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07.30.10

Al Qaeda's Surprising New Target

While much of the Islamic world has praised Turkey for attempting to break Israeli sanctions on Gaza, terrorist mastermind Ayman Zawahiri has resurfaced to criticize its leaders for being too moderate. Bruce Riedel on fantasies of a restored caliphate

Al Qaeda’s No. 2, the Egyptian Ayman Zawahiri, was largely absent from the jihadist Internet for the first half of this year. He had been al Qaeda’s bait in the attack on the CIA’s base in Khost, Afghanistan, on December 30, 2009, and went deep undercover afterward. Now he is back with a few new messages. 

In the latest this week, he eulogized his partner of the last 30 years, Mustafa abu al-Yazid, who was killed in a drone attack this summer in Pakistan. The two began their careers in terror collaborating in the plot to assassinate Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981. Zawahiri praised Yazid for “removing the secularist, corrupt, apostate rule of Sadat, agent of America and the Jews,” and lamented that Yazid did not live long enough to see America’s next great defeat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he had been the leader of al Qaeda’s operations until his death. Zawahiri promised that victory there now is near.

Zawahiri spent much of this time in the eulogy talking about another issue, the Israeli attack on the Turkish sanctions-busting fleet that tried to sail to Gaza. Al Qaeda’s take on the episode is unique. Turkey’s rulers are not praised for trying to help lift the siege of Hamas-controlled Gaza, but rather are criticized by Zawahiri for doing too little. Zawahiri recalled fondly that in centuries past the “Ottoman State used to send sweeping armies and entire fleets to defend any threatened Muslim areas,” and now modern Turkey can only muster a handful of ships that Israel treats like “cattle in the sea of wolves.” 

Events in Gaza rivet the attention of Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia every day and the Turkish aid convoy has become of symbol of Turkish resistance to Israel that has made Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the man of the hour in the Islamic world.  Even more irritating for al Qaeda is that Erdogan represents a moderate, nonviolent version of Islam, which directly competes with al Qaeda’s vision of relentless violent jihad.  For al Qaeda, Erdogan has to be brought down a notch or two.    

“The Turkish people must regain the glorious role the Ottoman Empire carried out in defending Islam in general and Palestine in particular,” Zawahiri says. His praise of the Ottomans is boundless: They were the holy warriors against the “greedy” and “for some five centuries were the defenders of Islam.” Now Turkey and the Arab states can only muster a few sad aid ships instead of the armies and fleets of Sulayman the Magnificent. Erdogan is no Sulayman, is the message. He’s just another appeaser like Sadat, he says.  

Zawahri and al Qaeda have long been fond of the Ottomans. He has repeatedly pointed to the great golden age when the Ottoman sultans ruled from the gates to Vienna to the Arabian Sea as a model for what Islam should seek to revive, a caliphate that can unite the Islamic world or at least a large part of it, drive out the West, and be a player on the international political stage. In his years of writing and speaking about al Qaeda’s vision, Zawahiri has often lamented the fall of the Ottomans in World War I as the great blow that led to Islam’s current weakness, setting in motion a “wave of psychological defeatism and ideological collapse” through the Islamic world that it has yet to recover from. The creation of Israel, the West’s worst crime of all, flowed directly from the Ottomans' defeat in Palestine in 1917. 

Some will dismiss Zawahiri and al Qaeda’s historical wish list as the ramblings of crazy fanatics. There is no doubt they are fanatic and Zawahiri’s new messages are full of threats to repeat the massacres of 9/11, the London and Madrid subway attacks, the Bali nightclub bombings, and other terrorist outrages. His absence from the airwaves was noted in the jihadist underworld and his return to diatribe and threat will be welcomed by the extremists he is appealing to.

But the infatuation with the Ottomans reflects something deeper as well. Al Qaeda’s top leaders are not trying to recreate some mythical pure fundamental state that existed in the early middle ages in Arabia. They are men of power politics and global ambitions. They want Islam, or their tortured vision of Islam, to be a dominant world power like the Ottomans were for centuries.  Then they can destroy Israel and recover lost territory like Spain and Chechnya for their new caliphate. They are not trying to sell a thousand-year-old vision of the future, but one that existed less than a hundred years ago. It may still well be a crazy idea but it is not medieval.  

They are not alone. Their ally in Pakistan, Lashkar e Tayyiba, has its own twisted vision of recreating the Mughal Empire that ruled most of India at the same time the Ottomans were at their height in the west. LeT does not just want to recover Kashmir like other Pakistan-based terror groups, its vision is to rebuild the Mughal domination of the subcontinent and restore Muslim rule of the Hindu majority. Similarly, some jihadists in Indonesia talk of building a caliphate that would stretch across Southeast Asia.  

Of course all of these visions are fantasies that will never happen. But it is always important to get inside your enemies’ heads and understand what they are trying to achieve, even if it is sometimes a walk on the wild side of jihadi nightmares.  

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center in the Brookings Institution and drew on his book, The Search for al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future for this article.