Al Qaeda Releases “America Burns” Video, Framing U.S. as Nation in Crisis

These references serve to describe the American events to an Arab audience and to sympathetically equate U.S. domestic strife with events in the Middle East. One of Al Qaeda’s goals is to inspire attacks in the U.S., and this video portrays the American security situation as equivalent to that in potentially unstable Arab states – in an effort to suggest the U.S. is vulnerable to attack.

The video also highlights Al Qaeda’s past attacks against the U.S., claiming that it was God’s will that, on September 11, 2001, the fourth plane failed to reach its intended target so that on January 6, 2021, Americans could attempt to destroy their democracy “with their own hands.” Mohammed Sayeed al Shamrani, a Saudi air force lieutenant who attacked a Pensacola, Florida, Naval Air Station in December 2019, is briefly shown on screen. Al Shamrani was a sleeper agent for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and his attack was the last time Al Qaeda or one of its affiliates successfully planned and directed an attack in the United States.

The video’s goal appears to be inspiring rather than directing additional attacks, and the tone indicates that Al Qaeda believes one path to this goal is exploiting racial tensions in the U.S.; it concludes with short clips of Al Qaeda’s reclusive (and possibly deceased) leader Ayman al Zawahiri combined with part of a speech from African American activist Malcolm X.

Al Zawahiri asks “the blacks, people of color, the red Indians and the Spanish” to rise up against white Americans as retribution for slavery and racism. Islamist extremist groups often argue that they represent an equitable and racially neutral governance alternative to racist Western structures. Al Qaeda frequently references racial inequity in the U.S. as a pitch to try to recruit marginalized communities. In June 2020, the group published an issue of One Ummah that covered the protests over the murder of George Floyd with a similar message about the futility of trying to right the U.S.’s racial wrongs.

There is no evidence to suggest that Al Qaeda has particularly succeeded in radicalizing or attracting its intended audience. Rather, the video makes clear that the group has determined this may be an effective rhetorical strategy for recruiting Americans, while appearing relevant and engaged with U.S. domestic issues.

The themes presented in the “America Burns” video are not new for Al Qaeda—the cultural and moral decay of the West is one of their most common propaganda claims. However, as Al Qaeda gains momentum from its affiliate groups and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan creates a safe haven, it is important to take note of Al Qaeda’s expressed priorities and talking points.

For example, in December 2020, the Department of Justice brought charges against a Kenyan Al Qaeda operative who underwent flight training in the Philippines with the intention of carrying out a 9/11-style attack against the U.S. While security services thwarted the plan, it is a troubling signal of Al Qaeda’s intentions going forward.  

The terror group has clearly adopted the narrative that America is descending into political, racial, and economic strife while Al Qaeda and the Taliban establish what they consider a new morally pure Islamist state in Afghanistan. And although it is impossible to predict with certainty whether this will be an effective narrative for recruitment, it demonstrates that Al Qaeda appears to remain committed to attacking the U.S. two decades after 9/11.

The article is published courtesy of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).