Al-Qaeda Video Fails To Show Proof Of Life For Al-Zawahiri, Casts Further Doubt On The Future Of The Organization

By: S. A. Ali*
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March 22, 2021
By: S. A. Ali*

Introduction

In November 2020, unconfirmed reports surfaced among jihadis on social media that Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the 69-year-old Egyptian who assumed Al-Qaeda (AQ) leadership in June 2011, succeeding Osama bin Laden, was dead.

If true, Al-Zawahiri's death signifies the closing of a chapter for the jihadi movement. Under Al-Zawahiri's leadership, the group's global activities shrank significantly, yet ties were maintained with some powerful affiliates, such as the Afghan Taliban and the Al-Shabab movement in Somalia.

The last video featuring a message from Al-Zawahiri was released on September 11, 2020, and was titled "The Deal of the Century or the Crusade of the Century?" It was released on the anniversary of 9/11, although the attacks are not directly mentioned. In the video, Al-Zawahiri addressed then-President Donald Trump's peace plan for the Middle East, and then went on to rebut allegations of cooperation between Al-Qaeda and official elements in Arab countries, made in a documentary which aired in September 2019 on Al-Jazeera.[1]

Until recently, Al-Qaeda media has refrained from commenting on claims that Al-Zawahiri has died, opting to remain silent. However, on March 11, Al-Sahab, the group's media wing, released a video that featured an audio message from Al-Zawahiri discussing the atrocities committed against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.

Contrary to expectations, the video failed to reassure Al-Qaeda's supporters that their top leader is still alive, instead casting further doubts about his fate.

The following report will examine these developments, Zawahiri's audio clip, the reaction it received among Al-Qaeda supporters and rivals, and their implications.

ISIS Supporters Rejoice In 'The Death Of Al-Qaeda's Top Leader In Qatar'

On November 13, Nasser News, a pro-Islamic State (ISIS) channel on Telegram, published a post showing news reports claiming that Al-Zawahiri had died in his residence in Doha, Qatar. "Unconfirmed news that Al-Zawahiri the pig has died in Doha, may Allah never allow his reemergence," said Nasser News, alongside a screenshot of a Twitter account that claims to be affiliated with Yemeni Intelligence. The same channel later shared a second report published by news website Al-Khaleej Al-Jadid according to which the top leader of Al-Qaeda had "died early this month, but the circumstances of his death are still unknown."[2]

AQ Media Releases Unusual Poster Promoting Upcoming Al-Zawahiri Message

On March 11, 2021, several social media accounts affiliated with Al-Qaeda shared a digitally blurred version of a promotional poster announcing that Al-Sahab Media Foundation will be releasing a new publication. The following day, an unblurred version of the poster was shared, showing an image of Al-Zawahiri – an image that may have been used by the organization before. The Arabic text on the promotional poster read: "Coming Soon, with the will of Allah: The Wound of the Rohingya is the wound of the ummah, by Sheikh Ayman Al-Zawahiri." [3]

The poster was unusual because unlike previous promotional posters, Al-Zawahiri's name was not followed by the Islamic phrase "May Allah protect him," which is frequently used in reference to leaders who are alive. This poster, as well as the Arabic transcript released with the video, did not include the phrase.[4]


The poster announcing the video did not include the phrase "May Allah Protect Him" after Al-Zawahiri’s name.


A previous poster advertising the Al-Zawahiri lecture "Together towards Allah," released in April 2020. The phrase "May Allah protect him," follows Al-Zawahiri's name (as indicated by the arrow.)

Al-Zawahiri Calls On The Mujahideen To Target Burmese Interests, But Makes No Reference To Recent Coup

On March 12, 2021, Al-Sahab released the 21-minute video, which included footage of Burmese soldiers brutally attacking civilians, along with clips of Western commentators discussing the situation in Myanmar.[5]

To watch the video of Al-Zawahiri on MEMRI TV, click here.

A narrator interjected throughout the video to highlight Al-Qaeda's narrative of the events discussed, or to reinforce and reiterate Al-Zawahiri's message, which was conveyed in several audio clips and made no reference to current events.

The first audio clip of Al-Zawhiri's begins at the 1:06 minute mark, with him expressing his disappointment with the global reaction to the massacres committed against the Muslims in Myanmar. However, he does not mention the recent military coup that took place in Myanmar on February 1, 2021.

"The entire world has witnessed the countless massacres that the Rohingya Muslims have been subjected to in Myanmar in recent years, yet no tangible steps have been taken by the world community to address the problem except slight condemnation and token gestures of humanitarian aid," Al-Zawahiri said in the clip.

Following this general statement, the narrator interjects to frame Al-Zawahiri's words as timely by referring to the recent military coup. The narrator says: "The latest coup has shaken the governments and organization in the hypocritical Western world for which the idol of democracy is more sacrosanct than the slaughter of thousands of innocent people and the forced displacement of millions."

In an attempt to further contextualize the audio clip of Al-Zawahiri to make it appear current, the video included footage of U.S. President Joe Biden commenting on the situation in Myanmar following the military coup. However, Al-Zawahiri himself did not mention President Biden or make any direct comment on the new U.S. administration. Instead, the video included another generic statement at 3:36 minutes in, where Al-Zawahiri says: "As for the so-called 'democratic' government of Myanmar, upon which the West had lavished much praise for its success in establishing a blind democratic order, no sanctions whatsoever were imposed on it, no campaign was launched against it and no alliance was formed to stop its crime in spite of the fact that the crime is well documented and in graphic, horrendous detail."

In the other audio clips included in the video, Al-Zawahiri further expressed his disappointment in the way Muslim governments reacted to what he described as the "massacres" in Myanmar, calling on Muslims everywhere to strike the government of Myanmar.

He reiterated that the wound of the Rohingya Muslims is the wound of the entire nation of Islam, calling on Muslims, regardless of their nationality, to avenge the Muslims of Myanmar by attacking the interests of Myanmar's government.

Al-Qaeda Supporters Downplay Reports Of Leader Al-Zawahiri's Death

Following the video, several supporters of the group published posts on Telegram criticizing those who questioned the fate of Al-Qaeda as a group, arguing that even if Al-Zawahiri were dead, the organization would survive.[6]

On March 13, Syria-based Al-Qaeda supporter Jallad Al-Murji'ah argued in post titled "A Calm and Important Chat" that the "Crusader Western think tanks," and ISIS are responsible for circulating the rumors of Al-Zawahiri's death. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that there are some questions about Al-Zawahiri's fate, even among some "good brothers who are asking because they have sincere intentions."

Praising Al-Zawahiri as "a white-haired man who has spent over half a century of his life waging jihad for Allah's sake, between mountains, valleys, prison, persecution, caves, security restrictions, and pursuit by the Crusaders," Al-Murji'ah argued that "the day will come when he dies, whether today or tomorrow."

Jallad Al-Murji'ah further claimed that Al-Qaeda "will not die with the death of its members, but rather, it will expand with Allah's grace."

ISIS Supporters: Video Deepens Suspicion That Al-Zawahiri Is Dead, Proves Successor Saif Al-Adl Is Already Failing

On March 13, 2021, Al-Aqdam Al-Thaqila (Heavy Feet), a pro-Islamic State (ISIS) Telegram bot, published a post responding to the Al-Sahab video and accusing Al-Qaeda veteran Saif Al-Adl, who is expected to succeed Al-Zawahiri as leader after his death, of "recycling a video to mislead the world and Al-Qaeda's supporters, presenting it as a new video, with a new speech by Al-Zawahiri, who is already buried."[7]

The post went on to say: "Actually, the video is old and this trick by Saif, the fool, will not deceive anyone, just like before, when he published old videos of the senile foolish man [Al-Zawahiri]."

A subsequent post criticized the content of the video, noting that the video discussed the Myanmar coup, yet provided no proof to indicate that Al-Zawahiri's commentary was made recently. The post concluded by saying that Al-Qaeda supporters were waiting for the video, thinking that it will please their hearts, but it turned out to only deepen their suspicions about the fate of Al-Zawhiri and Al-Qaeda as a whole."

Conclusions: Recent Video Disappoints Al-Qaeda Supporters, Confirms A Lack Of Leadership

Al-Qaeda supporters who were hoping that the video will disprove reports of Al-Zawahiri's death and assure them that he is still acting in his full capacity as the group's top leader were likely doubly disappointed.

First, because the video failed to prove that Al-Zawahiri is still alive, and second, because his audio message failed to address the serious challenges the group is currently facing, across several regions, including north Yemen, where Sunnis are struggling to maintain a foothold, or in northern Syria, where Al-Qaeda affiliate Huras Al-Din is being crushed by jihadi group Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). He also failed to address the challenge posed by the targeted killings of many of Al-Qaeda's senior commanders at the hands of the U.S.-led Coalition.[8]

Clearly, Al-Qaeda is reluctant to publicly communicate with its supporter base about the fate of its leadership, mostly because there is no suitable successor who can save the organization, which is experiencing widespread chaos, from West Africa to Afghanistan, and has been for some time, even under Al-Zawahiri's leadership.

As their reactions suggest, Al-Qaeda supporters seem, to a certain extent, to have accepted the possibility that their top leader may be dead. And while they tried to assert that the organization has a future without Al-Zawahiri, by restating their commitment to the cause of jihad, they failed to offer an answer on the question of who will be running the show in Al-Zawahiri's absence.

Is it Saif Al-Adl, who is said to be under house arrest in Iran? How would the followers feel about having a top leader whose movement is restricted by a regime which Al-Qaeda perceives as apostate?[9] The same question can be asked another key leader in the organization, Al-Zawahiri's son-in-law Muhammad Abbatay, better known as Abd-al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, who, according to the U.S. State Department, is also based in Iran.[10]

Al-Sahab's recent video, with its generalized audio statements only deepened the suspicions of Al-Qaeda's followers about the fate of Al-Zawahiri and cast further doubts on the viability of Al-Qaeda as a major, influential jihadi organization.

*S. A. Ali is an Iraqi-American research fellow and Director of the JTTM project at MEMRI.

 


[1] See MEMRI JTTM report, In New Video, Al-Qaeda Leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri Describes U.S. Peace Plan In Middle East As 'Crusade Of The Century', Condemns Normalization With Israel, Slams Al-Jazeera For 2019 Documentary On 9/11 Attacks, September 11, 2021.

[2] See MEMRI JTTM report, ISIS Supporters Rejoice At Unconfirmed News Of Death Of Al-Qaeda Top Leader As Al-Qaeda Supporters Pray To Allah To 'Protect Him', November 14, 2020.

[3] Rocket.Chat, Al Sahab, March 11, 2021.

[4] Rocket.Chat, Al Sahab, March 12, 2021.

[5] See MEMRI JTTM report, In New Video, Al-Qaeda Leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri Calls On Mujahideen To Target Burmese Interests Everywhere, Makes No Reference To Recent Coup, March 12, 2021.

[6] See MEMRI JTTM report, Al-Qaeda Supporters Downplay Reports of Leader Al-Zawahiri's Death, March 15, 2021.

[7] See MEMRI JTTM report, ISIS Supporters: Al-Qaeda's Recent Al-Zawahiri Audio Clip About Rohingya Only Reinforces Suspicions That He Is Dead, March 15, 2021.

[8] See MEMRI JTTM Inquiry and Analysis report, Al-Qaeda's Decline In Syria - Part I: Background And Current Status, February 2, 2021.

[9] Al-Hurra.com, November 16, 2020.

[10] Rewardsforjustice.net, last accessed March 19, 2021.

 

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