In a new audio message, Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian leader of al-Qaeda, has strongly endorsed the Palestinian attacks on Israelis with knives and called on Muslims everywhere to follow the Palestinian example, especially by attacking Americans at home. It's classic al-Qaeda strategy: Jump on a bandwagon you didn't start and ride it to garner support. It's been a winning formula for over a decade.
Zawahri issued a 16-minute audiotape from his hideout in Pakistan or Afghanistan over the weekend titled "Let us unite to liberate Jerusalem." He begins by lauding the series of attacks in Jerusalem, Hebron and elsewhere by individual Palestinians with knives on Jews, saying these martyrdom operations are a "new epic of jihad" that should be emulated by Muslims everywhere. The goal should be to wear down the Israeli economy by inducing fear among Israelis and visitors to Israel. Exhaustion is the objective.
Zawahri says two more approaches are necessary to drive Israel out from Jerusalem and destroy it. First is attacks on America and the West, especially in its "heartland." He then lauds a long series of attacks on the West from 9/11 to Paris this year and a long series of terrorists from Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 terrorists, to the "two Tsarnaev brothers" who attacked Boston. This is vintage al-Qaeda ideology, arguing that only by defeating and hurting America and its allies, who are Israel's patrons, can the Islamic world regain Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque. This has been the core message of Zawahri and Osama bin Laden since the founding of al-Qaeda almost two decades ago.
Second, Zawahri calls for creation of a jihadist state in Egypt and the Levant to fight what he called the alliance of America, Israel, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Syrian Alawis. All jihadists from Morocco to Central Asia should unite to fight this unholy alliance. They should model themselves on the Umayyad dynasty that unified the Muslim world from Spain to India in the 7th century.
Zawahri is not calling for unity with the Islamic State. He implicitly criticizes Caliph Ibrahim's self-styled caliphate by stating it was formed without the proper consultation with jihadi leaders. Zawahri's call for unity is more grass roots and much broader; it seeks an ideological unity not an organizational foundation. He explicitly rejects unity with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood that call for nonviolence or participation in elections. He wants a movement of individuals conducting terror that transcends organization and is inspired by the legacy of bin Laden. His vision is not bound by borders or bureaucracy, but about individual actions. Those actions will be the vanguard that leads to a caliphate.
All of this is classic al-Qaedism. Zawahri recognizes the Palestinian intifada of the knife is inspiring jihadists everywhere. He understands the profound imagery of young and old Palestinian men and women acting alone using knives, stones or cars to attack Israelis in galvanizing opinion across the Islamic world and the Muslim diaspora. He wants to exploit this imagery to radicalize another generation of violence.
Al-Qaeda saw the same opportunity in Iraq in 2003 when resistance began to the US occupation and swiftly escalated into civil war. Then al-Qaeda jumped on the bandwagon and endorsed the insurgency symbolically led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Exploiting the Iraq insurgency gave al-Qaeda a breathing space after its loss of Afghanistan in 2001. It rode the Iraq war to recovery.
Al-Qaeda was even more effective in exploiting the Arab Spring after 2011. It quickly heralded the revolutions in Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo, Damascus, Manama and Sanaa as a "tsunami" of change that proved jihad is the only path to defeating Islam's alleged enemies. Al-Qaeda's affiliates in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere have thrived and will continue to thrive in the chaos and regime failures that have followed the failure of the Arab Spring.
It's a very opportunistic strategy that exploits events and targets the extremist minority that provides an endless cadre of martyrs. Zawahri has long understood this approach masks al-Qaeda's own weaknesses and the ideological divisions within the global jihadist movement. This past summer he used an audio message by bin Laden's son Hamza to make all these same arguments in the voice of the heir to al-Qaeda's founder, a clever propaganda move.
Zawahri's statement on Jerusalem also comes as al-Qaeda's core is regenerating in its historic base in Afghanistan. NATO commanders there have reported finding large new al-Qaeda training camps in Kandahar province. It is from these camps that al-Qaeda's media arm al-Shabab is tweeting Zawahri's messages. It is another hallmark of al-Qaeda, a determined patience to outlast its opposition even when defeated and to take years to gradually and painstakingly rebuild sanctuaries when lost.
Al-Qaeda has been overshadowed this year by its offspring the Islamic State. After all, Zawahri is an old face, a terror mastermind from the 1980s. But al-Qaeda should not be underestimated; it remains lethal and its ideology remains adaptive, exploitive and always opportunistic.
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