Each year, to commemorate the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the notorious terrorist group Al Qaeda releases a video featuring one of the group’s senior leaders who typically reiterates the significance and impact of those deadly events from their warped perspective. Al Qaeda’s 2021 video, which was recently analyzed by experts in ADL’s Center on Extremism and the ADL department of International Affairs, was notable for several reasons. First, it contains minimal footage of 9/11 itself, a departure from the typical emphasis on the violence of that day. Second, the video prominently features leader Ayman al Zawahiri, who many Western analysts speculated had died, focusing explicitly on Israel.
Zawahiri introduced the film as part of Al Qaeda’s “Jerusalem will not be Judaized” campaign, which was launched after the December 2017 announcement by the Trump Administration that it was planning to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The video provides crucial context for the group’s extremist agenda, underscoring that Al Qaeda is particularly focused on a strike against Israel, and that antisemitism remains an animating element of Al Qaeda’s worldview.
Al Qaeda’s Intention to Target Israel
Typically, the 9/11 anniversary is a major propaganda opportunity for Al Qaeda’s central leadership, so the decision to replace its typical messaging with content focusing unambiguously on Israel was itself remarkable.
In the video, Zawahiri spends a significant amount of time laying out a timeline of the creation of Israel, starting with the period of Western military control of the Middle East after World War I. He frames the narrative to suggest that Arab leaders were initially manipulated and lied to by the European powers to force them to acquiesce to the establishment of the state of Israel. Zawahiri reserves particular vitriol for Arab leaders for failing to be tougher against Israel, particularly those who pursued peace accords with the country.
The viciousness of Zawahiri’s criticism for Arab leaders who have established diplomatic relations with Israel is part of a longstanding theme in Al Qaeda propaganda, likely exacerbated in this instance by the success of the 2020 Abraham Accords, which demonstrates that opposition to Israel is no longer a political necessity for some leaders in the region. This also weakens the standing of hardliners like Al Qaeda, since it undermines the claim that violence is the only solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Zawahiri closes the video with a reference to Abdullah Azzam, an extremist who is considered the founding father of the modern jihadist movement. The video shows a clip from a famous Azzam speech in which he argues that jihad is a global movement and that although the path of jihad will ultimately lead to Palestine, it must first pass through Afghanistan. Zawahiri’s language throughout the video underscores that attacking the West and Israel remain a top priority for Al Qaeda, even if many of its forces or activities are elsewhere, in places such as Afghanistan.
Given Al Qaeda’s recent gains in Afghanistan thanks to the Taliban’s takeover, this possible emphasis on Afghanistan as a staging ground for attacking Israel is especially worrying. The fact that Al Qaeda released a video centered on Israel to commemorate its 9/11 attacks signals the group’s commitment to targeting the country in the future. Over the past few months, Al Qaeda’s other propaganda outlets have also directed increased attention towards Israel, suggesting that as the group builds capacity, this may be a major target for future attacks.
Al Qaeda’s Inherent Antisemitism
Al Qaeda’s decision to focus on Israel on the 20th anniversary of its most notorious terrorist attack also revealed the extent to which antisemitism animates the group’s larger worldview and ideology.
This is not a new development. In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. government’s bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report documented numerous instances in which the hijackers and Al Qaeda’s senior leadership were influenced by antisemitic hate and conspiracy theories. As that report noted, Al Qaeda’s own operatives were speaking in terms of waging war against “Jews and Crusaders” and lashing out at “a global movement centered in New York City that supposedly controlled the financial world and media.” The organization’s 9/11 anniversary propaganda video is a stark reminder that such anti-Jewish bigotry remains a major part of the group’s narrative today.
Al Qaeda’s 9/11 anniversary video urges followers to join in its terrorist activities, describes Israel as essentially a military base for Western interests, and argues that attacking Israel also directly harms Western powers in general and the U.S. in particular. The video entreats viewers, “Participate,” and asks, “can you be satisfied with your lives… while you witness daily live broadcasts of the crimes of the Jews in Palestine,” which it called “the focal cause of the Muslim Ummah [world].”
The video claims that Palestine is “in the hands of monkeys and swines for over a century… the Jews,” and that “only when actions match words” will Muslims be able to achieve “the liberation of al Aqsa from the clutches of the Jews.”
However, in order to achieve this goal, Zawahiri explains in the video that “the battle must be taken beyond this besieged strip. Just as they have come together from all corners of the world to fight us, we must hit them hard everywhere.” He focuses particularly on Arab leaders over the years whom he considers insufficiently hostile to Israel and are therefore portrayed as treacherous co-conspirators in the service of Zionists. In this same vein, a senior leader from Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch asks, “Do you accept sitting back while you watch treacherous rulers collaborating to strike deals of disgrace, submission and normalization with the Jews, beginning from Camp David, all the way to Oslo and finally the Deal of the Century?”
The video condemns leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization for permitting “contacts with Jewish powers” since the 1970s. It calls contemporary Palestinian leaders such as Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammad Dahlan “the biggest broker,” “the son of Satan,” and “secular heretics fostered and financed by America and Israel so as to uproot Islam.” It calls the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat “Anwar al-Yahood,” meaning “Anwar of the Jews” for signing a “treaty of surrender” with Israel. And it calls the UAE’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan “the puppet, the midget, the leader of mercenary militias,” along with deriding Sudan’s top military official as “the paid mercenary, Burhan of Sudan.” The fact that Zawahiri dedicates such a large portion of the video to directing hatred at Arab leaders is reflective of the realities of Al Qaeda’s strategy; the majority of Al Qaeda’s victims are not the Westerners they profess to target, but rather Muslim civilians.
Yet Zawahiri advises the listener that these Arab leaders are not Al Qaeda’s main concern. Instead, he proclaims that “we should not be surprised by the treachery and negligence of the betrayers” and that “the matter is far more serious. It is a Crusade led by America, and Israel is one of the most important tools of this Crusade. Israel is a Crusader fortress, equipped with nuclear weapons in the heart of the Islamic world.”
Such calls to target Israel, the United States and America’s Arab allies are nothing new in Al Qaeda’s propaganda or approach in practice. Yet the organization’s video marking 20 years since 9/11 provides yet another reminder that Al Qaeda remains a deeply antisemitic organization that seeks to attack Israel, Jews and their purported “lackeys” with terrorist activities and propaganda.