Center for Strategic Communication

Zawahiri's Enemies, Friends and Family

Note (January 8): Thanks to Mr. Orange for pointing out the incongruity noted in the first quote. My guess is this was a translator's error.

In the second edition of his spiritual autobiography, Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet (Knights2), Ayman al-Zawahiri's personal narrative slowly winds its way to Afghanistan.  After he leaves Dagestan, he and his companions meet up once again with Usama bin Laden and others:

After a long trip, we reached Dagestan [sic] and met Shaykh Usama bin Ladin, may God preserve him, and Shaykh Abu-Hafs, the leader, may God's mercy be upon him, and the rest of the beloved ones, who we have missed for so long. A short time afterward, we realized that Afghanistan has always been the castle of Islam.

Then, he takes a turn from his personal narrative to build a picture of the only Afghan antagonist to the Taliban and "jihadists," in late 90s-era Afghanistan: Ahmad Shah Mas'ud.  Quotes from the 9/11 Commission Report, Michael Scheuer's Imperial Hubris, and other post 9/11 works, set this section squarely in the 2d edition.  Zawahiri argues of Mas'ud:

He made himself, his movement, Europe, and the United States on one side, and the fundamentalists, including the Islamic Emirate and Al-Qa'ida, on the other side.

Knights2 isn't a tight narrative. Zawahiri sometimes moves off to discuss loosely related topics. But, it is far from being a stream-of-consciousness rant.  Knights2 isn't an internal monologue like so many autobiographies (unfortunately), rather, its his life's story told for the sake his readers.  His occassional moves away from the personal into the political or historical are meant to provide context (within the Salafist-jihadi milieu) for his autobiographical narrative, and in the process suggests to his readers a way of thinking about events in their own lives.

Later on, Zawahiri describes Usama bin Laden,  offering a foil to Mas'ud (another – ancient – didactic technique):

People very much liked the personality of the shaykh; he stole their hearts. He was a person who left everything behind, and lived a simple and humble life. He treated people with magnanimity, morals, and generosity. He is also the one challenging the strongest tyranny in the world, calling people powerfully to fight this power and confront it with its infidel and apostate agents, with no blandishing or consideration, and with no going round or about. He is also the one who proved his honesty in his call; everything he called for, he did it himself before. He called upon people to leave the world behind, to emigrate, and to carry out jihad, after he left the world behind, emigrated, and carried out jihad. He called upon them to support the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan after he fought in its ranks and under its banner. He called them to pledge the Amir of the believers after he pledged him, and he called them to fight the biggest infidel after he did himself and after he declared war against this infidel.

In the middle of all this, Zawahiri describes his reunion with his wife, Um Muhammad, offering up to his readers a near utopian vision of married and communal life in Afghanistan:

In this good and blessed village I reunited with my family after a separation for one and a half years. They lost any contact with me when I was in Dagestan jail for six months, and the burden of the issues of this emigrant, hiding and chased family that lost her breadwinner in these tough and horrible circumstances, basically lies on my wife Um Muhammad, may God have mercy on her, and my respectable brothers who help her. Um Muhammad, may God have mercy on her, is the type of superior and unique person that combined between goodliness and elevation of the Shari'ah rulings and calling for it, besides the high ethics, sensitivity, honor, humbleness, pity, care, and compassion with all whom she knows. She supports and defends the oppressed and the poor. She continuously gives and sacrifices in the cause of God with all that she possesses, in addition to her culture, education, morals, politeness, free opinion, and self-respect.

I remember when I called her , may God be merciful upon her, after I had arrived in Kandahar; she said to me: "Do not to leave us , if you lived in a hole, We would live with you."

In this sweet and blessed village, we lived in a three-room house; two rooms were for us, and one for visitors. There was no water or electricity. We only had water from a well in the courtyard of the house. I give my word before God I have never lived in my life in a better place than that house, or a neighborhood better than that. It was a village embracing good migrants of the mujahidin. The village embraced before abandoned residences of an old agriculture project, and was later occupied by the borders' guards. Then, it was left abandoned; only a few Bedouins lived there.

The Afghanistan chapters offer a mishmash of old and new narrative material that will take more time to study.  By this point in Knights2, however, it should be clear that this isn't a "rant" or a "manifesto."  With passages like the one above, a Western reader should put down the post-modern ironic lens we tend to view any text through. Understand Zawahiri is not post-modern. When he writes, then, he's writing from his heart.