Go Home Zawahiri, You’re Drunk
Ayman al Zawahiri’s latest statement, issued earlier this month and entitled “General Guidelines for Jihad” is a mess. And so is he. The guidelines illustrate two things: al Qaeda does not have and has never really had a feasible concept for conducting global insurgency and al Qaeda is now reduced to running out in front of the parade in order claim leadership of the Sunni jihadist movement.
The first sections of Zawahiri’s statement are old hat. He says that Al Qaeda’s jihad involves pursuing a strategy of exhaustion against the United States “to exhaust her and bleed her to death, so that she meets the fate of the former Soviet Union and collapses under her own weight as a result of her military, human, and financial losses.” As always for al Qaeda Central, the focus on the United States is instrumental: Weaken the United States enough and “its grip on our lands will weaken and its allies will begin to fall one after another.”
Zawahiri asserts that there is reason to believe that this approach is working. The Arab Spring, he says, took place when the United States sought to provide an outlet for some of the pressure that had been created through al Qaeda’s “propagational” work. However, America found that it could not control the results.
Despite this alleged success, Zawahiri says that the movement should retain its direct focus on the United States and generally avoid going directly after American proxies. Stick to the “far enemy.” That seems clear enough and, on its own terms, sensible. Here is where the trouble begins, however. He immediately caveats his own guidance by saying that “the basic principle is to avoid entering in any conflict with [America’s apostate proxies], except in the countries where confronting them becomes inevitable.” He then lays out a lengthy list of cases where that confrontation is, indeed, “inevitable:” Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Algeria, the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia, Syria, and Palestine.
He then turns to propogation. This aims “to create awareness in the ummah regarding the threat posed by the Crusader onslaught, clarify the true meaning of tawheed…and stress…the importance of brotherhood based on Islam and the unity of all Muslims lands.” All this is a “prelude to the establishment of the Caliphate.” This agitprop has two main axes. The first is “educating and cultivating the mujahid vanguard” which must shoulder the burden of confronting the “Crusaders and their proxies.” The second is “creating awareness within the masses, inciting them, and exerting efforts to mobilize them so that they revolt against their rulers and join the side of Islam.” Here Zawahiri seems to be saying that the mujahidin should not go after the apostate rulers but the larger Muslim public should. He never explains why he thinks this if, indeed, he has thought through the issue at all.
In any event, after that introduction, Zawahiri proceeds to offer a long list of “guidelines.” The first two guidelines are simply reiterations of the general strategy for jihad and propagation, except that Zawahiri slips in another task for the mujahidin: they should also “exert maximum efforts to free Muslim prisoners.” Then he goes on to further dilute even further the intended focus on the United States. That focus “does not conflict with the right of the Muslim masses to wage Jihad with their tongues or by taking up arms against those who oppress them.” The result of this is that he adds to the list of places where war should be waged even though it will do nothing to weaken the United States. This adds in the Caucasus, Kashmir, “Eastern Turkestan” (western China), the Philippines, Burma, and “every land where the Muslims are subjected to repression.”
Perhaps trying to limit the implications of this carte blanche he has provided for fighting virtually anywhere, Zawahiri says that avoiding conflict with local rulers is preferable because this provides space for non-violent propagation, recruitment, and fundraising.
Zawahiri tries again to be sensible. He gives long list of people who must not be attacked or become collateral damage: women, children, fellow Muslims, and Islamic scholars. He also recommends avoiding conflict with other Muslims such as “such as Rawafidh, Ismailis, Qadianis, and deviant Sufis.” But of course, if they fight us, he says, we must fight them. He issues a similar guideline with regard to the Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus living in Muslim lands. Finally, Finally, in a Kumbaya moment, Zawahiri says that his followers should also support the oppressed “whether Muslims or non-Muslims” around the globe.
Even aside from the niggling little problems and oversights, this new statement makes embarrassingly clear the absence of a valid concept for the kind of insurgency that al Qaeda wants to conduct within Islam and the world. Zawahiri clearly wants to focus the violence on the United States. However, the list of exceptions to his stern guidance (hmmm…does he have another kind?) is so ridiculously long that it seems to represent a failure to set priorities, to acknowledge a scarcity of means, as a good strategist must. An analogy might have been a declaration by the United States during World War II that it was prioritizing the European and Pacific Theatres of Operations. What is not on Zawahiri’s list of exceptions? Effectively nothing.
However, is it realistic to expect Zawahiri to set priorities? Not really. The degree to which al Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central don’t dictate circumstances but rather are at their mercy is clear. Specifically, they face a problem: they want to run a tightly controlled mass movement. This is an oxymoronic concept. You can’t set priorities if you aren’t in charge and al Qaeda isn’t in charge.
In some sense, however, this is not their fault. There is lots of theory for how one conducts a revolution inside a country, but with the partial exception of Lin Biao’s adaptation of Maoist theory regarding the “rural areas of the world” (Latin America, Asia, Africa) and the “cities of the world” (the United States and Europe), there is little theory for how to conduct a worldwide revolution. Perhaps someday, someone will find a way in which the efforts of a mass movement can be synchronized and deconflicted whether it’s through positive control or some hidden hand mechanism. When that day comes, the movement that al Qaeda started may have a slight chance of getting somewhere, but not before.
Until then, go home Zawahiri.
Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC.