Center for Strategic Communication

A Study of Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet (2d ed)

The Dagestan Bookend

“In this way we started our trip of moving among countries.”

Zawahiri’s Dagestani interlude in the second edition of Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet (Knights2) — his spiritual autobiography — offers a stark contrast to his first prison experience in Egypt’s prison complex fifteen years earlier.  Zawahiri is in his mid-40s by the time he steps through his Dagestani prison doors. No longer an angry young man, idealistic and inexperienced, (“I was transferred to the Discipline Ward because I incited the prisoners to carry out strike”) he’s more willing to live and learn in the moment.

Though, it’s impossible for me to critique any literary merits to Zawahiri’s personal narrative – I don’t know Arabic – it is possible to understand his narrative frames.  The prison experience one of those frames.  Zawahiri's interludes in prison (Egypt and Dagestan) bookend the first part of his life. As he writes,

And I was thinking a lot that it is the second time that I was unexpectedly captured and then facing the sentence of execution or life imprisonment, but set free in spite of my enemies and against their willing.

Knights2 is – as the first edition probably was – Zawahiri’s attempt to make sense of his life for the sake of his readers. In 2001 (when Knights1 was probably written), Zawahiri turned 50, a significant personal milestone for many men and probably a key inspiration for his writing the original. 

Salafi-jihadist life, lived to its fullest, tends to be a movement for the young. Blood of willing youth spilled on a battlefield, is one of two primary requirements for successful jihad operations.  The other is money, usually in the form of direct contribution or laundered zakat donations, and more recently, criminal activity.  This “blood and money” requirement once guided much of the pre-9/11 jihadi media that focused on recruitment and support for jihads in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, and Bosnia. 

Zawahiri no doubt sees the lessons of his life providing much needed wisdom to a movement where the young seek out hardship (ie. their emigrations to lands of jihad) without much historical or spiritual context.  See Al Qaeda's Foot Soldiers: A Study of the Biographies of Foreign Fighters Killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan Between 2002 and 2006 and my study of Martyrs in a Time of Alienation for examples of such personal “emigrations.”

Zawahiri begins his journey to Afghanistan when, as he writes, 

Since the spring of 1996 a new wave of pursuits has started, against the Arab mujahidin generally, managed by the United States and carried out by the yielding systems. 

Bin Laden heads to Afghanistan “through a trip of danger.” Zawahiri, on the other hand, sought other countries to find, in his words, “a stable base for the mujahidin.”

At the beginning of autumn in 1996, we realized that the risk of such relocation would be higher than its benefits, and that we would be unable to serve the jihad movement unless we move to a stable base for the mujahidin where we can work there under freedom and security for our benefit and to support our brothers.

Forced to make a decision between Afghanistan and the only other accessible region, Chechnya, Zawahiri choses Chechnya via Dagestan. Eventually he and the men with him are arrested for having no entry visas.  What follows next is a Zawahiri’s dark, almost comical descriptions of security bureaucracy.  Stuck in a bureaucratic morass (one incompetent enough to eventually let him go) Zawahiri spends the next six months in prison, making the best of it:

The period of those six months that I had spent in prison in Dagestan had frequently inspired my thinking and meditation…

As always, Zawahiri puts his personal experiences into the broader historical context.  This is a common element of jihadi narrative. For example, Issa al-Hindi employs it when describing his experiences in Kashmir.  Though its history is distorted, such narratives give the reader an insight into how individuals within the Salafist-jihadi milieu contextualize world events.  In this case Zawahiri uses copious footnotes to support his historical narrative of Chechnya, including:

Al-Shishan- Al-Siyasah Wa Al-Waqi' (Chechnya – Politics and Reality) , p. 10 

Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2005 – Chechnya

Chechnya – Prepared and Organized by Abi-Muhammad Al-Philistini, Scouba

Chechnya – Tombstone of Russian Power, p. 305-306.

(NKVD): People Commission for the Interior Affairs. [Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2005 – KGB]

Riwayat Sakhinah Min Ard Al-Shishan (Hot Stories from the Land of Chechnya), p. 53.

Da'wat Al-Muqawamah Al-Islamiyah Al-'Alamiyah (Islamic International Resistance Call), p.1080.

Al-Madkhal Lilthaqafah Al-'Askariyah (Introduction to Military Culture), p. 77.

Al-Thamar Al-Mustatab Fi Sirat Al-Qa'id Khattab (Delicious Fruits in the biography of Commander Khattab), p.40.6.

Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2005- Guerilla Warfare

Harb Al-Mustad'afin (The War of the Oppressed People), p. 9.

Akhbar Al-Qalam Wa Al-Sayf Fi Rihlat Al-Shita' Wa Al-Sayf (News of pen and sword in the Trip of Summer and Winter), Volume 7, p. 43.

Note, too, some of the footnotes place much of this section well after 2001, making it unique to Knights2.  By lauding mujahidin of the post 9/11 period, Zawahiri also hints at his own continued monitoring of the global movement.  Such attentive analysis (even if factually wrong) counter conventional Western assessments that the various jihadi movements that make up the Caucasus Emirate (Imirat Kavkaz) are in opposition or competition with al-Qaeda. Probably not, when Zawahiri writes passages like this:

In addition, there is another serious factor; which lies in the fact that the Chechens have a leadership with a highest level of resistance, determination, and pride of their religion, history and people. When an observer to the Chechens’ leaders — during the period of this study — can see men like Dzhokhar Dudayev, Zalim Khan Yandarbi, Aslan Miskhadov, and Shamil Basayf, God have mercy on them all, glory to Lord who chose them as martyrs, that this group of the highest leaders was an important reason that rushed the heroic jihadist Chechens to confront an oppressive force not equivalent to them.

One of highlights of the prison narrative is Zawahiri’s efforts at “methods of missionary,” or dawah.

The prison's phase was also a training stage on the methods of missionary, especially the methods of calling upon the common people that were mostly not practiced by the mujahidin, but it is a vital element and essential in calling upon people within a public warfare field.

From the moment he is led into a cell, the efforts begin. Later on, one in his group makes the call to prayer, creating a ruckus:

When the time for the evening prayer came, one of us stood up in the middle of the room and performed the call to prayer — it was just like an electric current — with the call to pray in a reverberating voice drew the attention of the inmates inside the room and when we started spreading a carpet on the floor to pray on it, we heard a strange move in the room.

Some of them rushed to us and said: the ground is not clean and you shouldn't pray on it, but you can come and pray on our upper beds and we are going to pray too. We prayed together with them and they made me an Imam; they never performed the group prayer before.

Efforts at regular prayer pay off, and Zawahiri gains the trust of many of his cell mates.  This, in turn, led to many interactions, what I call his “little moments,” that clearly have deep meaning for him.

Zawahiri derives deep spiritual meaning from his 1996-7 interlude in a Dagestani prison, framing his experiences as signs of God’s personal attentiveness to his situation.  This sentiment is common enough among people who experience a personal relationship with God, where little moments — a chance meeting, a lost item, words spoken by another — are given enormous meaning in the context of an entire lifetime.  In Catholic (auto)biographies it is common enough. One example that comes to mind is Augustine’s stolen pears. In much the same way, Zawahiri’s “little moments” teach him personal lessons that he shares with his readers.

I said, also, it may be a training course for dealing with the innocent and simple people and call on them to the general Islamic rules far from the jurisprudence, doctrinal and political arguments, and this religious obligation is prescribed on us as well as the fighting in the course of Allah. And I said: May God is willing to bring us much good or send us to assist others, or may there is a good thing that we did not realize or understand it yet. And the amazing thing is that we received this training course inside a fortress belong to one of our worst enemies. 

These lessons then become the stepping off point for his subsequent decision to move to Afghanistan. 

Monday 010212, 8:10 PM: I made a few edits to the text in order to correct a few minor editorial offenses