New Speech Does Not Provide Proof of Life for Al-Qaeda’s Leader

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 12 March 2021

A nearly-22-minute video was released by As-Sahab, the media wing of Al-Qaeda, on 12 March 2021, entitled, “The Wound of the Rohingya is the Wound of the Umma” or “The Wound of the Rohingya is the Wound of the Islamic Nation”. More than anything actually said or presented, the video itself was the story since it comes after credible reports in November 2020 that Al-Qaeda’s emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had died a month earlier. The only question was whether the video would provide proof-of-life for Al-Zawahiri, and it pointedly did not.


The decision to release a video at this moment that conspicuously fails to prove Al-Zawahiri is alive was an odd one, but the timing is not all that’s strange; the video can be said to be odd, full stop. Al-Zawahiri does not actually appear on screen at all; his voice, dubbed over an old still image of him, takes up less than five minutes of the video. The format is essentially that of a documentary, with news clips and voiceovers (including English subtitles) building a case. The actual substantive content is extremely generic in terms of theme and date on the Burmese junta’s genocidal attacks on the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Al-Zawahiri laments that there has been “no tangible steps” by the West to prevent or to punish these atrocities, a theme Al-Qaeda has tried to capitalise on before. By Al-Zawahiri’s reckoning, the “slight condemnation and token gestures of humanitarian aid” is Western complicity, based on anti-Muslim hatred. An old clip of Usama bin Laden, dated to 2006, expounds on the “Crusader International and pagan Buddhism” that controls the Security Council of the United Nations as part of this global anti-Islamic conspiracy. Bin Laden says Protestant (America, Britain), Catholic (France), and Orthodox (Russia) Christian powers, along with Buddhists (China), hold the permanent five seats, while Muslims have fifty-seven states in the world and yet have no veto power. Muslim governments are criticised as adjuncts of “Crusader” interests for their lack of action to stop the genocide.

There are clips of Buddhist monks referring to Rohingya citizens as “illegal immigrants” to be expelled, Burmese soldiers inciting crowds to “cleanse” the country of Muslims, awful footage of villages being burned down and Rohingyas forced to swim through lakes to safety in exile, pictures of dead children, and a distraught imam appealing for assistance.

Perhaps one of the most significant things in the video is a fleeting reference to Hurras al-Deen, suggesting an official adopting of the Syrian-based jihadist group—composed mostly of Jordanians—as an Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Given that China is the primary supporter of the Burmese junta, and that domestically the Chinese government is warring against its Uyghur and Kazakh minorities and against Islam as a religion in a way no Western state has done since the suppression of the Moriscos, it might be expected that more of Al-Qaeda’s fury would be focused on the Peking despotism. This expectation would be wrong, and it is not only Al-Qaeda: the Islamic State (IS) maintains a curious silence about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), too.

China is name-checked as an offender against the umma, which in itself is quite unusual, but the effect is greatly diluted by the fact that: (1) it is by the narrator not Al-Zawahiri; (2) Bangladesh had earlier came in for much more direct and sustained criticism, despite it being much less directly involved in the anti-Rohingya atrocities than what China is doing to the Uyghurs; and (3) the CCP regime is mentioned briefly as part of a list.

The Sahab narrator checks off in that list: Syria, Muslims under (Hindu) Indian rule in Kashmir, then the Uyghurs in China, French anti-jihadist operations in North Africa (“specifically in Mali”), and Western actions against jihadists in Afghanistan and Somalia. The fact that the ethnocide in China against a helpless Muslim population rates no higher than the killing of terrorist leaders in drone strikes in Somalia, again, serves to dampen the effect of mentioning the Chinese government at all.

Turning to Al-Zawahiri as the video closes out, the thesis is by now wearily familiar: that all the above-mentioned—plus Chechnya and the Philippines—are mere theatres in a cosmic struggle between Islam, represented by Al-Qaeda as its vanguard, and the infidels. Even the attack on the U.N. for keeping a sanctions list of terrorists as a way to delegitimise those who resist anti-Islamic aggression is an old talking point.

As the video closes with Al-Zawahiri’s voice playing, speaking of the need to unite Muslim ranks, a series of pictures are being shown, evidently of models to emulate, and perhaps the most interesting among them is Sayyid Qutb, the executed ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation regarded as hopelessly deviant by many jihadists.


The most dateable thing in the video is a reference to the coup in Burma on 1 February 2021 that removed the nominal civilian and democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the subject of fierce criticism in the video, mostly through clips of Thomas MacManus of Queen Mary University of London, who says that she used her political capital with the West to cover up the genocide. Crucially: the reference the coup comes not from Al-Zawahiri, but from the unnamed Sahab narrator. Nothing Al-Zawahiri said could not have been said three or four years ago.

To add to the strangeness: “hafizahullah” (May God protect him) is generally uttered after the name of live jihadist leaders and it was not used in the promotional poster for this video, nor on any of the eight occasions Al-Zawahiri was mentioned in the actual video itself, nor in the official transcript.

The precedent on everyone’s mind on all sides is that of Mullah Muhammad Umar, the Taliban leader who died in 2013 and was only admitted to be dead in 2015. During that period, Al-Qaeda had even re-pledged its bay’a (oath of allegiance) to Umar as emir al-mu’mineen (commander of the faithful), a kind of “counter-caliph” to the then-IS leader Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi). This was highly embarrassing for Al-Qaeda, and IS has not let them forget it.

If Al-Zawahiri is not dead, his failure to provide proof of life can only be related to security concerns about appearing—the possibility that the rumours of his demise are designed to lure him out of hiding, especially given the obvious lack of Western clarity about where he is, cannot be discounted—or to incapacity, either physical (illness) or communications. What all of these options leave mysterious, however, is why this video was produced at all: if it was designed to suppress rumours of the leader’s demise, it catastrophically backfired, but the clues in the video itself suggest there was no such intent. Which leaves the question of exactly what the creators did intend, and whether Al-Zawahiri signed-off on this or an isolated jihadi media team called an audible.


A number of additional analysis pieces have been produced on this video that are worth checking out: the most comprehensive by Cole Bunzel at Jihadica on why Al-Qaeda might have done this and the accumulating signs that Al-Zawahiri is either dead or out of contact with his media team; Mina al-Lami at BBC Monitoring on inter alia the jihadist reaction to the video; and Lucas Webber, who argues that in fact the anti-China rhetoric was significant and is indicative of a trend in jihadist discourse as China rises.


Post has been updated

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