Al Qaeda's Zawahiri celebrates Afghanistan collapse ... maybe

(AP Photo/IntelCenter, File)

To quote an old advertising slogan — was it live, or was it Memorex? Former Osama bin Laden lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri had died some time ago, or so some analysts thought. And yet, a video of the al-Qaeda chief began circulating on Saturday celebrating the US withdrawal from Afghanistan:

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri appeared in a video commemorating 20 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks despite rumors that he died months earlier.

The SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S.-based group that watches terrorist websites, noted that the al-Zawahiri video appeared on networks Saturday, according to The Associated Press.

SITE director Rita Katz observed that in the video, titled “Jerusalem Will Not be Judaized,” al-Zawahiri displayed knowledge of events that had taken place since last November, when rumors of his death began to emerge. She mentioned how he referenced a January 2021 raid of a Russian military base in Syria by Hurras al-Deen, a group aligned with al Qaeda.

“Tragic as it is to say, this 9/11 anniversary is a uniquely positive one for al-Qaeda. As one AQ supporter wrote, the US leaving Afghanistan is validation of Bin Laden’s vision and the ‘blessed’ 9/11 attacks, and that ‘Afghanistan is the beginning,'” tweeted Katz.

​​”Amid rumors of his death, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri shown in a new 60-minute video, this time offering some evidence that he is not dead​ – ​particularly, reference to events after December when rumors of death surfaced,” Katz continued.

Have rumors of Zawahiri’s death been greatly exaggerated? Perhaps not. While the video celebrates the US withdrawal, Zawahiri doesn’t mention the specifics of it. The closest date-specific event Zawahiri mentions is an attack on Raqqa that took place nine months ago. Politico points out a couple of other events that Zawahiri strangely did not address:

SITE said al-Zawahri also noted the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war. It added that his comments do not necessarily indicate a recent recording, as the withdrawal agreement with the Taliban was signed in February 2020.

Al-Zawahri made no mention of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the capital Kabul last month, SITE added. But he did mention a Jan. 1, attack that targeted Russian troops on the edge of the northern Syrian city of Raqqa.

Rumors have spread since late 2020 that al-Zawahri had died from illness. Since then, no video or proof of life surfaced, until Saturday.

“He could still be dead, though if so, it would have been at some point in or after Jan 2021,” tweeted Rita Katz, SITE’s director.

If Zawahiri were still alive, one would think that he would have dispensed with the references to Jerusalem in a celebratory video after watching the US get humiliated in Kabul. Even if that video was already “in the can,” AQ and Zawahiri would have had more than a week to either add to it or replace it entirely. If Zawahiri was alive, he surely would have gone with a speech that made much more clear references to the Taliban’s victory and Joe Biden’s abandonment of Americans behind their lines.

Those are the most important developments in twenty years for both the Taliban and radical-Islamist terror networks in general, and yet Zawahiri doesn’t even hint at them? It’s not exactly conclusive proof of death, but that’s the way I’d bet now. What’s more, Zawahiri must have known that he wouldn’t be around to provide live commentary, or else he and his AQ propaganda team wouldn’t have bothered to put this speech in the can in the first place. They must have expected to use this video as a way to motivate support for the Taliban in the wake of the anticipated American withdrawal, not realizing it was largely unnecessary.

It’s also a measure of just how catastrophic our withdrawal turned out to be. When al-Qaeda undersells its impact, then it becomes clear that not even our enemies anticipated just how craven and incompetent we would be on the way out. Joe Biden handed them a propaganda victory so vast that al-Qaeda didn’t see it coming.