Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11, 2001 in the Eyes of al-Qa'ida Central: The View from al-Sahab

Cyber mural showing Usama bin Laden and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri (top left), the "lead" hijacker Muhammad Atta (lower left), and the other hijackers. The gold text on the upper left reads: "Day the Muslims Roared," and the text in the lower left reads: "The Blessed Raid: 9/11."


On this date nine years ago, al-Qa'ida (al-Qaeda) "Central" (AQC) launched three successful kamikaze terrorist attacks, using hijacked commercial airliners as missiles, on two targets, the epicenter of U.S. military power at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia and one of the most recognizable symbols of U.S. economic power, the World Trade Center towers in downtown Manhattan in New York City. A fourth airliner, United Airlines flight 93, failed to reach its intended destination, which was reportedly the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., when some of the passengers stormed the cockpit. The hijacker piloting the plane, Ziyad Jarrah, intentionally crashed the plane in a field in Pennsylvania.

In the years since September 11, 2001, AQC's media wing, the al-Sahab (The Clouds) Media Foundation, has produced several major multimedia productions about the attacks. Two of the most important have been Knowledge for Action: The Manhattan Raid
(العلم للعمل: غزوة منهاتن ), released in two parts in 2006, and The Power of Truth
(قوة ألحق ), which was released a year later. Al-Sahab also released several of the wills made by some of the hijackers, screenshots of which are provided here for academic purposes. Individual members of the various Salafi jihadi online discussion forums, most of whom probably have no connection to al-Sahab or any actual jihadi group, have also designed their own cyber murals and posters commemorating, in their minds, the attacks. Several examples of these murals that I have found while conducting research for my current project on Islamist visual media and culture is also provided here for academic purposes.

In Knowledge for Action, the September 11 attacks are presented as a reaction to decades of humiliation and oppression suffered by Arabs and Muslims under the feet of foreign occupiers and interlopers in their affairs, chief among them the United States. The U.S. is singled out, the narrator explains, because of its backing of oppressive, apostate (مرتد ) regimes in Muslim, but primarily Arab, countries, as well as because of its integral support for Israel, which continues to occupy Palestinian land and abuse its people.

The hijackers and AQC itself are described as part of an "awakening" (صهوة ) of Arabs and Muslims who will no longer domestic and foreign oppression and occupation. In this way, AQC and other transnational jihadi groups see themselves as reacting in a defensive way to external aggression, whether at the hands of domestic "apostate" governments, Israeli Zionists, Russians (in Chechnya and the Caucasus), Indians (in Kashmir), Chinese (in East Turkestan), or the "new Crusaders" (the U.S. and its European allies). The clips of several of the hijackers' wills include references to the oppression of Muslims and occupation of Muslim lands around the globe, from the Arab Middle East to Chechnya to the Philippines.

Knowledge for Action, which runs to approximately an 90 minutes in length, is essentially a documentary of the history of the preparation for the attacks as well as a major AQC propaganda and da'wa ("missionary") production. It is a composed of a mix of interview clips with AQC leaders, including Usama bin Laden and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, and spokesmen, such as the American Jewish convert Adam Gadahn ('Azzam al-Amriki, "The American"), and clips from American documentaries with prominent figures, such as journalist Bob Woodward of Watergate fame. Segments with the late Palestinian religious scholar and jihadi ideologue 'Abdullah 'Azzam are also included, though it should be noted that 'Azzam opposed attacks on civilians and kamikaze attacks (some analysts even believe that 'Azzam's 1989 death in a car bombing was masterminded by one of his rivals, perhaps even bin Laden or al-Zawahiri). There is also lengthy footage of the hijackers and other AQC members in training camps in Afghanistan. These myriad of clips are tied together by narration and jihadi songs (nasheeds).

Screenshots from the "martyrdom" will of hijacker Walid al-Shihri

Screenshots from the "martyrdom" will of hijacker Ahmad al-Haznawi

Screenshots from the "martyrdom" will of hijacker 'Abd al-'Aziz al-'Umari.

Bin Laden's and al-Zawahiri's segments are instructive as to the ideological foundations and strategic vision of AQC, while Gadahn's segments often come across as awkward and unnatural. Gadahn, frankly, is really not a great speaker, and his value as a propaganda, da'wa, and recruiting tool comes from his identities as a convert to Islam (and in his case, really to radical Islamism, a general term for the idea that Islam is applicable to modern politics; it is important to note that Islamist movements are quite varied, and the majority are not jihadi nor violent), and on top of that, a Jewish convert. Despite his often seemingly forced segments, Knowledge for Action is a highly sophisticated and effective AQC multimedia production. Its underlying message is perhaps best exemplified in the ending montage, which shows footage of the September 11 attacks as a popular jihadi nasheed plays.

Screenshots from Knowledge for Action: The Manhattan Raid

View Knowledge for Action: The Manhattan Raid, Part1 (with English subtitles).

View the end segment of Knowledge for Action, the segment with the nasheed as described above. Begin viewing at the 3:25-minute mark.

In contrast to the ideology of AQC and transnational jihadis, please see very different views HERE.

Prof. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, a noted Middle East historian, on the "Top Ways 9/11 Broke Islamic Law".

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