Al-Qaeda's emir strikes back

After 11 months of silence, Ayman al-Zawahri issues audio messages calling for terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies.

REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah.

By Bruce Riedel

Aug 16, 2015

After almost a year of silence, Ayman al-Zawahri, the 64-year-old emir of al-Qaeda, late this week issued two audio messages. In one he proclaimed his loyalty to the new head of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor. In the second, he introduced a longer message from Osama bin Laden's favorite son Hamza urging attacks on America, England, France and Israel. Zawahri is back in the game.

Zawahri's last message to the public was in September 2014, when he announced the creation of a new al-Qaeda franchise in India (private covert messages to his followers giving instructions never ceased). The 2014 audio message was followed almost immediately by al-Qaeda's most audacious terror plot in over a decade — an attempt to hijack a Chinese built Pakistani navy frigate named the Zulfiqar. The plan was to seize the frigate with al-Qaeda recruited members of the Pakistani navy, take the ship into the Arabian Sea and attack an American aircraft carrier or other suitable target. The goal was to spark a war between the United States and Pakistan, a history-changing terror attack even bigger than 9/11. Bold and dangerous, it was a vintage Zawahri plot.

The two new videos were released by al-Qaeda's media arm As-Sahab, literally meaning "in the clouds," an allusion to the jihadi symbolism that al-Qaeda's core base operates in the mountains of the Hindu Kush. According to the Pakistan newspaper Dawn, As-Sahab recently relocated its real ground game from Pakistan (where it has been operating since 2002) back to Afghanistan in Helmand province. The Afghan Taliban supported the move and provides safe haven for al-Qaeda, which means that 14 years after Operation Enduring Freedom began, al-Qaeda is again running operations out of Afghanistan.

Zawahri's message underscores that al-Qaeda remains close to the Taliban. Three al-Qaeda franchises in Syria, Yemen and the Maghreb jointly eulogized the late Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in an earlier message. According to Dawn, senior As-Sahab official Qari Abu Bakr said, "The bond between us and our Taliban brothers is a solid ideological bond. The Taliban opted to lose their government and family members just to protect us. There is no question of us moving apart now after going through this war together." In a warning to the United States, he said, "Our common enemy does not know what is coming its way."

In Zawahri's new message, Osama bin Laden appears first in old footage promising his loyalty to Omar as the commander of the faithful. Then Zawahri eulogizes Omar, the founder of the Taliban, as a hero of the global jihad along with bin Laden and Abu Musab Zarqawi. Omar is lauded by Zawahri for creating the first true Islamic emirate since the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. He makes no mention of reports Omar died two years ago in a Pakistan hospital in Karachi under the protection of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI.

Then Zawahri promises that global jihad will continue until all Muslim lands are freed from Islam's enemies, especially Jerusalem. Zawahri calls for the recovery of lost lands such as Kashmir and Spain (Al-Andalusia). He makes no mention of the Islamic State or his rival Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who has proclaimed himself Caliph Ibrahim. Mansoor is the rightful leader of the global jihad for Zawahri, while Baghdadi is an upstart not worthy of comment.

Al-Qaeda has always been much more vocal about its ties to the Afghan Taliban than the Taliban is about its ties to al-Qaeda. The Taliban focuses its attention on Afghanistan and enjoys close support from the ISI. It has engaged in a furious offensive this year to defeat the Kabul government, an offensive Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has recently said is backed by the ISI. The Haqqani network of the Afghan Taliban which has gained influence in the movement with the ascension of Mansoor is very close to both al-Qaeda and the ISI. For tactical reasons, the Taliban does not advertise its partnerships with al-Qaeda and the ISI, which would undermine its claim to be Afghan nationalists.

The second message is introduced by Zawahri, but most of the almost hourlong monologue comes from Hamza bin Laden. Hamza bin Laden was with Osama bin Laden in his hide-outs in Pakistan before the SEALs found his Abbottabad lair in 2011. This is Hamza bin Laden's first message for al-Qaeda. He calls upon al-Qaeda franchises to attack their enemies, specifically urging followers in Kabul, Baghdad and Gaza to attack Washington, London, Paris and Tel Aviv.

The message dates from sometime in May or June but was only released this month. A statement of support and thus loyalty from the son of bin Laden, who is in his early 20s, is a powerful endorsement for the aging Zawahri in his struggle with Baghdadi. Both Baghdadi and Zawahri claim to be the true successor to bin Laden, but Zawahri can now say he has the backing of his predecessor's favorite offspring.

​Zawahri's 11-month silence probably was due to concerns about his security after the Zulfiqar operation was foiled. The Egyptian terrorist has survived in his business for 35 years since he first played a small part in the assassination of Anwar Sadat. He is the ultimate survivor who has outlasted his enemies.

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