Al-Qaeda’s emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a document on 14 September 2013, entitled, Tawjihat ‘Amma lil-Amal al-Jihadi (توجيهات عامة للعمل الجهادي), variously translated as: “General Guidelines for the Work of Jihad” or “General Guidelines for Jihadist Action”. Al-Zawahiri’s document is reproduced below.
The “General Guidelines” were issued in the period between the Islamic State rejecting Al-Zawahiri’s demand that they return to Iraq (June 2013) and Al-Zawahiri expelling the Islamic State from Al-Qaeda’s network (February 2014). At that time, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State were locked in a public war of words—that would only escalate—and, indeed, in physical combat, particularly in Syria. These events shape the “General Guidelines”, which lay out Al-Qaeda’s strategic vision for warfare and clearly aim to draw a contrast with the Islamic State.
What Al-Zawahiri primarily advocates for is Muslim unity, an unsubtle swipe at the Islamic State with its rampant use of takfir (excommunication) against Muslims, as the means to build the necessary socio-political base to create a Caliphate. Al-Qaeda’s old idea of an elite jihadist vanguard is still very much present, but there is a lot more focus from Al-Zawahiri on mobilising “the masses” for this vanguard to lead.
Al-Zawahiri says that jihad should be focused on the Americans, as “the head of global disbelief”, all over the world. Al-Zawahiri makes an exception for attacking Muslims by presenting certain groups and Arab governments as American agents—and even then, Al-Zawahiri says this should be done only when it confrontation is unavoidable. In advocating for this avoidance of intra-Muslim fighting, Al-Zawahiri is in many ways channelling the ideas of the late Abdullah Azzam—the rival with whom Al-Zawahiri competed in the late 1980s for Usama bin Laden’s ideological devotion (and money), and who is suspected by some of murdering Azzam in 1989 or at least prepared the way for whoever did by calling Azzam a “CIA spy”.
Al-Zawahiri’s ban on attacks against civilians—another tacit criticism of the Islamic State—extends not only to Muslims but even to a sect as “deviant” (by jihadist lights) as the Ahmadiyya. If a sectarian “response” becomes necessary, Al-Zawahiri instructs that only the leadership and those who have harmed Muslims should be targeted, with the Al-Qaeda branch involved in this making clear in its media messaging that the action is defensive, and avoiding a general attack on the community—whether it is Sikhs or Hindus or whoever.
If Al-Zawahiri’s call for merciful treatment of non-Muslim minorities is insufficient to draw the Islamic State’s wrath, there are two further sections that ought to do it: first, Al-Zawahiri advises Al-Qaeda to de-escalate with states wherever possible—to use the space for proselytism and to build secure bases for jihad—and, second, to accept the support of non-Muslims whenever it is offered.
[UPDATE: A letter from Bin Laden’s compound, released in early 2016, shows that Al-Qaeda, specifically Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), followed Al-Zawahiri’s advice in seeking a ceasefire with the government of Mauritania. Under the proposed “truce … with the apostates”, Al-Qaeda would have ceased military operations within Mauritania, and in exchange Nouakchott would—in addition to an annual bribe of “10 to 20 million euros”—stay out of Al-Qaeda’s way as it engaged in proselytising work and stored “cadres in safe rear bases”.]
[UPDATE 2: While the Islamic State has criticised Al-Qaeda for its collusion with states—with Turkey in Syria and Pakistan in Afghanistan—in early 2018, Islamic State admitted in its weekly newsletter, Al-Naba, what had long been obvious: the Islamic State has colluded with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad]
By coincidence, almost exactly six years before Al-Zawahiri’s “General Guidelines” were issued, the Islamic State released similar instructions, which it recently republished. The Islamic State’s release in September 2007 was a speech by its then-military emir, Abdul Munim al-Badawi (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), cautioning the group—which was then in considerable difficulty in Iraq amid the American “surge” and the tribal “Awakening”—to take a lighter-hand approach to the Sunni tribes, being more cautious about the use of takfir and assassination.
Interestingly, Al-Badawi followed almost exactly the same life path as Al-Zawahiri: an Egyptian, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood in that country early in life, moved into Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), got involved with Al-Qaeda’s networks in jihadi hotspots in the 1990s, went to Afghanistan in the late 1990s, and remained with Al-Zawahiri’s faction of EIJ when it was merged with Usama bin Laden’s organisation in the summer of 2001. Al-Badawi was in effect the operative for Al-Qaeda “Central” (AQC) overseeing Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM), the forerunner of the Islamic State, but Al-Badawi would, in 2006, ostensibly break from AQC and accept the post of deputy within the Islamic State as it declared its “State”. (The Islamic State was finally understood to mean “State” literally when it announced that it had restored the “caliphate” in June 2014, but the State project had begun eight years earlier.) The question of the Islamic State’s relationship with Al-Qaeda after 2006 is subject to much jihadist polemic and analytical contest: the best evidence is that Al-Badawi and his boss, Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi), maintained their contacts with AQC and continued to regard Bin Laden and then Al-Zawahiri as their emir until their expulsion from Al-Qaeda in early 2014.
As-Sahab Media Foundation presents:
General Guidelines for Jihadist Action
[By] Ayman al-Zawahiri
[20 Dhul Qadah] 1434 [equivalent to 14 September 2013]
Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim [In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful],
General Guidelines for Jihadist Action
1. It is not a secret to the brothers that our work in this stage is two-fold: The first is military and the second is da’wa [lit. “the call” or “invitation [to Islam]”; proselytism].
2. Military action should firstly be focused on al-inhak [the exhaustion or attrition] of the head of al-kufr al-‘alami [global or international disbelief], America, and its ally Israel, and secondly [against] its local allies that rule our countries.
A. The purpose of targeting America is to exhaust and deplete it, so that it [ultimately] meets the fate as the Soviet Union, and [in the meantime] turns in on itself as a result of its military, human, and financial losses, consequently loosening its grip on our lands and its allies begin to fall, one after the other.
What transpired during the Arab [spring] revolutions is evidence of waning American influence. After receiving relentless blows at the hands of the mujahideen in Afghanistan and Iraq, and because of the constant threat to America’s security since 11 September 2001, America began allowing a vent for the release of public pressure [in Muslim countries], but it blew up in the face of its agents [or clients or proxies]. The coming stage, God willing, will witness a further increase of American retreat and reluctance [to intervene], which will destabilise the power of its allies.
B. As for targeting America’s local agents, it differs from place to place. The basic principle is to avoid conflict with them, except in the lands where confronting them is unavoidable.
For example, in Afghanistan, al-sira [the struggle or conflict] with them is a part of the fight against Americans.
In Pakistan, the struggle against them complements the fight for the liberation of Afghanistan from the Americans, and then creating a safe haven for the mujahideen in Pakistan, which can then be used as a launchpad for establishing an Islamic system in Pakistan.
In Iraq, the struggle against them aims to liberate the Sunni areas from America’s Safavid [Iranian] successors.
In Algeria, where American presence is negligible and obscure, the struggle against al-nizam [lit. “the system”, the regime] aims at weakening it and spreading jihadist influence in the Islamic Maghreb, the lands of the West African coast, and the Sub-Saharan lands, where signs of a clash with America and its allies have become more evident recently.
In the Arabian Peninsula, the conflict with them is because they are agents of America.
In Somalia, the struggle against them is because they are the spearhead of the Crusader occupation.
In Syria, the struggle against them was originally because the rulers do not allow the mere existence of any Islamic kiyan [entity], let alone a jihadist one, and their bloody history of trying to uproot Islam is a well-known fact.
In the aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis [environs of Jerusalem], the foremost and primary battle is against the Jews, and patience must be exercised, as much as it is possible, with the local rulers who have assumed power under the Oslo arrangement.
3. As for the da’wa work, it aims to create awareness in the umma [Islamic community] regarding the threat posed by the Crusader onslaught, clarify the true meaning of tawheed [monotheism] in the sense that al-hukm [authority, sovereignty] belongs to God alone, and the importance of achieving brotherhood based on Islam and the unity of all the abodes of Islam as a prelude to the establishment of al-Khilafa ‘ala minhaj al-nubuwwa [the Caliphate upon the Prophetic methodology], with God’s permission.
Basically, the focus [for da’wa] at this stage must be mainly on two fronts:
First: Educating and cultivating the mujahid vanguard, which shoulders, and will continue to shoulder, with God’s permission, the responsibility of confronting the Crusaders and their agents, until the Caliphate is established.
Second: Educating the masses, inciting them, and striving to mobilize them so that they revolt against their rulers and join the side of Islam and those working for its cause [i.e. the jihadists].
Second: Necessary Guidelines
Based on this introduction, we can put forth the following guidelines in the light of the rules of al-siyasah al-shar’iyyah [politics based on shari’a], which aim at maslaha [securing interests] and mafsada [averting harms, avoiding evils].
1. Focus on spreading awareness at the level of al-jamahir [the masses] so as to mobilize it, and at the level of al-taliy’a al-mujahida [the jihadist vanguard], to create an organized, conscious, and united jihadist force that believes in the aqeeda [creed] of Islam, adheres to its laws [or rulings], brings pride to the believers and humiliation to the infidels. At the same time, relentless effort should be put into raising from among the ranks of the jihadist movement a cadre of people with scholarly and da’wa capabilities to ensure the safekeeping of our message and the spread of the call [to jihad] amongst the Muslims.
2. The focus of military action should be on exhausting the head of global disbelief until it is yustanzaf [drained, depleted, bled] militarily, economically, and in terms of human resources, and declines into a phase of withdrawal and isolation. Soon, with God’s permission.
All of the mujahideen brothers must consider attacks on the interests of the Western Crusader-Zionist alliance anywhere in the world their foremost duty. They must strive for such attacks as much as they can.
In addition to this, the brothers must make every effort to free Muslim prisoners using all means possible, including raiding the prisons where they are being held or kidnapping hostages from the countries that are involved in the fighting in Muslim lands to be used in exchanges for our prisoners.
Focusing on the head of global disbelief [America] does not conflict the right of the Muslim masses to fight their oppressors with words, hands, and arms. It is the right of our Muslim brothers in the Caucasus to wage jihad against the Russian aggressors and their allies. It is the right of our brothers in Kashmir to wage jihad against the criminal Hindus. It is the right of our brothers in East Turkistan [the Uyghurs in Xinjiang] to wage jihad against their Chinese oppressors, and it is the right of our brothers in the Philippines, Burma, and in every land where Muslims suffer repression to engage in jihad against those who molest them.
3. Avoid entering into armed combat with the local regimes unless forced to do so, for example when the local regime forms part of the American forces, as in Afghanistan; or where it wages war against the mujahideen on behalf of the Americans, as in Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula; or where it does not tolerate the mere presence of mujahideen, as in the Islamic Maghreb, Syria, and Iraq.
However, engaging in armed conflict with them [local regimes] must be avoided whenever possible. If we are forced to fight, then we must make it clear that we are engaged in a defensive struggle against a Crusader onslaught targeting the Muslims.
Further, whenever there is the possibility to de-escalate conflict with the local rulers—so as to exploit this for da’wa, expressing our viewpoint, inciting the believers, recruitment, fundraising and gaining supporters—we must make the most of this opportunity, because our struggle is a long one, and jihad needs secure bases and a consistent supply of men, money, and expertise.
This policy in no way contradicts with ensuring that these local regimes—the proxies of the Crusader onslaught—receive a clear message that we are no easy prey, and every action [against us] will be met with an appropriate response, even if it is delayed. This rule should be implemented on every front, according to what is appropriate in the given circumstances.
4. Avoid fighting the deviant sects such as Rawafid [derog. Shi’is], Ismailis, Qadianis [derog. Ahmadis], and the deviant Sufis, except if they fight the Ahl al-Sunna [Sunni people]. If they attack the Sunnis, even then the response must be restricted to targeting those parties from amongst them who are directly engaged in fighting and statements must be issued to make it clear that we are only defending ourselves. It [the Sunni response] must avoid attacks on non-combatants and their families, places of worship, religious festivals, and religious gatherings. However, this should not stop us from continuously exposing their falsehoods and their creedal and behavioural deviance.
As for the areas that fall under jihadist control and authority, these [non-Muslim and non-Sunni] sects should be handled with wisdom after inviting them to Islam, raising awareness in them, refuting the doubts, and enjoining what is good and forbidding what is evil in a way that does not cause greater harm, such as [leading to] the expulsion of mujahideen from these areas, a revolt of the masses against them, or stirring up sedition that the enemy can exploit to occupy these areas.
5. Avoid meddling with Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus living in Muslim lands. If they transgress, a proportionate response to the transgression should suffice, accompanied by a statement that we do not seek to initiate hostilities against them, since we are preoccupied with fighting the head of global disbelief [America], and that we are keen to live with them in peace and blessings after an Islamic state is established in the near future, God willing.
6. In general, avoid fighting or targeting anyone who has not openly raised arms against us or helped those who have, and maintain the focus primarily on the Crusader Alliance and its local surrogates.
7. Refrain from killing and fighting against non-combatants, even, as far as we can, if they are family members of those who are fighting against us.
8. Refrain from harming Muslims by bombing, killing, kidnapping, or destroying their wealth or property.
9. Refrain from targeting enemies in mosques, markets, and gatherings where they mix with Muslims or with those who are not fighting us.
10. Be careful to respect the [Islamic] scholars and defend of their honour because they are the heirs [or inheritors] of the Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace, and leaders of the umma. This obligation is reinforced with regards to the scholars who speak truth and sacrifice for it. Our confrontation with the evil scholars is restricted to refuting the doubts raised by them and publicizing incontrovertible evidence of their treachery: they should neither be fought nor killed, unless they participate in military action against the Muslims or the mujahideen.
11. The stance towards other Islamic groups:
A. We cooperate on what we agree on, and we advise and correct each other on what we disagree about.
B. We give priority to the confrontation with the enemies and opponents of Islam, therefore we will not allow differences with other Islamic groups to distract us from confronting these enemies of Islam—militarily, in da’wa, intellectually, and politically.
C. We welcome and thank them [other Islamic groups] for every correct action and true saying that comes from them, and we will advise them in every mistake that occurs—doing so secretly with what is secret and openly with what is public. Care will be taken in responding and advising, explaining with scholarly evidence and in a dignified manner, as opposed to using personal defamation and polemics, since the strength [of an argument] is in the proof and not in the [flamboyance of the] presentation.
D. If a group that claims allegiance to Islam is ever involved in fighting against us alongside the disbelieving enemy, it must not be responded with more than a minimal response that would be sufficient to stop its aggression, so as to close the door on strife amongst Muslims and to avoid harming those who do not fight alongside the enemy.
12. The stance regarding the revolutions of the oppressed against the oppressors: support, participation, guidance.
A. Support: Since supporting the oppressed against the oppressor is an obligation in shari’a, irrespective of whether either one of them is Muslim or non- Muslim.
B. Participation: Since supporting the oppressed against the oppressor is a part of commanding good and forbidding evil, which has been made obligatory upon us.
C. Guidance: By explaining that the purpose of one’s actions should be to establish tawheed by adhering to the commands of God, making shari’a supreme, and striving to establish an Islamic system and an Islamic state.
13. Encourage and support everyone who supports the rights of oppressed Muslims, and confront those who infringe the rights of Muslims with words, opinions, or actions. Avoid directing any harm, verbal or physical, for as long as they remain supportive and do not show hostility towards Muslims.
14. Protecting the rights of Muslims and respecting their sanctities wherever they may be.
15. Providing help and support to the victims of oppression, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, against those who oppress them. Support and encourage everyone who helps them, even if they are non-Muslims.
16. The mujahideen must strive to refute every false and unjust accusation hurled against them and clarify the truth regarding such accusations. And if it becomes clear to the mujahideen that they have committed a particular mistake, they must seek God’s forgiveness for it, publicly disassociate themselves from the person who has fallen in error, and try to compensate those who have been harmed, in accordance with the requirements of the shari’a and to the maximum of their strength.
17. We ask the brothers, the emirs of all groups subordinate to Tandheem Qaedat al-Jihad [the Base of Jihad Organisation], and all of our supporters and sympathisers to spread these Guidelines amongst their followers, whether in positions of responsibility or ordinary individuals, for this document contains no hidden secrets, rather it is a general guideline and a guiding policy [document]. Its only purpose is maslaha [securing interests] as established by the shari’a and mafsada [avoiding evils] in this stage of the Islamic jihadi work with ijtihad [interpretive judgment] that does not contradict the provisions of the shari’a and, with the help of God, conforms to its principles.
We seek only the pleasure of God, and He alone guides the way on the right path. May God’s peace and blessings be upon our master, Muhammad, his family, and companions. Our last prayer is that all praise belongs to God, the Lord of the Worlds.
Written seeking God’s pleasure by your brother,