Zawahiri’s rhetorical style would have fit right into the U.S. political spectrum.
According to the Biden administration, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, died in a U.S. drone strike on Sunday. Zawahiri had inherited his position from Osama bin Laden after bin Laden was killed in 2011, and he was always one of Al Qaeda’s most ardent propagandists, forever issuing edicts and manifestos. They were meandering and verbose, but if you hack your way through his verbiage, you find that Zawahiri’s rhetorical tricks were — to an incredible degree — exactly the same as those used by American pundits.
One of Zawahiri’s screeds tells you everything you need to know.
In 2007, an Egyptian Islamist named Sayid Imam Sharif wrote a harsh critique of Al Qaeda’s violence. This rocked the jihadist world, since Sharif had been, as described by Lawrence Wright, “one of the first members of Al Qaeda’s top council.”
Zawahiri soon struck back with a 268-page proclamation titled “Exoneration,” which reads like a very, very, very long segment on Fox. There are two parts that are especially notable.
First of all, says Zawahiri, Sharif’s criticisms of Al Qaeda were exactly like the criticisms of Al Qaeda by Islam’s enemies:
A document called “Rationalizing Jihadist Action in Egypt and the World” became public and was accompanied by much attention and furor. When I carefully examined it, I found — regrettably as I had expected — that it served, in the best possible way, the interests of the alliance that the crusaders and Jews have with our rulers. … It sounds like a [Egyptian] security services’ pamphlet. … This document was written in the spirit of the [Egyptian] Interior Ministry.
This is, of course, exactly what America’s propagandists say about every criticism of the U.S. There are as many examples of this as there are stars in the sky. Here are a few:
In 2005, Rush Limbaugh described “some liberal Hollywood Jewish people talking point” and “Democratic talking points” about American foreign policy as being exactly the same as that found in a letter from then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Then when a new bin Laden tape was released in 2008, Chris Matthews declared on MSNBC that documentary filmmaker Michael Moore’s view of U.S. actions around the world sounded just like bin Laden’s.
More recently, Anne Applebaum, a staff writer at The Atlantic, took the same tack with John Mearsheimer, a University of Chicago professor and famed member of the “realist” school of foreign policy. Mearsheimer’s view of the run-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she explained, was exactly the same as Russia’s. In fact, Russia may have gotten its case from Mearsheimer:
Now wondering if the Russians didn't actually get their narrative from Mearshimer et al. Moscow needed to say West was responsible for Russian invasions (Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Ukraine), and not their own greed and imperialism. American academics provided the narrative.— Anne Applebaum (@anneapplebaum) March 1, 2022
The appeal of this tactic for propagandists is simple: It implies that if our internal critics say the same thing about us as our external enemies, what the internal critics say is obviously illegitimate. But that’s simply false: Every political actor or major power does enough terrible things that their internal critics and external enemies can generate a damning, identical indictment of them without needing to make anything up.
Second, writes Zawahiri, Sharif focuses on Al Qaeda, while leaving out what Al Qaeda’s enemies have done:
The document … neglected the crimes of the crusaders and their agents, abandoned the need to exhort the nation to fight and resist them, and occupied itself with what it alleged were the mujahidin’s errors. …
This is a question that we address to the brothers who use the term “terrorism” to describe what happened in America. …
When the United States fired missiles on the medicine factory in Sudan, destroying it over the heads of the employees and workers who were inside, what do you call this? …
What about starving the Libyan people? What about the almost daily starving of the Iraqi people and the attacks on them? What about the sieges and attacks on the Muslim state of Afghanistan?
Anyone who’s ever read attacks on Noam Chomsky’s writing on U.S. foreign policy is familiar with this. Why has Chomsky neglected the crimes of our enemies? Why does he occupy himself with what he alleges were America’s errors?
Again, it’s easier to see why propagandists like Zawahiri take this approach. If an internal critic doesn’t denounce every bad act done to us by our enemies, doesn’t it suggest that this critic hates us? Doesn’t this mean they may be secretly on our enemies’ side?
Chomsky’s answer to this is simple and easy to understand: “I focus my efforts against the terror and violence of my own state because American actions are the things that I can do something about. … I think that’s kind of like a fundamental moral truism.”
So the awful truth is either that 1) It’s unfair to say Zawahiri was extreme and simple-minded, and in fact if he’d lived here he would have made a great American pundit, or 2) Zawahiri was truly extreme and simple-minded, just like the political spectrum in the U.S., and so he would have made a great American pundit. Either way, he would have fit right in.