Al-Qaeda leader rumoured to be dead appears in video released on 9/11 anniversary

Ayman al-Zawahiri’s speech fails to reference events after January – despite jihadists celebrating Taliban takeover of Afghanistan as ‘their biggest victory’ since 2001 attacks

Andy Gregory
Monday 13 September 2021 08:22 BST
Al-Qaeda leader rumoured to be dead appears in video released on 9/11 anniversary

Amid rumours that he could be dead, the leader of Al-Qaeda has appeared in a video released on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

In an hour-long speech, Ayman al-Zawahiri – who succeeded Osama bin Laden following his death in 2011 – praised al-Qaeda attacks, including one that targeted Russian troops in Syria in January, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist websites.

The footage, produced and reportedly released by Al-Qaeda’s official media arm As-Sahab, offers the first new glimpse of Mr al-Zawahri since rumours that he had died from illness first emerged late last year.

But rather than dispel talk of his death, the video could actually fuel further speculation – with the events referenced within his speech only offering proof that he was alive until January, according to the monitoring group.

While Mr al-Zawahiri’s speech noted the US military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, first confirmed in February 2020 under the Doha agreement, he made no mention of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the capital Kabul last month.

The omission appears conspicuous by its absence given that, according to SITE’s director Rita Katz, Al-Qaeda is celebrating celebrating the Taliban’s takeover “as their biggest victory” since 9/11.

Mr al-Zawahiri did, however, mention an attack which targeted Russian troops on the edge of the northern Syrian city of Raqqa on 1 January this year – several weeks after rumours of his death first re-emerged in November.

While rumours of his death have re-circulated every few years, experts have said that Mr al-Zawahiri is not in good health, the Times of Israel reported.

Al-Qaeda’s leadership did not comment on the reports of his possible death when they first emerged in November, from analysts including from the founder of New Lines magazine Hassan Hassan, who cited sources close to the group. According to Ms Katz, “intelligence agencies have, as of yet, offered no proof or solid assessments” that he is dead.

The footage on Saturday came as supporters of rival terror group Isis challenged Al-Qaeda to prove Mr al-Zawahiri is still alive, Ms Katz said, amid a concerted online propaganda push by jihadists aligned with both groups to mark the anniversary of 9/11.

The day before the video featuring him was released, SITE reported that Al-Qaeda’s media arm also published an 852-page book, supposedly written by Mr al-Zawahiri, on the “history of political corruption in Muslim history”.

While the Taliban reportedly released many of Al-Qaeda’s senior operatives from imprisonment at Bagram Air Base when it took over the US military compound last month, US president Joe Biden has appeared to seek to downplay the threat posed by the group.

“Look, let’s put this thing in perspective here," Mr Biden said in a speech on 20 August, five days after Kabul fell to the Taliban amid the Nato withdrawal. “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al-Qaeda gone? We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, as well as getting Osama bin Laden. And we did.”

But this week, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin warned that Al-Qaeda may attempt to regenerate in Afghanistan, telling reporters that the US has “put the Taliban on notice that we expect them not to allow that to happen”.

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