During the assault on the U.S. embassy in Egypt, demonstrators reportedly chanted “Obama! Obama! We are all Osama!” They yelled this obvious reference to Osama bin Laden as an al Qaeda-style flag was hoisted and the American flag brought down. At least one of the protesters at the anti-American rally knows a thing or two about al Qaeda: Mohammed al Zawahiri, who is the younger brother of al Qaeda’s emir, Ayman al Zawahiri.
Mohammed al Zawahiri has even claimed credit for sparking the anti-American protest. “We called for the peaceful protest joined by different Islamic factions including the Islamic Jihad (and the) Hazem Abu Ismael movement,” he said, according to CNN. Islamic Jihad is most likely the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), a core part of al Qaeda’s international jihadist coalition.
The younger Zawahiri has been on a media tour since he was released from an Egyptian prison this past March. And some press outlets have portrayed him as a reformed moderate. In its coverage of the embassy storming, The Wall Street Journal said that Mohammed al Zawahiri “has renounced violence and has stylized himself as an intermediary between Islamists and the West.”
(On a side note: The Wall Street Journal piece also says that al Qaeda is “widely believed to be responsible for the 9/11 attacks.” Eleven years after 9/11, the newspaper should be able to set aside all doubt about who is responsible.)
The Journal’s description of Mohammed al Zawahiri is undoubtedly based, at least in part, on a recent interview he gave with CNN. Mohammed al Zawahiri said he could help “mediate a peace deal between the West and Islamists.”
Journalists should pause before accepting Mohammed al Zawahiri’s claims of non-violence at face value. His presence at the embassy protest alone should raise eyebrows.
As CNN reported, Mohammed al Zawahiri spent more than a decade in prison in Egypt for his alleged involvement “in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat,” as well as other terrorist acts. He denies this charge, but we know that he worked for al Qaeda-affiliated charities and was a commander in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which merged with al Qaeda.
According to Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower, Mohammed al Zawahiri disagreed with his brother’s decision to merge the EIJ with bin Laden’s goons and this led to a falling out between the brothers. There are good reasons to doubt that is true.
During an interview with Al Jazeera that was broadcast in early August, Mohammed al Zawahiri struck a somewhat different tone than in his interviews with Western outlets. MEMRI has provided a translation of the interview, the first line of which reads: “We in Al-Qaeda are bound by the laws of the shari'a, and we reject and condemn any killing that is prohibited by the shari'a.”
That is Mohammed al Zawahiri saying, “we in al Qaeda,” thereby identifying himself as a part of the terrorist organization. In his recent interview with CNN, however, he claimed: “I don't represent a certain group. My role is a mediator between the West and them.”
So either al Qaeda is “we” or “them,” depending on Mohammed al Zawahiri’s interviewer. In his Al Jazeera interview, Mohammed al Zawahiri went on to provide justifications for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, saying that essentially America deserved it. “It wasn't me who carried out 9/11,” he said, “but at the same time, I don't agree with the West that we should slaughter those who carried it out.” This includes his brother, of course, whose ideology Mohammed al Zawahiri admittedly shares.
In fact, Ayman al Zawahiri undoubtedly thinks that his brother is doing a good job of explaining al Qaeda’s mission in the world. On September 10, al Qaeda released Ayman’s video eulogy for Abu Yahya al Libi, a top al Qaeda official who was killed in a drone strike in June. Al Qaeda’s emir used the eulogy to claim that al Qaeda’s influence was spreading, not waning, despite the loss of senior leaders.
Ayman claims that al Qaeda’s “material power” is not comparable to that of the “Zionist alliance,” according to a translation prepared by the SITE Intelligence Group. However, Ayman claims that his group’s “message has spread amongst our Muslim Ummah, which received it with acceptance and responded to it.”
The video then cuts to a clip of Mohammed al Zawahiri, who has made similar arguments in his post-detention interviews. During an interview with CNN earlier this year, the younger Zawahiri said that al Qaeda’s strength is “not in its leaders but in its ideology.”
So, al Qaeda finds Mohammed al Zawahiri’s message to be on point.
If this isn’t enough to doubt Mohammed al Zawahiri’s peace-seeking sincerity, there is an additional observation that CNN astutely made when reporting on his supposed peace offer. “Osama bin Laden had a similar proposal in 2004, it was quickly followed a year later by the deadly 7/7 subway attack in London killing 52 people.”
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.