- By Robert ZeligerRobert Zeliger is News Editor of Foreign Policy.
Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s new chief, might lack the charisma and presence of his predecessor, but that hasn’t stopped him from communicating prolifically over the years, rallying followers to attack Western interests, condemning France’s banning of the hijab, and praising recent protests in the Arab world. Below are some of his major statements over the years.
Forming al Qaeda (Feb. 1998)
In a faxed statement to a pan-Arab newspaper based in London, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri announced the formation of their new group, al Qaeda, intent on waging war against the United States and its allies — and for the first time called for the killing of American civilians. The founding document for the new group (a coalition of Islamist organizations, including Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad) said: “To kill the Americans and their allies–civilian and military–is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in nay country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Asqua Mosque and the holy mosque [in Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.”
Telling Iran to shut up with their 9/11 conspiracies (April 2008)
In an audio interview, Zawahiri lashed out at Iran and Hezbollah for propagating the conspiracy theory that Israel — not al Qaeda — was really behind the Sept. 11 attacks. He accused Iran and its proxy of trying to discredit al Qaeda by diminishing its signature success. Shiite Iran has long been one of Zawahiri’s biggest targets, rhetorically at least. In response to a question about the theory that Israel was really behind the attacks, Zawahiri said, “The purpose of this lie is clear– [to suggest] that there are no heroes among the Sunnis who can hurt America as no one else did in history. Iranian media snapped up this lie and repeated it … Iran’s aim here is also clear–to cover up its involvement with America in invading the homes of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Sparking a debate about female jihadists (April 2008)
In that same interview, Zawahiri set off an emotional debate in jihadi circles with his insistence that al Qaeda does not allow women to fight and that a woman’s role is limited to caring for the home and children of male fighters. His comment angered some female al Qaeda sympathizers.
“How many times have I wished I were a man,” wrote one woman in a jihadi chat room, according to the Associated Press. ” When Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri said there are no women in al Qaeda, he saddened and hurt me … I felt that my heart was about to explode in my chest. I am powerless.”
Zawahiri’s comment showed he was a bit out of touch with reality in the Middle East. At the time, women were asserting a stronger role in fighting American and other forces. In Iraq alone, there had been at least 20 female suicide bombers since the start of the American war there.
Zawahiri’s first wife was killed by an American airstrike in Kandahar in 2001, which might account for some of his views on the topic.
Congratulations, Mr. President (Nov. 2008)
Newly elected Barack Obama got a special shout out from the al Qaeda No. 2, who called him a “house negro.” “It is true about you and people like you…what Malcom X said about the house negroes,” he said in audio message posted online, lumping Obama in with Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Zawahiri also taunted Obama about increasing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. “Beware that the [stray] dogs of Afghanistan have savored the taste of your soldiers’ flesh, so do send them in thousands.”
Voicing support (sort of) for the Arab Spring (April 2011)
Al Qaeda’s standing as the vanguard force against the corrupt regimes of the Middle East was undoubtedly diminished by the Arab Spring this year. And Zawahiri’s often rambling, unfocused statements on the protests didn’t help. In April, he lashed out at both the NATO troops bombing Qaddafi’s infrastructure and Qaddafi himself. “I want to say to our Muslim brothers in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and the rest of the Muslim countries, that if the Americans and the NATO forces enter Libya, then their neighbors in Egypt and Tunisia and Algeria and the rest of the Muslim countries should rise up and fight both the mercenaries of Qaddafi and the rest of the NATO.”
According to Juan Zarate, former deputy national security advisor for combating terrorism under President George W. Bush, his statements on the Arab Spring make clear that under Zawahiri’s leadership, al Qaeda’s goal will still be targeting the “far enemy.”
Bin Laden’s eulogy (June 2011)
Zawahiri paid tribute to bin Laden in a YouTube video. He praised him as a “hero of the first battle line,” and a “man who said no to America.” He also warned of a major new attack against the United States.
Some analysts found it curious that he made no reference as to who would take the reins of al Qaeda. Zarate speculated that the delay in his naming was partly due to real questions within the organization about whether he was the right man for the job. As analyst Leah Farrall pointed out, there are several second generation al Qaeda figures who have more charisma and appeal than Zawahiri.