The Al Qaeda Reader
Raymond Ibrahim, ed. and trans.
(New York: Doubleday, 2007)


Reviewed by Mark T. Clark, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science, Director of the National Security Studies program, California State University, San Bernardino, Director of the CSU Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence

To defeat an enemy, one must understand how he thinks. Critical at any time, this common admonition is most important when dealing with a shadowy, subversive and global threat motivated by an ideology utterly foreign to those it seeks to destroy. Fortunately, al-Qaeda’s leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, have written clearly on their goals, strategies, and the basis for their reasoning. Many of their most important letters, interviews and treatises directed at the West in general, and America in particular, and separately to Muslim audiences, now are revealed in a compendium edited and translated by Raymond Ibrahim. Through his new book, The Al Qaeda Reader, the alarming visions of the vanguard of the global jihadist threat are exposed directly for all to see.

Organized into two major sections, “Theology” and “Propaganda,” the book’s twenty-one chapters include short essays setting the context for the translations that follow. The first section, “Theology,” includes the various theological arguments and justifications bin Laden and Zawahiri make for radical Islam being the only true Islam. These four essays are directed towards Muslim, Arabic-speaking audiences. The second section “Propaganda,” includes forty different works directed at Western audiences. Helpful to the scholar and novice alike, Ibrahim adds a few sections including one to assist readers unfamiliar with translating Arabic to English, a glossary of critical Arabic terms, an overview of the process by which Islamic law, Sharia, is developed, and a section on some of the more important figures in Islam.

The reader is struck by the two very different messages in these works, each unique to a particular audience. Under “Propaganda” are the widely disseminated essays in which bin Laden and Zawahiri espouse their political opposition to the West, the “Crusader-Jewish” alliance, and the like. They reject the Sufi interpretation of jihadas a personal struggle and argue for a “Defensive Jihad” against the West, obliging all Muslims to resist those who have invaded or colonized Muslim lands. But a second theme runs throughout as well, that of reciprocity; while they accuse the West of all injustices in the lands of Islam, they argue that peace may be had by our withdrawal. In this case, they mean withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, support for Israel, and aid to “moderate” or “corrupt” governments in the Middle East. When we do, we may enjoy peace with Islam.

Bin Laden and Zawahiri preach a radically different message, however, in the four essays under “Theology.” In these, bin Laden and Zawahiri do not convey reciprocity and peaceful coexistence, but enmity toward and renunciation of all that is Western, especially democracy and human rights. Unlike their propaganda, here they implore Muslims to “Offensive Jihad”, the obligation to subdue infidels. These two masterminds of global jihad demand all Muslims accept that peace can only come when the West either submits to Islam or accepts dhimmitude (a neologism indicating subordination and second-class status) and pays the jizya, a special tax on non-Muslims living in Islamic lands. If we accept neither, then only death for Westerners remains.

The four works of theology, never before published in the West in English, are arguably the most important in the book. They include one essay by bin Laden and three by Zawahiri outlining and developing their doctrines, reflecting their deeper, core beliefs. The first one by bin Laden, “Why Moderate Islam is Prostration to the West,” attacks Saudi religious leaders who respond to a letter by a group of American intellectuals on why the war against al Qaeda is a just war. Here, bin Laden enjoins Muslims to “Offensive Jihad”, obliging Muslims not to simply defend Islam but to advance it and Sharia to new realms against non-Muslims. He also excoriates those Muslims who believe in “moderate” Islam. Sadly, after this blistering critique, the “moderates” in Saudi Arabia go mute.

In Zawahiri’s first treatise, “Loyalty and Enmity,” he shows why Muslims must be loyal to other Muslims and maintain hatred for non-Muslims. He also introduces the little known doctrine of taqiyya, the right of Muslims under certain conditions to deceive non-Muslims openly while keeping hatred in their hearts towards them. In “Sharia and Democracy,” Zawahiri shows why Muslims are obliged to uphold and establish Sharia and oppose all other forms of government, especially democracy, which he depicts as paganism. He also explains why Sharia is the foundation for Muslim animosity to the non-Islamic world, for which there only remains war, hatred and, at best, second class status. In his third treatise, “Jihad, Martyrdom, and the Killing of Innocents,” which follow more closely the pattern of a religious decree (fatwa), Zawahiri argues that jihad,both offensive and defensive, is a fundamental pillar of Islam; he also takes up the more controversial issues of justifying suicide bombing and the killing of innocents, which he argues are legitimate, Islamic forms of warfare.

On leave from graduate school at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Ray Ibrahim works in the Near East section of the Library of Congress where he discovered some and translated all of these works.. He is a linguist, philologist and historian of the Middle East who grew up speaking colloquial Arabic and reads classical Arabic.

Ibrahim’s work serves us well by giving us a view into the mind of our enemy and, in this case, the more we know, the less we will like. This is an implacable foe, not given to compromise or reciprocity. But reading The Al Qaeda Reader may be the first step we need to take in order to fully understand what we must do to win this war.