Every year al Qaeda issues a statement on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11 in which its leadership provides a “state of the jihad” review of the global war on America and its allies. True to form this year, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian amir of al Qaeda, released a message focusing on martyrdom and calling for attacks on Americans, especially in Libya. He may have hit the jackpot this time because of Islamophobia made in America.
Al Qaeda has used the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, for years to remind its supporters of the carnage it did that day and to promise more terror. This year al-Zawahiri focused his annual message on a discussion of the drone war and its impact. He eulogized a senior Libyan al Qaeda operative, Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was killed on June 4, 2012, in Pakistan.
Al-Zawahiri implicitly acknowledged the obvious: that al Qaeda’s core top leadership has been decimated by drone attacks and the SEAL mission that killed Osama bin Laden. But he also notes that the global jihadist movement has lost leaders for decades, some of whom have gone on to inspire generations of new jihadists. He specifically points to the Egyptian Sayyad Qutb, who was executed in 1966 by Gamal Abdul Nasser but whose writings inspired the development of the modern Islamic movement. And he mentioned a Palestinian, Abdallah Azzam, who encouraged Muslims around the world to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, created the first al Qaeda group with bin Laden, and was killed in a car bomb in 1989. Qutb and Azzam are the formative heroes of today’s jihadist world.
The 2012 al Qaeda 9/11 message is about ideology. Al-Zawahiri acknowledges that al Qaeda can not match the “material power” of the Zionist-Crusader “evil empire.” But, he argues, it is winning the ideological war. Every new martyr gives the “call of jihad new life.” Al Qaeda’s real mission, he claims, is to “incite the ummah” (the Islamic world) to fight the Crusaders. He points to the success of al Qaeda in establishing footholds in Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Mali, Egypt’s Sinai, and elsewhere since the Arab Awakening began in 2011 as signs the movement is winning the ideological struggle.
Of course much of this is just propaganda. Al Qaeda did not inspire the Arab Awakening or the Arab spring. But this year the tragic events in Benghazi, Libya, and the death of the American Ambassador Chris Stevens have benefited al Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri called for revenge in Libya and probably by coincidence and our bad luck he got revenge. Jihadists don’t believe in luck, they believe in fate, so he will look prescient.
It’s way too soon to know what role al Qaeda actually played in Benghazi. It appears the attack was the work of armed terrorists, not a mob. Al Qaeda and associated groups have long been powerful in this part of Libya. The facts will emerge in time. The context, al-Zawahiri’s message and the war of ideas, is already clear. Al Qaeda’s core inspires, others follow.
The death of Chris and three other colleagues is a critical reminder that the ideological war is the main arena. Al Qaeda and its associated movements want the struggle to be a clash of Islam against America and its allies. When foolish people attack the prophet Muhammad, they have become al Qaeda’s partner. When movies are distributed to demonize Islam, they are actually helping it win its war. When it becomes fashionable to suggest that American Muslims are not really Americans or “us,” then we are the loser. When it is implied a Muslim cannot be President of the United States, then al Qaeda gains.
Eleven years ago President George Bush understood this. Six days after the attacks on that terrible day he went to a mosque in Washington and said “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. Islam is peace. These terrorists represent evil and war.” He called American Muslims “friends” and urged Americans not to resort to hate crimes. He told the staff of his National Security Council, myself included, to find ways to underscore this was not a war against Islam.
Today we mourn the loss of four American patriots. I knew Chris Stevens. He did not serve his country to fight Islam. He served his country to promote peace and justice. We need to avoid falling into al-Zawahiri’s traps.