Center for Strategic Communication

Zawahiri’s Personal Theology of Risk

In Section 2 of the Afghanistan chapters of his autobiography, Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet (2d ed), Ayman al-Zawahiri tells of the origins of the al-Qaeda’s efforts to unify the various Afghanistan-based “mujahideen” movements under the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.  In the most matter-of-fact way, Zawahiri writes,

The Jihadist Arab Assembly in Kandahar caused the formation of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders that issued its initial statement by form of a fatwa.  The statement called for killing and fighting the Americans until they stop their crimes against Muslims.

It’s easy to get caught up in the narrative and lose sight of this simple fact: Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and the other members of what he calls the “Jihadist Arab Assembly in Kandahar,” were declaring war on the United States.  Outgunned, out-manned, and destitute, Bin Laden, Zawahiri and the others pushed forward in a counter-intuitive plan to confront the world’s superpower.  Given their desperate financial situation, and relative isolation from their global support network, Zawahiri writes of their decision to target the United States as if they were a fully-resourced state military. 

Through the lens of conventional realpolitik, the “Jihadist Arab Assembly’s” decision would appear to be irrational, if not insane.  However, the conventional discourse of power never touches on the reason(s) why anyone would 1) exercise their free will; 2) make the decision to join al-Qaeda; and, 3) then live their lives from inside the movement, taking (at times) enormous counter-intuitive risks for seemingly unattainable ends.  Why would an individual — say, a middle-class youth from Saudi Arabia — throw away everything (family, friends, career, potential wife, nice house, great car, etc) to live in squalid conditions through a low-intensity war in, say, Chechnya? The possible answers are important because it points to the enduring power of the movement, and why it will be far more difficult to defeat in the long run.   

What may be at work here is what some theologians call a personal theology of risk.  It’s an idea common enough in Christian traditions; however, I’m uncertain of its presence in Islam. It would be interesting to find out if such an idea exists, because few, if any, analyst have attempted to interpret al-Qaeda’s decision-making as a function of theologically-informed risk.  And yet given his life choices, theologically-informed risk-taking makes more sense than any realpolitik explanation for Zawahiri’s decision-making.  

If Zawahiri has a theology of risk, it would require bold moves at the worst times, constantly pushing the envelope in order to see for a moment (without worldly obstructions) God’ will.  It’s the very essence of counter-intuitive, because, to put it bluntly, God’s wisdom is not man’s, and a person guided by a theology of risk will take seemingly irrational risks at incredibly inopportune times in order to seek out that personal knowledge of Godly wisdom.

The “Jihadist Arab Assembly’s” 1998 decision to wage war on the United States was a calculated decision based on criteria we still have yet to understand, because in our secular understanding of power, we’re missing Zawahiri’s struggle to build his personal relationship with God.  

Theologically informed risk taking is one characteristic of the liminality I mention here, but it isn’t everything.  Liminality describes the character of an individual’s chosen lifestyle, but it doesn’t provide the theological foundation for the kind of decision-making Zawahiri narrates here.  That remains unknown, and I suspect that only Zawahiri could describe it to us.  In the meantime, there’s a gap in our understanding that simply can’t be described using the discourse of psychological dysfunction or earthly geopolitical ends.