Center for Strategic Communication

Lessons Learned and Taught

In the second edition of his autobiography – Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet – Zawahiri comes to a logical mid-point in this the first part of his narrative: September 11th.

As a I noted here, Knights isn’t a linear autobiographical account.  It’s a spiritual autobiography with intended lessons for the reader’s spiritual benefit.  Though it has some temporal logic, the story is better understood as a series of lessons learned for current and future jihadi-Salafists.

What are the lessons Zawahiri wishes to impart to his readership?  And what, if anything, do those lessons tell us about him and the movement he leads.  

After building an idyllic picture of pre-9/11 Afghanistan, Zawahiri moves on to the important lessons of the “conquest,” as he calls 9/11. The “historical” details woven into this part of the narrative are subordinate to the lessons he wishes to impart to his readers – his “martial meanings of the conquest.”

He writes, “The blessed raids revealed many martial meanings and I would explain some of them as follows…” In summary, the list includes [quoted]:

  1. Transfer of the Battle to the Land of the Enemy…
  2. Applying the Concept of Surprise…
  3.  The Capability of the Mujahidin to Direct a Huge Jihadist Security Operation…
  4. The Gallantry, Bravery, Daring, and Boldness of the Mujahidin…
  5. Taking Advantage of the Weak Points of the Enemy…
  6. Create New Ways in addressing the New Zionist-Crusader Campaign…
  7. The New War on Two Fronts…

Zawahiri is aware of the numerous internal criticisms of the “blessed raids,” many originating from past compatriots.  Whether intended or not, he ignores that dialogue for his study of 9/11 “meanings.”  In his first lesson, he emphasizes the strategic importance of the attack, specifically the shift to “the Land of the Enemy,” comparing 9/11 to Pearl Harbor.

In Pearl Harbor, the attack against the United States came from an empire which, at that time, was one of the superpowers. As for the blessed raids, who attacked the United States?

He answers his own question: 

Their [US] enemy is the Muslim nation with its jihadist vanguard that decided to face the crimes of the United States. The United States cannot face these powers simply because the United States is a criminal power facing a nation which is committed to the truth and fighting and dying for its sake. 

Zawahiri’s third lesson emphasizes his vision of that small, under-resourced “jihadist vanguard” applying its collective genius and struggle to attack and “defeat” its behemoth imperial adversary.  

The immigrant mujahidin are considered by the major criminals in world, among which the heralds of frailty and retreat, as people with no specialization who do not study art or science thoroughly. Yet, the two conquests have proven that those mujahidin were able to pull off this mighty operation that changed the course of history.

The mujahidin did not achieve such success easily. On the contrary, they passed through many stages of training, preparation, documents setting, flights camouflage, patience, lurking, and worrying. Then all this mighty effort had to have a base with a mission of deploying, training, and instigate people. This base assemble the skilled people of the ummah, trains them, enlightens them, builds up their abilities, sows in them the trust in their religion and ummah, and then chooses from them the suitable people for each mission.

This base took very long time to be ready, to call people, to make contacts, to establish relations, and to grow trust between the allies, the command, and the Al-Qa'ida. It relies on the large participation in waging jihad, carrying the worries of the ummah, and taking immediate initiatives to help the ummah whenever it is confronted with a disaster.

It took long years of effective participation in the fields of combat. Shaykh Usama bin Ladin made sure that his soldiers always participate in the battles to defend Islam. He considered this participation as a religious duty to defend the Muslim and the best way to train the members, develop their abilities, and discover their reality  

The fifth and sixth lessons builds on the previous, he explains (in lesson 5):

The mujahidin were able to outsmart the security system of the enemy; they were even able to strike the enemy from inside its regime….The West was no longer a mystery to the mujahidin. Moreover, the mujahidin understood weak points in the defenses of the West that the Western security services, which spends hundreds of billions of dollars every year, could not understand.

And expands on it in lesson 6:

The conclusion is that we cannot produce any weapons that can match theirs, in this phase. However, we can destroy its complicated economic and industrial system. We can exhaust its forces, which fight with no creed, making them escape. Thus, the mujahidin have to create new easy, which the West could never think of. We can use airplanes as a powerful weapon, as an example of courageous and daring thinking.

Zawahiri concludes this section with a lesson that hints at his own strategic vision of a global vanguard.  It’s a global war with two existential fronts, what he describes as “…two types of fights against the Crusader west.”  Both are indebted to Abu Musab al-Suri, 

It is about attacks against small groups, hunting the benefits of the enemy wherever found, creating new ways, and attacking from where the enemy does not expect it. The raids of September 11 represented the peak of this type of fight…. The second type is the traditional guerrilla warfare, at specific fronts, like what happens in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, and Algeria.

Half-way through the second edition of Knights, its becoming clear that Zawahiri has moved far beyond the maudlin conception of the near and far enemy debate.  His is a jihad that breaks the bonds of epoch and place and transforms the personal into the global.