The South Asia Channel

Missionaries of jihad

In the aftermath of the U.S. military’s killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last month, analysts and presumably Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) are heavily engaged in discussions about possible successors to the Saudi militant as the new public face of the transnational jihadi trend, with sources reporting recently that Egyptian Saif al-Adel had been named ...

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

In the aftermath of the U.S. military’s killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last month, analysts and presumably Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) are heavily engaged in discussions about possible successors to the Saudi militant as the new public face of the transnational jihadi trend, with sources reporting recently that Egyptian Saif al-Adel had been named the group’s "interim" leader. Yet the intense focus on who will be the "new bin Laden" glosses over the important fact that al-Qaeda has over the past several years developed a charismatic and influential cadre of scholar-ideologues who play a major role in legitimating the group’s campaign of violence and calling on Muslims to join or support it, a role made more important by the confusion that has resulted in jihadi circles from bin Laden’s death.

In an attempt to overcome the deficit of religious legitimacy in the senior levels of al-Qaeda and other militant groups, these organizations rely heavily on this cadre of ideologues, figures who possess some scholarly credentials (though the exact nature of these credentials is often left ambiguous). They combine some intellectual bona fides with personal charisma and rhetorical flare and serve as a kind of "missionary vanguard" for AQC and its sister groups. Chief among this group are AQC’s "mufti" (chief religious jurist), Abu Yahya al-Libi, the Kuwaiti preacher Khalid bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Husaynan, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula-affiliated (AQAP) American militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and Libyan ‘Atiyyatullah al-Libi, who some counter-terrorism officials have described as AQC’s "operations chief."

Abu Yahya is among the most prominent of these scholar-ideologues. He is a veteran of the anti-Qadhafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a prolific writer, gifted rhetorician, and charismatic orator. Following his July 2005 escape from the U.S. prison at Bagram, he was quickly put at the forefront of AQC’s media campaign. He has authored numerous juridical treatises and books on a wide variety of theological and political topics, such as martyrdom and the use of violence, and has contributed numerous video-taped sermons, lectures, and messages ranging from eulogies to comprehensive jihadi excoriations of enemies like the Saudi ruling family and Muslim and Arab allies of the United States. 

His rhetorical flare and gifts as an orator are most clearly displayed when he appears on film.  His voice rises and falls, depending on the emphasis he wishes to place on certain key sections of his message, a skill clearly demonstrated in videos of his annual sermons for the Muslim religious holidays of ‘Eid al-Fitr and ‘Eid al-Adha. Abu Yahya’s ability to connect to the jihadi base, particularly online, has made him one of the most popular leaders in the group, as evidenced by the buzz on militant Internet forums when rumors of death in a drone strike surfaced in December 2009. 

AQC has never fully elaborated on Abu Yahya’s specific scholarly credentials, beyond saying that he pursued religious studies for an undetermined number of years with traditional Muslim scholars in Mauritania. His real talent and strategic value to AQC, however, do not rest solely on his claims to scholarly credentials, but rather on how he combines an aura of scholarly legitimacy with charisma and rhetorical flourish. He strategically and selectively deploys citations from key texts from within the Islamic scholarly tradition, as well as key legal writings of famous Sunni Muslim theologians and jurists, all while presenting himself as a humble "in-the-trenches" type of jihadi leader, unlike, for example, the abrasive and elitist Ayman al-Zawahiri. 

Abu Yahya has in particular played a key role in justifying violence against the Pakistani state. In April 2009, the Al-Fajr (The Dawn) Media Center, a shadowy jihadi media outlet that distributes media material produced by AQC and its three official regional affiliates in Yemen, North Africa, and Iraq, published a lengthy book by Abu Yahya online, Sharpening the Spearheads to Fight the Government and Army of Pakistan, which was a systematic attack on the Pakistani state and military. He used extensive citations from juridical sources to forge a multi-layered theological and legal assault on the legitimacy of Pakistan as a nation-state. AQC, which has become increasingly reliant on its Pakistani allies, such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in recent years, will likely draw upon these writings in its ongoing war inside Pakistan.

Al-Libi’s popularity extends, however beyond AQC and its regional allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Abu Yahya is regularly referenced in media releases from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other AQC regional affiliates. He has also been cited by Somalia’s Islamist-insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Warrior-Youth). Abu Yahya’s March 2011 video message supporting the rebels in Libya was impassioned, unlike al-Zawahiri’s tediously dry six-part series on post-Mubarak Egypt. The Libyan leader urged continued resistance but also caution: "Let [your weapons] help you achieve the truth, obtain justice for the oppressed, and prohibit vice [but] refrain from using these weapons to spill protected blood, taking an inviolable life, destroying people’s homes, shops, or their finances. Also, do not use these weapons for tribal or racial fighting." 

Khalid bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Husaynan is also an increasingly prominent AQC scholar-ideologue and Internet presence, who was introduced to the world in an often-comedic video message entitled "A Quiet Dialogue with Obama" released by Al-Sahab in June 2009. A former prayer leader (imam) and preacher employed by Kuwait’s Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, the jovial preacher is also known as Abu Zayd al-Kuwaiti. He is an animated and conversational speaker who often comes across as cartoonish. He sometimes elongates Arabic long vowels to a ridiculous extent for oratorical effect and makes comical facial expressions as he emphasizes particular points.

Despite his cartoonish façade, though, al-Husaynan should not be taken lightly. Although his specific scholarly credentials, like Abu Yahya’s, remain the subject of debate, AQC propaganda presents him as a member of the Muslim scholarly elite, the ‘ulama. The Kuwaiti has become a full-fledged participant in AQC’s charismatic vanguard over the past year-and-a-half.  His value to the transnational jihadi trend is most readily apparent in the release of a video series of short religious lectures for Ramadan 2010 entitled "Al-Durus al-Da‘wiyya" (Propagation Lessons) in which he discussed a range of topics, from exegesis of the Qur’an and the correct behavior of a Muslim to sins, like envy and backbiting, that the pious should avoid. This series of religious lectures was recently restarted in April.

‘Atiyyatullah al-Libi, AQC’s second senior Libyan leader, also plays a prominent role in the organization’s communications and media operations. Like Abu Yahya, he is a former member of the LIFG and has been at the fore of AQC’s media campaign addressing the ongoing civil war in Libya and the other popular demonstrations and violence in other Arab states such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. In an essay released on February 23, ‘Atiyyatullah urged Libya’s rebels and particularly "the youth" not to fall into the trap of infighting. An audio message from him on Libya was released in mid-March. In contrast to Ayman al-Zawahiri’s lecture series on post-Mubarak Egypt, in which the Egyptian AQC leader pompously lectures his audience, ‘Atiyyatullah’s audio message supporting Libyan rebels was succinct and focused on praising, rather than lecturing, his home country’s people.

‘Atiyyatullah, whose real name was recently given in an Al-Sahab audio message about Libya as Jamal Ibrahim Ishtaywi al-Misrati (indicating that he is from the then-besieged Libyan city of Misrata), has also been one of the most prominent jihadi voices to deny that the "mujahideen" have intentionally targeted Muslim civilians. In a March video, Maximizing the Sanctity of the Muslims’ Blood, he calls these allegations as a campaign of slander by the U.S. and its allies. "We abide by the guidelines of God’s law. He has forbidden the unlawful killing of people despite the extent of the enemy’s transgression," he said. "We remind our brother mujahideen everywhere of the importance of emphasizing and spreading knowledge about the importance of the sanctity of Muslim blood and the obligation to take great precautions to protect and preserve it." ‘Atiyyatullah’s video message mirrors a January 2010 essay he wrote in which he denied allegations that AQC or the TTP were responsible for targeting markets in the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar.

The American-Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki is the most recognizable of the transnational jihadi charismatic ideologues. He is wildly popular with the online jihadi community, particularly among native English speakers, and his influence continues to grow, as evidenced by the increasing number of languages into which his writings, sermons, and video messages are translated. In addition to Arabic and English, there are translations of his writings, videos, and lectures in Urdu, Bosnian, French, Russian, Indonesian, Russian, and Somali. The Global Jihad Internet forum recently launched a new sub-forum dedicated to collecting his lectures, sermons, and other media materials.

Al-Awlaki, like the others, is a charismatic speaker and skilled rhetorician. However, unlike them, the he is able to speak in both classical Arabic and idiomatic English, enabling him to reach a wider audience than those jihadi ideologues who can only speak one of the languages.  Al-Awlaki’s influence on jihadis and pro-jihadi activists outside of his original English-language base, though it seems to be growing given the increasing number of translations of his releases, remains unclear and contested. However, there is a growing amount of anecdotal evidence that suggests his influence outside of his original base is steadily, if not rapidly, expanding.

Awlaki’s pre- and post-radicalization sermons and lectures are often passionate and he adeptly links historical events with contemporary concerns faced by many Muslims in the West, particularly those Muslims who are confused by their multiple identities and angered by U.S. and European military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim-majority countries. He speaks authoritatively and frequently cites the Qur’an and Hadith as well as the Sunni juridical and theological canon. Yet he does so in a thoroughly contemporary way, presenting himself as a modern and yet also credentialed religious scholar. Al-Awlaki, for an English-speaking and -reading audience, also serves a similar role as Abu Yahya does for an Arab audience in attacking mainstream Sunni Muslim scholars and even outside commentators who criticize AQC, AQAP, and likeminded groups. 

For example, al-Awlaki has been a key figure in the effort to delegitimize the March 2010 Mardin Conference in Turkey at which a group of Sunni religious scholars attempted to contextualize historically the "Mardin fatwa" of the medieval jurist Ibn Taymiyya, whose work forms a cornerstone of jihadi writings. "The [Mardin Declaration] is an ignominy that would be bad enough in an impromptu speech let alone a well deliberated and thought-out, written declaration," he wrote in an eight-page article in the second issue of AQAP’s Inspire magazine.  "It is an insolent statement that shows no respect to the suffering of our ummah."

Al-Qaeda’s charismatic communicators will play an increasingly important role in ensuring the survival the transnational jihadi trend in the aftermath of bin Laden’s killing. Amidst intense speculation about bin Laden’s successor as the global public face of Muslim militancy, these men remind us that AQC and other groups are multifaceted organizations that cannot be boiled down to one individual, however central and symbolically important. Even with bin Laden out of the picture, al-Qaeda and its affiliates and allies continue to field a cadre of personable scholar-ideologues who mix some academic credentials with personal flare and linguistic and oratorical skills, and who will continue to serve as charismatic missionaries of jihad.

Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements, Shi’ite Islam, and Islamist visual culture. He blogs at Views from the Occident and Al-Wasat.

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