In Other Words

A Message From Tora Bora

Fursan tahta rayat al-nabey (Horsemen Under the Prophet’s Banner) By Ayman al-Zawahiri 85 pages, Cairo: al-Maktabah al-Islamiyyah, 2002 (in Arabic) Ayman al-Zawahiri kama araftoho (Ayman al-Zawahiri as I Knew Him) By Montasser al-Zayyat 247 pages, Cairo: Dar Misr al-Mahroussa, 2002 (in Arabic) The task of rallying al Qaeda’s faithful in the aftermath of the war ...

Fursan tahta rayat al-nabey (Horsemen Under the Prophet’s Banner)
By Ayman al-Zawahiri
85 pages, Cairo: al-Maktabah al-Islamiyyah, 2002 (in Arabic)
Ayman al-Zawahiri kama araftoho (Ayman al-Zawahiri as I Knew Him)
By Montasser al-Zayyat
247 pages, Cairo: Dar Misr al-Mahroussa, 2002 (in Arabic)

The task of rallying al Qaeda’s faithful in the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan fell in part to Osama bin Laden’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. To this end, he appeared on Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite television channel, last October in a taped message, and he wrote a book, drafted in his Afghanistan hideout as it was bombed by U.S. war planes in the fall of 2001.

His account of al Qaeda’s successes and weaknesses, Horsemen Under the Prophet’s Banner, came at a crucial moment for the movement’s followers. With their leaders and camps in Afghanistan under attack, they had reason to wonder whether the organization could survive — and whether to continue using methods that had led it into what seemed a decisive confrontation with the world’s most powerful country.

Serialized first in the international Saudi daily newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and later published in Cairo, Zawahiri’s book attracted the attention of Egyptian authorities, who banned it on the advice of senior ulema of Al Azhar, Islam’s oldest university. Printed by a small, unknown publishing house, the book would have been difficult to find even without the ban. However, it has remained available on the Web site of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, as well as that of Al-Sha’b, an Islamist opposition newspaper (also banned by the Egyptian government, despite court rulings calling on officials to permit its publication).

A physician by profession, grandson of the head of Al Azhar, and son of the dean of the pharmacology faculty at Cairo University, Zawahiri joined the ranks of Islamic militants at age 15. He was radicalized by the death sentence imposed by an Egyptian military court on Sayyid Qutb, then leader of the Muslim Brothers, for advocating the violent overthrow of the Egyptian government, led at the time by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Qutb had, in fact, accused all Muslim governments that did not apply sharia of usurping God’s authority. For Qutb and thousands of his young followers, fighting such governments constituted a just war, or jihad.

Zawahiri began his jihadist career in his native Egypt, first as a member of small youth groups from which emerged two radical Islamist organizations. He later headed Jama’et Al Jihad (the Jihad Group), which continued to call for armed struggle, even when it became evident to other like-minded groups that this path ended in prison, exile, and frustration.

Horsemen is aimed particularly at young Muslims interested in following in Zawahiri’s footsteps. But readers will look in vain for Zawahiri’s thoughts on the shape of the "Islamic state" he dreams of establishing — what rights it would protect and how its rulers would be held accountable to the citizenry. He either assumed that his previous writings covered these topics adequately or that his ideas are self-evident to those who share his interpretation of the Koran — though Islamic scholars of Al Azhar and many other authoritative writers do not.

He comments sarcastically on a view expressed by the Muslim Brothers: "[T]hey believe that Christians have the right to get any post in the government, except that of head of state — but why not?! In other words, they see no problem in a Christian becoming prime minister of Egypt! So why not also let a Jew become prime minister?" In fact, Christians and Jews have historically occupied positions of leadership in Islamic states, consistent with mainstream Islam’s recognition of both groups as "people of the Holy Book."

Zawahiri devotes most of Horsemen to recounting military actions in which he was directly or indirectly involved, first in Egypt and later in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kenya, and Tanzania. But he says nothing about September 11, 2001, except to threaten that U.S. military action in Afghanistan would eventually end in U.S. defeat. Among his successes, he counts the spread of the jihadi movement among the young and against "enemies of Islam" in former Soviet states, including Russia (along the Chechnya fault line), the United States, and Israel.

Zawahiri criticizes leaders of other Islamist movements for abandoning armed struggle, citing as an example the "initiative to cease all acts of violence" by an Egyptian Islamist organization called the Islamic Group. He admits, however, to some weaknesses in militant Islamic groups. First, they were insufficiently prepared for some acts of jihad, which were committed hastily and with little reflection on their consequences. He mentions the failed 1993 attempt to assassinate then Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Sidqi, which led to the murder of a young girl, and the planned 1995 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, which was redirected to the Egyptian Embassy when the U.S. Embassy was found to be well guarded.

Second, the movement failed to take its message beyond militants to the broader Muslim public, which does not understand the movement’s aims. "This is a failing that must be redressed," Zawahiri writes. "This task is so important at a time when the Islamist movement is barred from using mass media and is subject to a campaign of slander on the part of government-controlled media. Such a situation explains the gap of understanding that separates the jihadi movement and ordinary people."

He nonetheless remains optimistic about the prospects for broadening the militant Islamist movement throughout the whole umma (Islamic community) and across all fronts. He advocates moving not only against the United States, Israel, and Russia but also against moderate Muslim countries and transnational corporations (though he does not explain why or which companies he believes to be enemies of Islam).

Zawahiri’s book has provoked two important responses. One is a refutation by Montasser al-Zayyat in a book called Ayman al-Zawahiri as I Knew Him. Zayyat, an Egyptian lawyer who often defended Islamic militants in Egyptian courts, once shared a prison cell with Zawahiri. Not only does Zayyat question the wisdom of maintaining armed struggle against secular Muslim governments, he blames Zawahiri for tactical errors in the leadership of Jama’et Al Jihad that led to widespread arrests of its members in 1998. He also explains Zawahiri’s shift from an exclusive focus on secular Muslim governments to bin Laden’s international movement as a consequence of this setback in Egypt. Zayyat further accuses Zawahiri of revealing, under torture, the hiding places of other militant Islamist leaders, including former Egyptian Army officer Issam al-Qamari.

The second response to Zawahiri has come from leaders of the Islamic Group; they are ignoring him and continuing to press for an end to violence in Egypt. Zawahiri’s call to young Muslims to persist in armed struggle has also fallen on deaf ears. The young seem to be more responsive to the successes of moderate Muslim groups in Algeria, Morocco, Pakistan, and Turkey. Many have likely come to the conclusion that if they are to remain major actors in domestic politics, they should ignore Zawahiri’s exhortation.

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