The South Asia Channel

Zawahiri speaks

Five weeks after U.S. special operations forces killed Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri has released a video eulogizing his former boss and giving hints of where al-Qaeda will go from here. Zawahiri’s eulogy contains the expected language about bin Laden’s status as a martyr and his glorious deeds. Two elements might raise eyebrows ...

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

Five weeks after U.S. special operations forces killed Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri has released a video eulogizing his former boss and giving hints of where al-Qaeda will go from here.

Zawahiri’s eulogy contains the expected language about bin Laden’s status as a martyr and his glorious deeds. Two elements might raise eyebrows among some in the ultra-conservative Salafi section of his audience. One is his comparison of Bin Laden’s death to that of Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet killed by government troops on the plains of Karbala. The comparison is apt given that both were killed in front of their families, but Zawahiri might have picked a different early Islamic martyr given that the death of Husayn (revered by Sunni and Shi’a Muslims alike) forms the emotional kernel of Shi’ism, which Salafis despise.

The second element that may raise Salafi eyebrows is Zawahiri’s denunciation of the U.S. for burying bin Laden at sea, rather than putting him in a grave. Zawahiri notes the U.S. did this to deny Muslims a grave to visit and claims that "millions" of Muslims will now bury him in their hearts. That is a nice touch, but again a bit strange for the Salafis in his audience, who abhor grave visitation (they consider it idolatrous), and given that al-Qaeda’s former Taliban hosts once made a habit of destroying shrines and gravesites. Both the comparison of bin Laden to Husayn and Zawahiri’s lamentation that he has no grave goes beyond the normal jihadi eulogies for martyrs, and suggests that Zawahiri is attempting to raise bin Laden’s status to that of a saint deserving of religious veneration. That rhetoric makes sense in Sufi and Shi’a circles but may be a bit jarring to al-Qaeda’s more hardline supporters.

In addition to praising his former boss and trying to shape his legacy, Zawahiri uses his eulogy of bin Laden to take care of some organizational business and lay out al-Qaeda’s vision for the near term. First is the issue of the new emir and al-Qaeda Central’s relationship with the Taliban.

Al-Qaeda has not yet announced its new emir, or leader, and Zawahiri does not explicitly broach the subject. Although he is the first individual al-Qaeda leader to issue a statement after bin Laden’s death, some analysts guess this may have more to do with his position as bin Laden’s former deputy and does not indicate his current role in the organization. Still, Zawahiri may hint at his status as the new head of the organization when he renews al-Qaeda’s oath of allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, a step taken by bin Laden at some point before the 9/11 attacks. It would be odd if such an important matter were left to someone other than the emir. Whatever the case, the traditional Islamic mourning period of forty days is drawing to a close, and now that bin Laden’s legacy has been properly celebrated, al-Qaeda will probably announce his replacement soon.

The pledge to Mullah Omar indicates that al-Qaeda is unsure of the Taliban’s intensions toward the terrorist group now that bin Laden is gone. By reaffirming al-Qaeda’s commitment to obey Mullah Omar and by focusing his revolutionary ardor on Pakistan, not Afghanistan, Zawahiri is doing the jihadi equivalent of a dog baring its throat — he is letting Mullah Omar know that al-Qaeda will not threaten the Taliban’s interests in Afghanistan and will only act there as Mullah Omar deems fit.

Having dealt with the immediate environs of al-Qaeda Central, Zawahiri positions the organization in the wider Middle East. In keeping with his past writings and recent statements on the Arab revolutions, Zawahiri calls on the jihadists in the region to play nicely with other Islamist activists in setting up states ruled solely by sharia law. In the countries slipping into civil war, he calls for solidarity with the rebels and pledges al-Qaeda’s support, echoing earlier statements made by leaders of al-Qaeda affiliates. However, he cautions the rebels not to cut deals with Western powers in exchange for assistance. In the countries that are not slipping into civil war, Tunisia and Egypt, Zawahiri renews his call for a mass movement led by Islamist activists to establish the sharia as the law of the land.

Zawahiri ends with an ominous promise of another large attack on the U.S. on the level of 9/11. Given how vulnerable al Qaeda Central is now, the alleged escalation of U.S. strikes against its branch in Yemen amidst the chaos there, and the parochial operational capabilities of its remaining affiliates, it is going to be some time-if ever-before al-Qaeda can try to make good on such a pledge.

Will McCants is an analyst at CNA’s Center for Strategic Studies and adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

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