The Al Qaeda Reader
by Raymond Ibrahim
New York: Doubleday, 2007. 352 pp. $15.95, paper.
Reviewed by Brandace Simmons
A new book of never-before-translated documents and press statements by al-Qaida leaders offers new insight into the motives behind the group responsible for carrying out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Raymond Ibrahim, a technician at the Library of Congress, edited and translated into English statements by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and others dating from 1998 to 2006 for “The Al Qaeda Reader.” Ibrahim said the inspiration for the book came about in the course of shelving Arabic books, one of his duties at the Library.
“I habitually peruse through these books … and, some time
back, came across several Arabic books containing entire treatises written by both Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant Ayman al- Zawahiri, which I subsequently discovered had never before been translated into English or disseminated to the general public,” Ibrahim said.
Through the pages of “The Al Qaeda Reader,” many questions about the motivation for terrorism are answered straight from al-Qaida’s senior leadership. Ibrahim has divided the translations into two sections: theology (what Islamic teachings command Muslims to do vis-à-vis non-Muslims) and propaganda (messages tailor-made for Western/popular consumption).
Through four documents, written by both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, the two sections of theology and propaganda provide essential texts and documents that trace the origin, history and evolution of the ideas of al-Qaida founders al-Zawahiri and bin Laden. The documents are meant to help readers understand the difference between propaganda and theology.
The theology writings, which ground al-Qaida’s war against the West in the traditional Islamic doctrine of jihad, were intended mainly for Muslims, Ibrahim said. On the other hand, the propaganda writings were intended to be specifically for Westerners and cast bin Laden’s war as a just response to the depredations of Western powers.
“Basically, the four documents that make up the theology section maintain that Muslims must always hate and attack infidels — non-Muslims — until the latter submit to Islam by either converting or living under Islamic authority and law,” Ibrahim said. “In other words, the West is damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t.”
Ibrahim’s findings conclude that nothing less than the West’s total submission to Islamic authority will suffice for al-Qaida.
The uncompromising and hostile world view presented is supported in the book by the most authoritative sources of Islam, including the Koran and the words of Muhammad and celebrated theologians of the Muslim world, past and present. In fact, many pages of the theology section of “The Al Qaeda Reader” include direct quotations from the Koran, Muhammad and the theologians. “The theology section proves that al-Qaida has not ‘hijacked’ Islam, but rather is following it to the letter,” Ibrahim said.
“I wanted to combine both the propaganda, which many in the West are already familiar with — and influenced by — with the more important theological treatises, which greatly contradict the propaganda,” Ibrahim said.
An interesting point in the book involves the Koran and its relation to the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Koran 9:111 is one of the most important verses in the Koran that is used to justify suicide bombings, since it praises those who ‘slay and are slain’ in the jihad and assures them paradise,” Ibrahim said. Since it is quoted in the treatise called “Jihad, Martyrdom, and the Killing of Innocents,” which was written by al-Zawahiri and probably read by the Sept. 11 attackers, there is reason to believe that the date Sept. 11, 2001, may have been chosen as a symbolic reference to that verse, said Ibrahim.
Though many already are familiar with al-Qaida’s countless messages to the West, such as the ones broadcast by Al-Jazeera and on the Internet, the overall message wasn’t quite clear or didn’t make sense to Westerners. “The Al Qaeda Reader” elaborates on past communications regarding al-Qaida’s insistence that it is attacking the U.S. simply because the U.S. first attacked the Islamic world through actions such as its support for Israel, the deaths of Iraqi children due to U.N. sanctions, Western support for dictatorial regimes in the Arab world and Western occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ibrahim notes that this is why the writings he included in the book struck him as markedly different in both tone and content, which is precisely why they had not been directed at the West and thus never before translated.
As Ibrahim writes, “This volume of translations, taken as whole, prove once and for all that, despite the propaganda of Al Qaeda and its sympathizers, Radical Islam’s war with the West is not finite and limited to political grievances — real or imagined — but is existential, transcending time and space and deeply rooted in faith.”