Statements by the Saudi dissident and Al-Qa’ida leader Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qa’ida spokesman Suleiman Abu Gheith and the leader of the Egyptian Gama’at Al-Jihad Ayman El-Zawahri, broadcast on 7 October following American attacks on Afghanistan, raise several questions, relating not only to the form and content of the individual statements and their relation each to the other, but also the degree to which they were in accordance with the declaration of “the International Islamic Font for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders,” drafted on 12 February 1998.
The statements were transmitted by the three Islamic leaders via television screens. One obvious question, then, concerns the audience targeted by the three.
Bin Laden addressed his comments to only two groups: “Every Muslim,” and “America and its people.” He called on the former to “rise up to the rescue of religion… to remove corruption from the peninsula of Mohamed.” To the latter he directed the threat that “America and those who live in America cannot dream of security before it becomes reality in Palestine, or before the heretic armies exit the land of Mohamed.”
El-Zawahri addressed his statement to a rather more segmented audience, to “the nation of Islam,” to “the American people,” to “Muslims” and, finally, to “the young mujahedeen, the true ulama and the devout who love God and his Messenger.”
Like Bin Laden, El-Zawahri called on the nation of Islam, the mujahedeen, the ulama and the devout to “support the party of patient Muslims” and to be “like the Companions of the Prophet” when they were hemmed in by the “Quraysh and the Ahzab in Madina.”
A rhetorical question was posed to the American people — “Why all this enmity towards America and Israel? Why all this hatred for America in the hearts Muslims? — following which El-Zawahri issued a warning, though in a tone far less sharp than that employed by Bin Laden, speaking of “a new war in which you will lose your children and your money.” He went on to cite Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia.
Unlike El-Zawahri, Abu Gheith talked to “the nation” without further qualification, as well as addressing himself three times to “America” and “the American people”. First, he gave an explanation for what happened in Washington and New York on 11 September then twice warned, in a tone similar to El-Zawahri, against “declaring war against Afghanistan and against the mujahedeen under the leadership of Osama Bin Laden.”
Abu Gheith went on to address “the billion-man nation, the nation of jihad, the nation of Mohamed, the grandchildren of Abu Bakr and Omar and Khaled Ibn Al-Walid,” calling on “the children of the nation, the youth of the nation, the men and women of the nation” to choose between “the ditch of the believers and the ditch of heretics,” emphasising that they are needed for jihad.
All three Islamist leaders were clearly intent on repeatedly addressing America, particularly its people, offering an explanation of what happened in Washington and New York and, to varying degrees, issuing warnings and threats. These latter may well have been intended to capitalise on the fear of Americans that they will be subjected to further attacks and losses, whether in the war or on its margins, in an attempt to exacerbate possible divisions in public opinion regarding the efficacy of the war in obliterating terrorism.
The various terms used to address Muslims operated as a rhetorical device seeking, by turns, generalisation and individualisation. But the message remained the same: “The one-billion man nation” is called upon to join in the jihad against the US.
What of the three Islamist leaders’ view of the current conflict between America and Afghanistan, or between America and the alleged perpetrators of the attacks? One realises that they are perceived as more or less the same issues, differing only in style. The present situation, in the view of all three, and in the words of El-Zawahri, is one in which “the nations of the heretics have besieged Muslims, the mujahedeen and the murabeteen.” Headed by the US, the heretics, as Bin Laden says, have mobilised “even those states belonging to Islam.” And what is at stake is clearly defined by Abu Gheith: it is a “decisive battle between belief and heresy.” The entire world has been divided, in Bin Laden’s view, into two camps “without a third”, the camp of the believers and the camp of the heretics.
El-Zawahri was alone in pointing out that the consequent confrontation comprises a “critical, difficult time,” though by the end of his statement he was playing down the difficulties in order, perhaps, not to demoralise Muslims by comparing the present difficulty to that faced by the Prophet and his Companions at the time of Al-Ahzab, a battle they went on to win.
The attacks on Washington and New York, the three stressed, were a consequence of American policies hostile not only to Arab and Islamic peoples but to other countries as well. Japan, for example, as Bin Laden pointed out, suffered “the murder of hundreds of thousands, both young and old.” El-Zawahri cited the example of the Vietnamese. Such references imply that the battle waged against America is not connected with the Christianity of its people but with the policies adopted by their successive governments towards various countries and peoples — Arab, Islamic, Bhuddist, Confucian or Shintoist. A distinction between the American people and Washington’s various administrations is one consequence of this line of thinking and though Abu Gheith generalises the target of the jihad to include “Jews and Christians,” he observes this distinction, insisting that “the American people must realise that they are wholly responsible and that what is happening is a result of their support for the American administration’s policies.”
As for Bin Laden and Al-Qa’ida’s responsibility for the attacks, it is nowhere acknowledged by the three, despite their expansive explanations of why the attacks took place.
In this context Bin Laden’s assertion that those who undertook the attacks are “a star among the stars of Islam, a vanguard among the vanguards of Islam” can be explained as either one of two manoeuvres, given his repeated denials of being involved. Either he is exploiting the absence of any evidence to confirm America’s insistence that he was responsible to fan Americans’ fears of a repeat performance, or else he has found out beyond doubt that no Arab or Islamic groups were involved in these precisely coordinated attacks — a viewpoint for which there seems to be a great deal of evidence — and has thus decided to capitalise on America’s fear of him anyway.
Defining “the enemy”, as perceived by the three Islamists, is another issue raised by their statements. It seems clear enough that the enemy in question is the US; no other state or power was mentioned in this context. Yet all three leaders seem to imply that the definition of the enemy extends to “those who are allied” to America in the present war, in the words of Abu Gheith. In other words the enemy comprises the “nations of heresy,” a phrase used by both Abu Gheith and El-Zawahri, who compares the coalition to the factions united by Quraysh against the Prophet. Bin Laden, for his part, imagined the enemy as a more universal and inclusive entity, claiming the whole world — which he refers to as “the hypocrites” — now “stands behind the head of international heresy,” i.e., America. Along with “even the countries that belong to Islam,” the heretics are targeting a relatively small group of true Muslims “who fled with their religion to God.”
The Saudi dissident’s view of the enemy reflects his extensive experiences since the commencement of his Islamist activities in Afghanistan in 1979. He was then, as he is now, an international mujahid whose only role is to fight Islam’s external enemies, now the entire world. The lack of such a definition of the enemy in the statements of El-Zawahri and Abu Gheith similarly, it seems, reflects their experience of jihad: they spent a lengthy period within their own countries fighting the internal enemies of Islam, i.e. the secular regimes.
Any analysis of style and mode of argumentation also sheds considerable light on the speakers. Though they all drew on Islamic scriptures, it is interesting to note that they restricted themselves to citing Qur’anic verses, to the exclusion of Prophetic Hadith and other religious texts. Moreover, both El-Zawahri and Abu Gheith cited no more than one Qur’anic verse in their speeches. Bin Laden cited none, though of the three his oratory was most inspired by Qur’anic style and syntax and his speech was much more heavily peppered with Qur’anic lexis.
To varying degrees, the three sought to substantiate their arguments on the basis of historical comparisons. El-Zawahri, who relied most on this line of argument, alluded to US defeats in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia and Aden to suggest that the US cannot win the present war. Referring to the routing of the Muslim armies from Andalusia, he proclaimed: “We will never let that happen again.” Drawing on a more positive epoch in Islamic history he invoked the spirit of the Battle of A-Ahzab, in which the Prophet and his followers defeated the Quraysh and its allied tribes, concluding that the present war “is a new battle for the faith in which we see the repetition of the great battles of Islam, such as Hatin, Ain Jalout and the conquest of Jerusalem.”
Abu Gheith, too, used comparative history to support his claim that Muslim victory over the US would be inevitable. “[The US] did not learn the lessons from the Russian experience,” adding that “the first step of its downfall will be when it sets foot in Afghanistan.” If Bin Laden did not allude directly to chapters in history, he did say, (referring to the suicide hijacks), “What the US has tasted today is only a small measure of the humiliation the Arab nation has experienced for decades.”
Finally, the three Islamist leaders made numerous references to contemporary events, portraying the US as a relentless aggressor against the Arab world and Islam. Naturally, they emphasised the American role in the founding of Israel and its continuous support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and brutal repression of the Palestinian people. As El-Zawahri declared, “America was the ringleader in the crime of the creation of Israel, a crime that has been ongoing for 50 years.” In Bin Laden’s and El-Zawahri’s speeches, the ten-year long campaign of bombardment and blockade against Iraq was cited as an example of America’s belligerency against Arab and Muslim populations. Abu Gheith spoke more generally of the US’s attempts to “desecrate everything the Muslims hold sacred,” and Bin Laden warned that the US will never know peace “until all the heretic armies leave the land of Mohammed.” Interestingly, El-Zawahri was the only one of the three to justify the jihad against the US on the grounds that “it supports corrupt governments in our countries.”
The speeches of the three Islamist leaders were clearly consistent with the declaration with which they established the International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders. Indeed, the issues they stressed above were precisely those they used to justify the initial fatwa stating that “killing Americans and their civilian and military allies is a duty incumbent upon every Muslim in a position to do so in any country in which the opportunity presents itself.”
The writer is an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and managing editor of the annual State of Religion in Egypt Report.