After the Orlando massacre, when an armed Muslim killed 49 people in a homosexual nightclub, al-Qaeda published a guide urging more such “lone wolf” attacks, but with one caveat: to exclusively target white Americans.
According to the jihadi group’s online publication, “Inspire guide: Orlando operation,” killing homosexuals is “the most binding duty.” Nonetheless, would be jihadis are advised to “avoid targeting places and crowds where minorities are generally found in America,” and rather to target “areas where the Anglo-Saxon community is generally concentrated.”
Several talking heads and pundits responded by warning that al-Qaeda is shifting gear, somehow trying to portray itself as a “social justice warrior.” In fact, al-Qaeda has long presented itself to the West in this manner, and these latest guidelines are hardly new. Rather, they help explain the real differences between al-Qaeda and ISIS, and the stage of jihad they see themselves in.
Although The Al Qaeda Reader documents al-Qaeda’s dual approach—preach unrelenting jihad to Muslims, whine about grievances to Westerners—a nearly decade-old communique from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is sufficient. In it, he spoke to the many “under-privileged” of the world:
That’s why I want blacks in America, people of color, American Indians, Hispanics, and all the weak and oppressed in North and South America, in Africa and Asia, and all over the world, to know that when we wage jihad in Allah’s path, we aren’t waging jihad to lift oppression from Muslims only; we are waging jihad to lift oppression from all mankind, because Allah has ordered us never to accept oppression, whatever it may be…This is why I want every oppressed one on the face of the earth to know that our victory over America and the Crusading West — with Allah’s permission — is a victory for them, because they shall be freed from the most powerful tyrannical force in the history of mankind.
American blacks, however, were Zawahiri’s primary targets. Zawahiri praised and quoted from the convert to Islam, Malcolm X: “Anytime you beg another man to set you free, you will never be free. Freedom is something you have to do for yourself. The price of freedom is death.”
The al-Qaeda leader appealed to another potentially sympathetic segment: environmentalists: “[The U.S.] went out and ruined for the entire world, the atmosphere and climate with the gases emitted by its factories,” said the terror leader. Years, earlier Osama bin Laden himself complained about the U.S.’ failure to sign the Kyoto protocols: “You [the U.S.] have destroyed nature with your industrial waste and gases more than any other nation in history.”
What does this ostensibly disparate group of people—“third worlders,” environmentalists, and disaffected American blacks—have in common? They all harbor anti-Western sentiments that can be exploited by the jihadis. Hence why al-Qaeda is again reaffirming that, while killing homosexuals is “the most binding duty,” it’s still best to continue targeting non-minorities in America, i.e., traditional whites, they who are so easy to demonize.
He used the same strategy in Egypt in 2014. During a particularly bad bout of Christian persecution—dozens of churches were burned—Zawahiri counseled Egypt’s Muslims to stop attacking the Coptic Christians. The al-Qaeda leader who on numerous occasions had exhibited his antipathy for Christians made clear his call was for “PR” purposes, for the jihad’s image in the West.
While agreeing to the most draconian of Sharia’s tenets, al-Qaeda also knows that many of these—for example, the destruction of churches and subjugation of “infidel” Christians—need to be curtailed or hidden from the Western world. Otherwise al-Qaeda’s efforts of portraying jihadis as “freedom fighters” resisting an oppressive West risk being undermined.
On the other hand, ISIS (or al-Qaeda 2.0) represents the unapologetic and indifferent to Western opinion jihad. By widely broadcasting its savage triumphalism in the name of Islam, ISIS forfeits the “social warrior” card and instead plays the “strength” card, thus inspiring hundreds of millions of Muslims, according to polls.
Put differently, al-Qaeda was born at a time when deceiving the West about the aims of the jihad was deemed necessary; ISIS has been born at a time when deceiving an already passive West is no longer deemed important. Time will tell which strategy is better.