved.” Though Muhammad al Zawahiri’s appearance did not go particularly well, it will be worth watching the long-term impact of having salafi jihadi figures represent their movement on television, if it continues.

In the footage of Ahmad Ashush featured on Ayman al Zawahiri’s new release, he also adopts an anti-election posture, warning his audience against being drawn into “the political process,” such that the elections would become “the alternative to the revolution.”

“The battle in Egypt is crystal clear… It is a battle between the secular minority that is allied with the Church and is supported by the junta — the product of Mubarak and the Americans, and supported by America and the West — and between the Muslim ummah in Egypt that is striving to implement sharia, liberate itself from subordination, liberate Palestine and the lands of Muslims, achieve social justice, and fight financial and moral corruption. This is the reality of the battle, and the enemies of Islam possess the military might, the security apparatuses, the corrupt judicial system, and the money that corrupts politics and media.”

This is also a common jihadi framing: that the overarching conflict is between Islam and secularism. Note that if the post-Mubarak Egyptian government is anything less than perfect — and surely it will be — Zawahiri’s framing blames secularism for corruption, social injustice, etc. In this regard, Zawahiri’s speech has much in common with other utopian ideologies that hold the change they advocate will sweep away all that is wrong with the world.

There is footage of Ahmad Ashush sitting with other men in Tahrir Square. He criticizes the constitutional court that issued rulings legalizing “fornication, alcohol, sodomy, and gambling,” and calls for changing the “security, judicial, and cultural institutions” built on “secularism.”

This footage is used by Zawahiri to point to the constitutional court as “an idol that is imposed on us.” Its rulings on these social issues, to Zawahiri, demonstrate how it is subordinating Islamic law and allowing immorality. I am currently working on a larger project about how academics understand religion in the context of the salafi jihadi movement. A number of prominent commentators have held that religious ideas are essentially irrelevant to this movement, but instead it is motivated almost exclusively by politics — a position that was always difficult to sustain, but is becoming increasingly so. In that regard, Ashush’s listing of these constitutional court rulings, and the fact that they made their way into an al Qaeda video, is a data point worth noting. To Zawahiri, the constitutional court “is a secular court whose religion is secularism,” and its only legitimacy “is the legitimacy of wolves and thieves.”

“The battle has not ended, but it has started, and it is incumbent upon Shaykh Hazim, his supporters, and all the sincere people in Egypt to wage a popular campaign of incitement and dawa to complete the revolution that has been aborted, and whose gains have been compromised. They must do that to realize the aspirations of sharia implementation, as well as honor, justice, freedom, and dignity for the mujahid, Muslim, and steadfast people of Egypt, and to compel the corrupt forces in Egypt to submit to the demands of the people through the popular, revolutionary work of incitement and dawa.”

Note that Ayman al Zawahiri’s immediate call is not to violence, but rather to “incitement and dawa.” As noted earlier, Muhammad al Zawahiri said that his television appearance represented the first time that the jihadi current was allowed to speak for itself. Beyond that, some of the changes in the new Middle East — regardless of whether this process of opening up is on the whole good for these societies — provide jihadis with the opportunity to undertake more intense dawa efforts than they have before, in an effort to draw others toward their understanding of Islam. This advocacy of undertaking dawa in the wake of the revolutions is widespread among jihadi observers, including Hamzah bin Muhammad al Bassam, Abu al Mundhir al Shinqiti, and Ayman al Zawahiri himself. One should not conclude, however, that intensified dawa efforts mean a repudiation of violence. Thinkers such as Ayman al Zawahiri see the salafi jihadi response to the “Arab Spring” as moving in stages, and a current dawa strategy will in Zawahiri’s view give way to a stage of jihad. Bassam has argued that dawa efforts need to eventually produce “real and open existence for jihad,” which will in his view produce a true implementation of sharia. Without violence, Bassam asserted, the efforts of Islamists will have no results “other than gathering and dispersion,” because a number of different “intellectual trends” will be competing for power.

“The second condolence goes to the enduring and steadfast shaykh of the mujahedin, the revered Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, may God release him from captivity, and his son Muhammad, better known as the lion, and to his honorable family, for the martyrdom of their son Ahmad Bin-Umar Abd al-Rahman, may God have mercy on him, in an American bombardment in the pure land of Khorasan [Afghanistan]. May God grant expansive mercy upon him and accept him and the jihad he waged and the emigration he undertook. May He provide for this noble family that has remained steadfast and patient for God despite afflictions. Let me emphasize to our noble shaykh, Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, to his sons, and all the other Muslim prisoners and their families, that we will spare no effort, with the aid and support of God, until we liberate every prisoner in infidel hands, or we will die trying.”

Zawahiri is of course referring to the “Blind Sheikh,” imprisoned in the U.S., whom Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi has also said he would work to free.

There is an excerpt of a video interview with Julian Assange with Arabic subtitles, in which he explains his views on the “military-intelligence complex,” Guantanamo, and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Colombia. Al-Zawahiri continues: “This is what America fears about al Qaeda. It knows that this message and that call portends its demise and destruction, God permitting. Therefore, America and its allies and rabble seek to eliminate the leadership of al Qaeda both morally and materially. But by the grace and power of God, this shall never, ever happen.”

Individuals have little control over whether organizations like al Qaeda use their words and ideas for propaganda purposes, but it is interesting to see Assange used as a propaganda piece in this video.

There is footage of Malcolm X predicting worldwide revolution against “the international power structure” set against signs from the Egyptian revolution. Zawahiri continues: “What is encouraging is that these regimes began to collapse and crumble before the American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, whereas the Soviet-supported regimes of the Warsaw Pact did not begin to collapse until after the Russians left Afghanistan. This indicates that America is in a state of profound weakness that may surpass that of the Soviet Union in its final days, and that the coming change will be even greater, God permitting.”

Two aspects of this are worth noting. One is that a continual feature of bin Laden’s rhetoric was the idea that he and other Arab mujahedin had caused the Soviet Union to collapse — and that by bleeding the U.S. economically, al Qaeda was doing the same to America. (Bin Laden’s October 2004 speech is most prominent in this regard, but he made similar claims in other addresses, such as a September 2007 video.) Zawahiri is hitting the same theme in this speech. Among other things, this framing places al Qaeda as a key cause behind the Arab Spring through the damage it did to America, even though it played little role in the actual revolutions. The second thing worth noting is the way the Malcolm X clip is being used. Malcolm X wasn’t predicting an Islamist or jihadi revolution, but rather a more widespread revolution against the “power structure.” Throughout this tape, Zawahiri positions al Qaeda as a kind of ecumenical organization that can fulfill the revolutionary aspirations of many disparate groups.

“Obama should admit that he was defeated in Iraq and that he withdrew from it, and that he is being defeated in Afghanistan and has decided to withdraw from it. He was defeated in Tunisia when he lost Zine El Abidine, and defeated in Egypt when he lost Mubarak. He was defeated in Libya when he lost Al-Qadhafi, who handed him his nuclear program and cooperated with him in the torture of the detainees in the war on Islam under the pretext of terrorism.”

The claim that Obama was defeated in Libya when he lost Qaddafi is a bit difficult to sustain, isn’t it?

There is a still image of Malcolm X with Arabic subtitles of his statement: “The slave master took Tom and dressed him well, and fed him well, and even gave him a little education. A little education. Gave him a long coat, and a top hat, and made all the other slaves look up to him. They used Tom to control them. The same strategy that was used in those days is used today by the same white man. He take a negro or so-called negro and make him prominent. Build him up, publicize him, make him a celebrity, and then he becomes a spokesman for negro, and a negro leader.” Zawahiri continues by saying that Obama “was brought in as the progeny of a Muslim father and from African origins to continue the system of aggression against Muslims and the vulnerable others, which exploits and robs them.”

This is not the first time that Zawahiri has referred to Obama as a “house negro” or an “Uncle Tom.” He has in the past also relied on Malcolm X to make this claim. Zawahiri’s new tape similarly uses footage of Cynthia McKinney as a propaganda piece for this racialized claim, in which McKinney says that “these wars are being carried out in black face.”

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