Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a video statement on 20 February 2018, entitled, “Oh Our Brothers in Syria, Reconcile Amongst Yourselves”. The speech continued themes Dr. al-Zawahiri has hit on many times before, notably encouraging the Syrian insurgency to avoid allying with the West or other foreign states, to unite behind al-Qaeda since all outside actors are conspiring against the Syrian opposition, and to refuse all compromise in imposing the shari’a. Simultaneously, al-Zawahiri suggests that his adherents avoid trying for quick results and “cling[ing] to ground”, an echo of the advice given in the summer of 2016 that al-Qaeda’s operatives and the Syrian insurgents they can co-opt should prepare for a long war focused on guerrilla tactics, rather than holding territory. An English translation of al-Zawahiri’s speech was made by As-Sahab Media, disseminated by pro-al-Qaeda Telegram channels, and is reproduced below with some editions for syntax and transliteration.
As an aside: al-Zawahiri has generally been assumed to be in Pakistan, but this assumption is unsafe. The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden, by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, was published in May 2017. It covers an extraordinary amount of ground, particularly on al-Qaeda’s long relationship with the Iranian regime. One of the overlooked pieces of reporting in the book is that in late 2015 or early 2016, “Evidence emerged that al-Zawahiri had shifted his permanent base to Iran with [Quds Force leader Qassem] Suleimani’s blessing.” This was in the same period Iran was releasing senior al-Qaeda operatives like Abu al-Khayr, who went straight to Syria, and al-Zawahiri was signalling a potential al-Qaeda return to Iraq. “The idea of Al Qaeda fighting in two theaters simultaneously was being actively promoted by Saif al-Adel and al-Zawahiri and had the secret backing of Iran”, the authors write. Sayf al-Adel, an Egyptian whose real name is Muhammad Zaydan, is al-Qaeda’s military commander. Levy and Scott-Clark document Zaydan’s close relationship with Suleimani. Zaydan remains in Tehran. By Levy and Scott-Clark’s account, al-Zawahiri was in Iran by the time Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a drone strike as he left Iran on 21 May 2016.
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Oh Muslim brothers everywhere, may Allah’s peace and mercy and blessings be upon you.
As for what follows:
I address this speech of mine to our people and our brothers in Syria, the land of ribat and jihad, in the midst of these bloody, epic battles, and the raging war, and the burning lava, which greatly pours upon them, from the fanatical Christian American-Russian alliance.
And I say to you: I hope you accept my brief speech from a brother to you, a Muslim, who is tied to you in the brotherhood of Islam, without regard to any organizational gathering.
And may our Lord with His honour answer our prayer, and grant for us His victory, as our Lord, glorified and exalted is He, said to His prophet, may prayer and peace be upon him: “Oh you who believe! Remember Allah’s favour to you when there came against you hosts [armies] and we sent to them a great wind and armies that you did not see [i.e. troops of angels during Ghazwa al-Ahzab (The Battle of Confederates) a.k.a. Ghazwa al-Khandaq (The Battle of Trench)]. And verily, Allah is is ever-seer of what you do. When they came upon you from above and below, and when the eyes grew wild the and hearts jumped into throats [in fear], and you harboured doubts about Allah” [Al-Ahzab (33): 9]. And also what He, glorified and exalted is He, said to him: “And remember when you were only a few and were reckoned feeble in the land, and were in fear that men might kidnap you, but He gave you refuge, strengthened you with His help, and provided you with good things, so that you might be grateful” [Al-Anfal (8):26].
My Muslim and mujahideen brothers in Syria: I myself recommend to you two things and they are the introduction of victory, Allah permitting, and they both adhere to our aqeeda [creed], and to insist on a firm determination not to retreat, do not give up the empowerment of administering Islam and shari’a in Syria, and do not transcend reference, and do not compete with the authority.
The second: To unite and agree and gather and merge and cooperate and stack together as one rank and this is the basis of victory and salvation, Allah permitting, and bury the reasons for disagreement. Gather everyone, to ascertain for you the words of truth of the Almighty: “And obey Allah and His messenger and do not dispute with one another lest you falter and lose your strength” [Al-Anfal (8): 46], and the word of the Almighty: “And hold fast, all of you together, to the rope of Allah” [Ali Imran (3): 103].
Do not make yourselves a game in the hands of the so-called supporters [i.e. foreign states]. They seek to make you a tool to achieve their ambitions or the ambitions of those who assist them. Instead, unite and come together. May Allah grant you sustenance from where you do not count.
The other thing which I would like to warn our brothers and our people in Syria about is that their battle is serious in its impact, but also serious in its language, and it is the battle of the heart of the Islamic and Arabic world, and it is a battle on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Do not expect it to be anything but a long and cruel battle; the mujahideen must be patient with it, and do not rush for results, do not cling to the ground. All their concern should be to weaken the enemy, so that he is exhausted by the multiplicity of strikes and the long attacks and the continuation of battles and bleeding of losses.
Settle yourselves into it being a battle which may last for many years and perhaps decades, and so you need unity with your brothers in Syria and in other lands of Islam, and to transform the issue of Syria to an issue of the entire umma [Islamic community], and if you unite then you will enter exhilaration, and you will renew the hope in the hearts of your umma, which will gather around you to support you and help you and provide for you, Allah permitting. And fear Allah and reconcile what is between yourselves.
Oh Allah, support the Muslims in Syria, unite their word, heal their hearts, unite their ranks, and bring down for us and for them your victory and your conquest and your support.
Our last prayer is: praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds, and Allah’s prayer be upon our master, Muhammad, and upon his family and his companions. And may Allah’s peace and mercy and blessings be upon you.