International relations, National security | Asia, The World

1 October 2019

A new video suggests al-Qaeda insists on being the spearhead of radical Islam movements everywhere, Isaac Kfir writes.

On the 18th anniversary of 9/11, al-Qaeda’s media outlet As-Sahab released a 30-minute video on Telegram. The video message titled ‘And They Shall Continue to Fight You’, referencing verse 2.217 of the Quran, sees Zawahiri further clarifying al-Qaeda’s strategic outlook.

Many key jihadis appear in the video, including Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi. Rantisi was a founding member of Hamas, though al-Qaeda never formally worked with him. The reference to Rantisi is probably based on his leadership role in Hamas, whose first suicide attack in April 1994 was described as a response to the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre.

Rantisi and others claimed that all Israelis either serve in the military or support the occupation of Palestine and oppression of Palestinians – no Israeli can claim to be a civilian.

Zawahiri challenges Islamic scholars that don’t support military action, arguing that only through violence can Muslims survive the abuse, corruption, and hardship that they face daily. A common theme in Zawahiri’s defence of jihad, in the form of violence, is appropriate because “America does not understand anything except the language of force.

By referencing Rantisi, al-Qaeda is sending a message to many Islamic scholars who argue that al-Qaeda shouldn’t attack civilians because, in the eyes of al-Qaeda, there are no civilians in this cosmic war. Each person must make a choice: will they side with al-Qaeda and those fighting for Muslims and Islam, or will they side with the kafirs, apostates, and takfirs.

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Secondly, Zawahiri returns to the need to challenge the corrosive powers of the US and Israel, who apparently have ‘religious enmity’ towards Muslims and the Muslim world.

This further reinforces the message that, for al-Qaeda, this is a war that can’t be lost; doing so would mean to give up on Islam.

There are no suggestions that al-Qaeda should carry out the military action as he so declares. “Surveil the enemy and make your preparations,” Zawahiri says, adding “Do not expect anyone to help you, except very little help perhaps. Seek help from Allah alone, and do not show any weakness.”

This should be understood as a call for individual action, associated with Abu Musab al-Suri, who more than any other Salafi-jihadi strategist reconceptualised al-Qaeda following 9/11.

In the video, Zawahiri also refers to the need to be inventive and that the global jihadi network should attack the enemies of Islam “at a time and place of our choosing”.

More on this: Syria bombing risks a deadly escalation of conflict

The call for innovation is particularly significant as it is a reaction to successful counterterrorism measures by many states which have weakened al-Qaeda Central and ISIL. Undoubtedly, many within the Salafi-jihadi community are respectful of the skill, capabilities, commitment, and intelligence of the security apparatus.

They know that they must innovate if they are to continue in their jihad, but because they recognise the technological advantage that states have over them, there is a growing focus on homegrown extremism.

The Sri Lanka bombings serve as a reminder of their persistence in finding weak spots in the counterterrorism regime, as the bombers exploited political and governance divisions within the Sri Lankan government.

Zawahiri connects the local and global by pushing the idea that Muslims are currently under a crusader attack much like the regional battles they are currently fighting.

His video statement also reflects his critical view of Muslim scholars that challenge al-Qaeda’s attacks on civilians, emphasising that the Pentagon, World Trade Centre, and Congress were legitimate targets, as there is no distinction between military, economic, political, and social institutions.

It seems that, in the message, Zawahiri is also challenging critics to test whether they can launch attacks against purely American, British, French, and NATO military targets, as a way to remind them that they can’t simply focus on the military that is “littered with American bases.” Not only that, but he also seems to suggest attacks on China, India, and Russia – states that have been oppressing Muslims.

The message further emphasises al-Qaeda’s networking of Salafi-jihadis, best seen in As-Sahab’s logo. It represents four other al-Qaeda media branches: Az-Zallaqa, Al-Andalus Media, Al-Malahem Media, and Al-Kataib Media.

More on this: A self-fulfilling terrorism prophecy

Al-Qaeda’s current role is to educate and distribute ideological reasoning as to why action is necessary.

It seems that this mission has been rather successful as their claim of having reached more countries than ever before in their 40-year history would suggest.

These entities exploit humanitarian crises, lack of human security, and poor governance.

As we reflect on 18 years of warfare, we must recognise that even though some key actors are dead, the ideology remains resistant to our counter-narratives, appealing to the disillusioned.

The concern that we must have as we reflect on Zawahiri’s message is threefold. Firstly, the Salafi-jihadi movement continues to threaten international peace and security, which is why any claims that this movement is defeated are erroneous and dangerous.

Secondly, the movement is fragmented and is likely to remain so, and to see it as hierarchical aggregated force is a mistake. It is a network connected by shared ideals and the belief that formal ties are what drive their agenda. In fact, as a decentralised network, it will pose a greater threat to global security, as it will seek to inspire responses from lone actors and target weak states.

Lastly, we need to remain creative and attuned to the threat that this movement poses, as even though they are less likely to cause mass casualty attacks today, we don’t know what they are planning.

This is why vigilance remains vital.

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