Zawahiri video shows al Qaeda alive and well amid Taliban takeover
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A proof-of-life video from Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy who took over al Qaeda after the United States killed the terrorist leader in 2011, shows the jihadist was alive at least as of early 2021, showing the group’s resilience as the Taliban take over Afghanistan and seemingly debunking rumors he died last year.
The return of the Taliban to power two decades after their longtime allies carried out the 9/11 attacks could provide the terrorist group with a safer launching pad to conduct further terrorist acts.
Ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda run deep. Five years ago, Zawahiri swore allegiance to the Taliban’s top spiritual leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, referring to him as the “emir of the believers.” Bin Laden had long pledged his allegiance to the Taliban’s one-eyed founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who likely died sometime in 2013.
In a video released by al Qaeda on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Long War Journal reported that Zawahiri specifically referenced the al Qaeda affiliated Tanzim Hurras ad-Din (Guardians of Religion Organization) attack against a Russian military base in Syria at the start of January 2021, showing that, at minimum, Zawahiri appeared to be alive at the start of the year.
The new video is called “Jerusalem Will Not Be Judaized” and spouts a variety of conspiracy theories. Al Qaeda’s media arm, As Sahab, stated “May Allah Protect Him” whenever Zawahiri was mentioned and, just before 9/11, al Qaeda released an 852-page book allegedly written by Zawahiri, with an introduction attributed to the terrorist leader dated April, showing al Qaeda wants the world to think he is still alive.
The United Nations said this summer that Zawahiri “is believed to be located somewhere in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan” and that “previous reports of his death due to ill health have not been confirmed.”
In the prerecorded video, Zawahiri brought up 9/11, briefly saying, “Let us not forget that 19 mujahideen, the warriors of Islam, stabbed America in its heart … an injury the like of which America had ever tasted before, and today it is making its exit from Afghanistan, broken, defeated, after twenty years of war.”
Zawahiri praised numerous “martyrs” who had died beginning in late 2019 and throughout 2020, including Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force who shot and killed three U.S. Navy sailors at Naval Air Station Pensacola in December 2019 and who was himself killed by responding offers. Then-Attorney General William Barr said last year that information on the shooter’s iPhone “definitively establishes Alshamrani’s connections to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”
Zawahiri also praised Qasim al Raymi, a former deputy of his who had been the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and who was killed by the U.S. in February of last year, and Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, the former head of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb who died in a French military operation in June 2020.
“Ayman al-Zawahiri survived 20 years of America’s war and countless bad takes. In the newly released video, he praises Hurras al-Din’s Jan. 1, 2021 attack on a Russian base in Raqqa, Syria. So either this is his ghost or, you know, he didn’t die last year,” Long War Journal senior editor Thomas Joscelyn tweeted this weekend. “Keep in mind that Zawahiri is older, a doctor, and we are living in the age of COVID. He’s not dumb. That’s influenced his protocols. He also knows that the U.S. orchestrated a campaign to get as many AQ leaders as possible in 2019 and 2020 — more intense than usual… Now that he’s not dead everyone can go back to pretending he isn’t relevant anyway.”
Dr. Amin al Haq, who had been bin Laden’s security chief, returned to Afghanistan with great fanfare in August after the fall of Kabul, with a video showing him guarded by a large convoy of armed Taliban fighters. It is not likely that Zawahiri will make such a public appearance.
Zawahiri’s terror resume is decades in the making. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a teenager and founded the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group that sought to overthrow the secular Egyptian government. Zawahiri was later arrested in a plot to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. After his jihadist group merged with al Qaeda in the 1990s, he became bin Laden’s deputy and assisted with al Qaeda’s deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, which left 17 U.S. sailors dead.
A U.N. report from June concluded that “a significant part of the leadership of al Qaeda resides in the Afghanistan and Pakistan border region.” The U.N. said “large numbers of al Qaeda fighters and other foreign extremist elements aligned with the Taliban are located in various parts of Afghanistan” with “a number of senior figures killed, often alongside Taliban associates while co-located with them.”
Zawahiri’s tenure at al Qaeda is considered to be a mixed success: He has held the group together despite significant U.S. counterterrorism pressures, but the breakaway of the Islamic State from al Qaeda occurred in 2014 under his watch, with the rivalry continuing to this day.
ISIS-K, the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan, is believed to be responsible for the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport, which killed 13 U.S. service members and dozens of others. The Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and al Qaeda are deeply intertwined in Afghanistan, and the Taliban has integrated Haqqani Network leaders and fighters with al Qaeda links into its command structure.