Zawahiri answers back
Al-Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri has finally responded to questions posted on jihadist websites in December 2007 and January 2008. Reading between the lines, Zawahiri's answers provide insight into his view of Al-Qaeda's current situation, including its weaknesses, most notably its lack of theological authority, its failure to challenge Arab regimes or make an impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the problem of Muslim casualties.
The Al-Qaeda media organisation Al-Sahab announced on 16 December that Zawahiri would answer questions posted on certain jihadist websites over the following month. Hundreds of people responded, including enthusiastic supporters of Al-Qaeda, media organisations and relatively hostile critics.
The issue of jihadist attacks that kill Muslims is brought up by many of the questioners, with the Algerian bombings in December 2007 that killed 37 people claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) proving particularly controversial. One questioner asks: "Who is it who is killing with your Excellency's blessing the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco and Algeria? Do you consider the killing of women and children to be jihad?"
Zawahiri predictably denies that Al-Qaeda kills 'innocents', but adds a caveat. Quoting Osama bin Laden, he says that if innocents had been killed in 'mujahideen' operations "it was either an unintentional error, or out of necessity as in the cases of Al-Tatarrus", a reference to a fatwa that authorises attacks which result in the death of Muslims who are being used by an enemy as human shields.
Zawahiri blames 'Crusader-Jewish propaganda' for creating the impression that the mujahideen were killing innocents. However, he demonstrates the Al-Qaeda leadership's concern that some of the organisation's followers have little concern for Muslim casualties when he quotes Bin Laden as saying: "I emphasise to my brothers the mujahideen to beware of expanding the issue of Al-Tatarrus."
Al-Qaeda's failure to make any notable impression on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is another hot topic. Zawahiri attempts to defend Al-Qaeda's record by pointing out that Al-Qaeda has hit Israel's allies (given as the US, UK, Spain, Australia and France) in Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Algeria.
Seemingly conscious of Al-Qaeda's failure to launch an attack on Israeli territory, Zawahiri references Bin Laden's promise that "the mujahideen, after expelling the occupier from Iraq, shall make their way towards Jerusalem". He envisages linking up with the "truthful mujahideen" from Hamas and other groups and waging "jihad to liberate all of Palestine from the river to the sea".
Al-Qaeda's stance on Hamas is also a popular topic. Zawahiri reiterates his often-stated objection to the group's participation in elections and its acceptance of a Saudi-sponsored agreement under which it entered a power-sharing agreement with the secular party Fatah in February 2007. However, he says that Hamas is not equivalent to Fatah as it "stresses its affiliation with Islam". When asked whether Al-Qaeda's criticism of Hamas runs contrary to its call for Islamic unity, Zawahiri says his criticism is directed at the group's leadership, not the Palestinian people or fighters.
Zawahiri demonstrates Al-Qaeda's vulnerability on theological issues when he deals at length with questions about the clerical authority behind Al-Qaeda and criticism from respected Islamic scholars. Zawahiri's condemnation of Yusuf al-Qaradawi is particularly protracted and probably demonstrates how threatening he considers the popular Muslim Brotherhood scholar to be. He is also highly critical of Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (alias Dr Fadl), a former leader of El-Gihad (Egyptian Islamic Jihad) who published a lengthy refutation of violence in 2007.
According to Zawahiri, one of the ?errors? in Dr Fadl?s refutation was its criticism of Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian cleric who became the main advocate of international Muslim support for the Afghans fighting Soviet forces in their country.
Often referred to as Bin Laden's mentor, Azzam was assassinated by unknown assailants in 1989 and is a revered martyr in jihadist circles. However, it is widely believed that Azzam and Zawahiri were at odds over the interpretation of jihad. Zawahiri is consequently often listed as a suspect in the Azzam assassination. Zawahiri sidesteps a direct question on his role in the assassination and instead refutes the assertion that he considered Azzam an unbeliever and refused to pray with him.
While Al-Qaeda has successfully usurped the dead Azzam's legacy, living clerics who are considered credible authorities in jihadist circles represent more of a problem. Al-Qaeda could find itself in major trouble if such figures began to accuse it of inflicting needless Muslim casualties while failing to make any progress towards toppling apostate regimes.
Brushing off the setbacks suffered by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), he claims "the situation in Iraq heralds the victory of Islam and the defeat of the Crusaders and those who stand under their banner soon, God willing".
Zawahiri's strategy seems clear: he wants to secure Iraq as Al-Qaeda's "fortress of Islam", then turn Lebanon into a jihadist battleground and use it as a springboard for attacks on Israel. To do this, Al-Qaeda will have to cow Iraq's Shia parties and Hizbullah, which dominates the Lebanese-Israeli border. Having previously played down the sectarian divide, Al-Qaeda is now set on a collision course with Shia Islam.
Image: Ayman al-Zawahiri appeared in a 28 February video eulogising late jihadist commander Abu Laith al-Libi. The Open Meeting was only released in audio format, probably to make editing easier. 851 of 2,610 words
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