FrontPage Interview’s guest today is al-Qaeda expert Raymond Ibrahim. His work includes the al-Qaeda entry for the World Almanac of Islamism; an analysis of al-Qaeda’s worldview for the Middle East Review of International Affairs; and most recently an article on Ayman al-Zawahiri for Bloomberg. He is best known for compiling, translating, and annotating The Al Qaeda Reader (Doubleday, 2007), the definitive work on the terrorist organization’s writings. Because the book contains al-Zawahiri’s premiere treatises and provides a snapshot of his mind, it takes on renewed relevance now that al-Zawahiri has been declared the leader of al-Qaeda.
FP: Raymond Ibrahim, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
I would like to talk to you today about what you know about Ayman al-Zawahiri. But I think it would be best to begin with _The Al Qaeda Reader._ Tell us what the book is about and why you wrote it.
Ibrahim: Sure, Jamie.
I primarily wrote _The Al Qaeda Reader_ (AQR) to demonstrate the organization’s doubletalk. After the strikes of 9⁄11, al-Qaeda’s messages to the West began to be translated and disseminated in the media; and their theme was one—that al-Qaeda’s terrorism was in retaliation to any number of Western crimes. Then, back in 2005 when I was working at the Library of Congress, I came across unknown Arabic texts written by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri that articulated their violence and terrorism purely within a jihadist paradigm; the temporal and emotive language directed at the West, when re-directed at fellow Muslims, was discarded for the eternal and immutable language of Islam.
For example, for all of al-Qaeda’s talk that Israel is the heart of the problem, bin Laden exposed his true position when he wrote to fellow Arabic-speaking Muslims not long after the 9⁄11 strikes the following:
Our talks with the infidel West and our conflict with them ultimately revolve around one issue—one that demands our total support, with power and determination, with one voice—and it is: Does Islam, or does it not, force people by the power of the sword to submit to its authority corporeally if not spiritually? Yes. There are only three choices in Islam:  either willing submission [conversion]; or  payment of the jizya, through physical, though not spiritual, submission to the authority of Islam; or  the sword — for it is not right to let him [an infidel] live. The matter is summed up for every person alive: Either submit, or live under the suzerainty of Islam, or die. (AQR, p. 42)
As you can see, this view, which is well codified in Sharia, is the ultimate source of conflict—not political, temporal grievances.
FP: Ok, so how does al-Zawahiri fit into the AQR?
Ibrahim: I have always believed that al-Zawahiri was the key to understanding al-Qaeda’s worldview. When I compiled the book between 2005-2006, I intentionally included more of his writings than bin Laden’s (an approach deemed unconventional then, as most people were more interested in learning what the more visible and notorious bin Laden had to say). The ironic result is that today the AQR exposes the philosophy of al-Qaeda’s new chief more than other al-Qaeda books, which had focused on (the now moot) bin Laden.
FP: What does the book tell us of al-Zawahiri and what can be learned from his words?
Ibrahim: I split the book into two sections, “Theology” and “Propaganda.” In the theology section, I included three long treatises by al-Zawahiri amounting to over 100 pages:
According to his “Loyalty and Enmity” (AQR pgs. 63-115), the Muslim believer is “obligated to befriend a believer—even if he is oppressive and violent towards you and must be hostile to the infidel, even if he is liberal and kind to you.” Al-Zawahiri bases this doctrine on Koranic verses that prohibit Muslims from befriending non-Muslims, specifically Jews and Christians (e.g., 5:51, 60:4).
He advocates deception, or taqiyya—that Muslims feign friendship with non-Muslims whenever it is advantageous; he quotes early Muslims saying “We grin to the faces of some peoples, while our hearts curse them” and recommending “lamenting and mourning in order to dupe the infidels.”
In “Sharia and Democracy” (AQR pgs.116-136), he advocates strict enforcement of Sharia law and animosity for democracy—complaining that democracy creates “equality between the citizenry,” allows freedom of religion, and abolishes “man’s domination over woman.”
In “Jihad, Martyrdom, and the Killing of Innocents,” (AQR, pgs. 137-171), al-Zawahiri goes to great lengths to promote suicide operations, grounding them in little known hadiths and historical anecdotes, as well as Koranic verses like 9:111; he quotes Islam’s prophet saying that the “martyred” jihadist “will couple with 72 maidens” in paradise. And he adheres to a very narrow definition as to who is considered “innocent” during the jihad—which precludes women, children, and even Muslims, if necessity calls for it.
The propaganda section of the book makes clear that al-Zawahiri also plays the double-talk game. For example, even though he too tries to frame al-Qaeda’s terrorism as retaliation to Western aggression, when writing to Muslims he says things like “Warfare against infidels, loyalty to the believers, and jihad in the path of Allah: Such is a course of action that all who are vigilant for the triumph of Islam should vie in, giving and sacrificing in the cause of liberating the lands of the Muslims, making Islam supreme in its own land, and then spreading it around the world (AQR, p.113).”
Note that last part about “spreading it [Islam] around the world,” which again indicates that, once Islam is strong enough, it should, in accordance to Islamic law and history, go on the offensive.
FP: What do you think of al-Zawahiri as a leader? Do you think he’ll steer al-Qaeda in a different direction than his predecessor?
Ibrahim: Al-Zawahiri, who just turned 60, is a seasoned veteran, who founded his first jihadi cell in Egypt when he was only 15 years-old, i.e., he’s been at it for 45 years. Like bin Laden, al-Zawahiri has jihadi bona fides and served in the Afghan war, primarily as a physician; unlike bin Laden, al-Zawahiri was imprisoned and tortured for his convictions in the early 1980s following the assassination of Anwar Sadat—an experience which seems to have hardened him more than bin Laden.
While many argue that he is lacking in charisma, it should be noted that in leadership positions in Islam, knowledge demands more authority. Even the guardians of Islam are collectively called _ulema_—literally, “those who know.” In comparison to bin Laden, al-Zawahiri is certainly more knowledgeable—as his treatises demonstrate—and commands greater respect in this regard.
As for the direction al-Zawahiri will steer al-Qaeda, he may believe that, unless al-Qaeda steps up with something spectacular, its credibility will wane; and he only recently promised an attack of the magnitude of 9⁄11. Still, al-Zawahiri’s 45 years of jihadi experience will probably prevent him from acting precipitously.
It also bears mentioning that because al-Qaeda has not achieved another major terrorist attack on American soil since 9⁄11, it does not mean that it is incapable. Moreover, it has other factors to consider. After all, if one let’s their imagination stray for a bit, there are many ways to terrorize civilian populations with little chance of being caught—an especially moot point for suicide bombers. So I believe al-Zawahiri’s decision to attack is guided by many factors, including the fact that another attack may undermine all the subversive efforts of his nonviolent Islamist colleagues.
FP: I assume you don’t think the death of Osama bin Laden was as severe a blow to al-Qaeda as some portray?
Ibrahim: Right. Whenever a jihadist is killed—including top leaders like bin Laden—I like to point out that jihadists are not the cause of hostilities; they are symptoms of a much greater cause. Individually killing them off is like a doctor temporarily treating a sick patient’s symptoms without eliminating the cause of sickness—the 1400 year-old doctrine of jihad.
Bin Laden for a decade was the face of radical Islam to the West; now it looks to be al-Zawahiri. Others—remember all the hoopla surrounding the killing of Zarqawi?—have come and gone, but the ideology is still there, still motivating others to emulate al-Qaeda.
This is also why questions concerning al-Zawahiri’s popularity, charisma, and even efficacy are a bit irrelevant. Al-Qaeda’s new leader himself once made this clear. Asked about the status of bin Laden and other jihadists, al-Zawahiri waxed philosophically:
Jihad in the path of Allah is greater than any individual or organization. It is a struggle between Truth and Falsehood, until Allah Almighty inherits the earth and those who live in it. Mullah Muhammad Omar and Sheikh Osama bin Laden—may Allah protect them from all evil—are merely two soldiers of Islam in the journey of jihad, while the struggle between Truth [Islam] and Falsehood [non-Islam] transcends time. (AQR, p.182)
Accordingly, as independent jihadists start taking action into their own hands—whether the Shoe Bomber, the Christmas Bomber, the Madrid and London bombers, or Nidal Hasan and Fort Hood—we must acknowledge that the very idea of perpetual jihad is more dangerous than the jihadists who come and go, be they bin Laden or al-Zawahiri.
FP: Raymond Ibrahim, thanks for helping to place al-Qaeda’s new leader in better context for us.
Ibrahim: Of course, Jamie; thanks for the invite.
FP: We encourage all of our readers to get their hands on The Al Qaeda Reader.