In an hour-plus videotaped interview broadcast on May 5, al-Qaeda deputy chief Ayman al-Zawahiri answered questions from an unnamed interviewer from al-Qaeda’s video arm, al-Sahab Productions. The topics addressed covered the range of issues usually focused on by al-Qaeda leaders in videos, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and most other ongoing Islamist insurgencies. Al-Zawahiri also again attacked the perfidy of Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for cooperating with, respectively, the Arab-state allies of the United States—calling them “Condoleezza Rice’s boys”—at the recent Riyadh Conference on Palestine and Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In the video, however, al-Zawahiri’s presentation introduces several new elements which may portend an increasing al-Qaeda effort to make itself part of domestic U.S. politics and to appeal to the religious sentiments and societal and economic dissatisfactions of American Muslims, especially African American Muslims.
The new video maintains the high tempo of al-Zawahiri’s media appearances in 2007. Al-Zawahiri’s May 5 appearance is his seventh of the year, of which two have been on videotape and five on audiotape. Overall, the al-Sahab media organization has released 35 videotapes in 2007, which is a rate of one videotape every 3.6 days . The frequency with which these al-Qaeda media products are released, as well as their professional production values, strongly suggests that al-Sahab is headquartered in an area where its employees have easy access to high-quality media gear and which has been reliably secured against intrusions by al-Qaeda’s enemies.
Al-Qaeda has previously tried to impact U.S. domestic politics through its video and audio tapes. Osama bin Laden’s “Speech to the American People” on the eve of the 2004 presidential election is perhaps the most famous of these efforts (al-Jazeera, October 30, 2004). Al-Zawahiri’s May 5 statements, however, are much more specifically targeted than bin Laden’s message, and are meant to further inflame the ongoing confrontation between President Bush’s administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress over the future of the Iraq war. In response to the interviewer’s request for his views on the Iraq war funding bill, which includes a withdrawal timetable for U.S. forces, al-Zawahiri replied that the measure “reflects Americans’ failure and frustrations,” and adds that the U.S. failure is allowing the mujahideen to move “from the stage of defeat of the Crusader…to the stage of consolidating a Mujahid Islamic Emirate [in Iraq] which will liberate the homelands of Islam, protect the sacred things [sites] of Muslims, implement the rules of Sharia…and raise the banner of jihad as it makes its way through a rugged path of sacrifice and giving toward the environs of Jerusalem, with Allah’s permission.” While accurately reflecting al-Qaeda’s goals, al-Zawahiri’s words are likely meant to provide quality fodder for those in U.S. politics who argue that the Iraq war must be won to prevent the rise of a new Islamic caliphate that will be ruled by a doctrine of “Islamofascism” and threaten the United States and Israel.
For U.S. politicians opposed to the war, al-Zawahiri offers grist of a similar quality. When asked about his view of the U.S.-troop surge in Baghdad and those who claim it is beginning to bear fruit, al-Qaeda’s number-two claims that the surge certainly is “bearing fruit,” but only in President Bush’s “pockets and the pockets of Halliburton.” Then, turning to ridicule claims of the surge’s success, al-Zawahiri invites the president to join him “for a glass of juice…in the cafeteria of the Iraqi parliament in the middle of the Green Zone”—referring to the deadly insurgent attack on that heavily defended site in April. Finally, al-Zawahiri expresses some mock anguish over what he sees as a too-early U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Such an action, he says, “will deprive us of the opportunity to destroy the American forces which we have caught in a historic trap. We ask Allah that they only get out of it after losing two or three hundred thousand killed.” Citing the supposed greed of U.S. war industries, focusing on the U.S.-led coalition’s inability to protect facilities in the Green Zone, and displaying zealousness to kill many more U.S. troops, al-Zawahiri provides ammunition to those in U.S. politics who argue the war is being lost, too many Americans have already died and only war profiteers have an interest in staying the course in Iraq.
Al-Zawahiri’s May 5 statements greatly expanded previous al-Qaeda efforts to portray the Islamist movement as part of a world liberation campaign that is meant to destroy U.S. imperialism—”the most powerful tyrannical force in the history of mankind”—and assist “all the weak and oppressed in North America and South America, in Africa and Asia, and all over the world” . Al-Qaeda wants all people to know, al-Zawahiri said, “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, wherever it may be.” He concluded this part of the interview by inviting “all the world’s weak and oppressed ones to Islam, the religion of freedom and rejection of tyranny, the religion which…produced the 19 martyrs who demolished the symbol of America’s arrogance.”
Beyond this expansion, al-Zawahiri clearly sought to begin a process of sewing political and racial discontent among American Muslims, focusing primarily on African American Muslims who form the single most numerous group in the U.S. Muslim community. For the first time, al-Zawahiri identified al-Hajj Malik al-Shabaaz—Malcolm X—as a fellow Islamic “struggler and martyr.” Quoting words he attributed to al-Shabaaz, al-Zawahiri said that al-Shabaaz’s ideas recognized what many “seasoned” Islamist groups and leaders in the Muslim world have missed, namely:
“If you are not ready to die for it, take the word freedom out of your vocabulary…I believe in a religion that believes in freedom. Anytime I have to accept a religion that won’t let me fight a battle for my people, I say to hell with that religion…Concerning non-violence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks…We are nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us, but we are not nonviolent with anyone who is violent with us…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” .
Al-Zawahiri told American Muslims that Malcolm X drew these “powerful concepts” from Islam, and that they are as applicable today to the oppressed condition of black American Muslims as they were in his lifetime. Al-Qaeda’s deputy said to African American Muslims that “I hope no one replies to me that blacks in America have been delivered from its tyranny because there are the likes of Colin Powell—the liar of the Security Council—and Condoleezza Rice in power.” Using what he claimed was al-Shabaaz’s analysis, al-Zawahiri identified Powell and Rice as “house slaves,” African Americans who prospered because they were obedient and helpful to their masters.
Al-Zawahiri then said that the current condition of most African American Muslims was much closer to that of what al-Shabbaz described as “field slaves,” blacks who “lived in huts, have nothing to lose…they felt the sting of the lash.” This inferior status, al-Zawahiri claimed, was best exemplified by the African American Muslims who today are serving in the U.S. military:
“I am hurt when I find a black American fighting the Muslims under the American flag. Why is he fighting us when the racist Crusader regime in America is persecuting him like it persecutes us, and oppressing him like it oppresses us? And perhaps his slave ancestors whom America kidnapped from Africa were Muslims like us. The racist American Crusader regime is using him and the other weak and oppressed to die so that the criminals in the White House can amass their fortunes and add to their millions, whereas he receives scraps after his blood is spilled or he comes out of the war a cripple.
“And I tell the soldier of color in the American army that the racist Crusader regime kidnapped your ancestors to exploit them in developing their resources, and today it is using you for the same purpose, after they altered the look of the shackles and changed the type of chains and try to make you believe that you are fighting for democracy and the American dream…And after you achieve for them what they want, they will throw you out into the street like and old shoe.”
To stress his last point—and add fuel to the fire raging in U.S. politics over health care for combat veterans—al-Zawahiri related a story he “heard on the BBC in English this past March 17  about thousands of discharged wounded soldiers who are now homeless.” One such soldier, a 14-year veteran, al-Zawahiri claimed, served two years in Iraq, was wounded and discharged, and was later evicted from his house and now lives on a monthly pension of $400 and “sleeps in his grandmother’s car on the street.”
Al-Zawahiri’s May 5 interview is, to date, al-Qaeda’s most sophisticated and nuanced attempt to bedevil U.S. domestic politics and it highlights the longstanding fascination that al-Qaeda and many other Islamist groups have had with the position of African Americans in U.S. society, and the access they could potentially provide thereto. Al-Zawahiri’s focus on U.S. domestic politics and race relations also may be benefiting from the input of a U.S. citizen named Adam Yahiye Gadahn—aka Azzam al-Amriki—who is a senior member of al-Qaeda’s media committee. Indeed, the deftness and political timeliness of al-Zawahiri’s May 5 statements suggests that al-Qaeda may have more than a single American advising it about the complexities of U.S. politics and on how to try to add a measure of agitation to the U.S. domestic political environment.
1. These statistics accompany the text of the interview in, “Interview with Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri,” IntelCenter, al-Qaeda Videos, No. 74, May 5. All quotations from al-Zawahiri in this article are from this document. Also, al-Zawahiri’s answers contained three subtle threats of attacks inside the United States. In referring to the “Crusaders,” he promised attacks in “our countries and theirs”; in discussing Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and the 9/11 attack, he said Sheikh Muhammad “has become a role model for hundreds who are following in his footsteps, and they shall achieve more than he achieved, with Allah’s permission and help”; and in citing the importance to Islam of the U.S.-imprisoned, Egyptian cleric Sheikh Umar Abd al-Rahman, al-Zawahiri added “for whose torture the Americans shall pay dearly, with Allah’s permission and help.”
2. Of the efforts al-Qaeda has made to portray itself as a force for liberating the world’s oppressed, the heretofore most notable is Ayman al-Zawahiri, “The Freeing of Humanity and Homelands Under the Banner of the Quran,” February 2005, accessible at jihadunspun.com.
3. All words attributed to Malcolm X/al-Shabaaz in this article are as they were stated by al-Zawahiri in his interview.