Osama Eulogies: Ayman Zawahiri and al Qaeda Vow Revenge

Even terrorists get eulogies. Over the past month, al Qaeda chiefs have openly grieved their leader's death—offering rare, frightening insight into their inner thoughts and plans for revenge. Bruce Riedel on the brewing backlash.

The global syndicate of terror that Osama bin Laden inspired for two decades has mourned his death for the last month. The jihadists’ eulogies reveal much about their thinking, connections, and plans. Al Qaeda's Shura Council, its top management and decision-making leadership, announced his death less than 100 hours after the SEAL raid in Abbottabad. Eulogies began to pour in. Hafez Saed, the man behind the Mumbai massacre and Lashkar e Tayyiba's leader, dedicated his Friday prayers that week to his "hero" bin Laden, and praised his leadership of the jihad. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula "celebrated his martyrdom" and looked forward to his apocalyptic return at the end of time to join in the final battle with evil, a very unusual al Qaeda reference to messianic Islam.

Now we have bin Laden’s likely heir and long-time deputy Ayman Zawahiri's commentary. He too "celebrates" the martyrdom of the "pioneer of Jihad against first the communists and then the crusaders." Zawahiri promises al Qaeda will deliver more "unpleasant days" like 9/11. He claims bin Laden and al Qaeda have delivered four "devastating disasters" to America: the "martyr hawks’" attacks on 9/11, the quagmire in Iraq, the quagmire in Afghanistan, and now the Arab Spring, which has toppled American allies like Hosni Mubarak and Ali Abdullah Saleh. Unlike his previous six messages on the Egyptian revolution, Zawahiri stays away from history lessons or stale old ideological debates in this tape. Now he is in cheerleader form. He calls for more regime change in Yemen, Syria, Libya, and especially Pakistan. Overthrow Saleh, Assad, Gaddafi, and Zardari. He urges Pakistan's army to kill the traitors who led it to "humiliation" and to stage a coup. Zawahiri also reaffirms his loyalty to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, the so-called “Amir of Believers” whom bin Laden also consistently reaffirmed his loyalty to, up to his death. Zawahiri mentions with pride the Afghan Taliban's attack on NATO in Kandahar after bin Laden's death, linking the two events.

The Afghan Taliban have issued their own eulogy to bin Laden, a break with their longstanding practice of keeping silent on al Qaeda. The Shura Council of the Islamic State of Afghanistan mourned the great “disaster” of bin Laden's demise, but said they believe it would inspire new attacks on America. It celebrated bin Laden for fighting with them in Afghanistan against both the Soviets and America. It specifically honored his commitment to Palestine and Jerusalem, and makes associations between the Afghan Taliban and the global jihad against "Zionist-Crusader aggression in the entire Islamic world." For those who believe the Taliban and al Qaeda can be split, and a political deal made with the Taliban, this is an inconvenient reminder of the truth. The two are still very much allies. It would be naïve to dismiss this evidence of the continued bonds between al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.

The Pakistani Taliban's eulogy to bin Laden has been terror across Pakistan, from Karachi to Kashmir. They have expanded their campaign to topple the Pakistani state, infiltrate the army, and terrorize their opponents. Zawahiri was silent on who will succeed bin Laden. He did not claim to be the new Amir of al Qaeda. That may still come. His jihadi credentials are famous: his resume spans helping murder Anwar Sadat, to helping murder Benazir Bhutto. He was the bait in al Qaeda's triple-agent conspiracy that wrecked havoc on the CIA base in Khost in December 2009. Some dismiss him as divisive and too erudite. That is dangerously naïve too.

All the eulogies to bin Laden have also highlighted one issue as paramount for the global jihad, since the first Shura Council death notice: Al Qaeda will not stop the jihad until Palestine is Muslim again. The Afghan Taliban say that this is their goal too. Zawahiri pledges to end the occupation of all of Palestine. This is a core issue for the global jihad, and ignoring this is also naïve. Palestine has been al Qaeda's most effective recruiting tool from Morocco to Indonesia for over a decade. Zawahiri will press this button more than ever.

Bruce Riedel, a former long-time CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At Obama's request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He is author of the new book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad, The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.