The latest al-Qaeda video, aired in part by al-Jazeera television on June 17, and the first to appear since last February, bore the stamp of a commentary of the political reform-related events currently occurring in Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Palestine. As such it is of considerable interest in demonstrating the sensitivity of the organization to the language and the political vocabulary of the moment.
Sensing the threat of potential change being conducted without reference to al-Qaeda’s vision of reform, the organization’s number two Ayman al-Zawahiri was at pains to downplay the possibility of reform by peaceful means (“Reform and expelling the invaders from the countries of Islam will not happen except through fighting for God’s sake”). In a clear reference to recent scenes in Lebanon and Egypt (the May 25 referendum demonstrations in Cairo are directly alluded to), al-Zawahiri insists that “expelling the marauder Crusader and Jewish forces cannot be done through demonstrations and hoarse voices”. He also warned the Palestinians (here referring to Hamas and Islamic Jihad) against being “dragged into the secularists’ election game under a secular constitution.”
Though essentially a familiar call to maintain the culture of violent jihad’ al-Zawahiri’s presentation of an alternative program for reform adopts the watchwords of the reformists to make his point. ‘True reform,’ according to Al-Zawahiri, has to be based on three premises:
· Hakimiyyat al-Shari’ah (The rule of Islamic law)
· Hurriyyat Diyar al-Islam min al-Muhtall (Freeing the lands of Islam from the occupier)
· Hurriyyat al-Umma al-Islamiyya fi Idarat Shu’uniha (Freeing the Islamic Nation’s to run its own affairs) – specifically the freedom to set up instruments to enforce the ‘promotion of virtue and prevention of vice.’
The use of the language of ‘freedom’ is not a natural constituent of al-Qaeda ideology, a point which is made in an interesting analysis in the June 18 edition of the pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat. Here the commentator Mushari al-Dhayidi notes how the three premises are low in substance, but are carefully phrased to highlight terms which happen to be relevant to the present political climate [www.aawsat.com]. The point is illustrated by looking at the previous sound recordings sent to Arabic satellite channels. On February 22 al-Zawahiri focused his talk on the Guantanamo scandal as a means of pouring scorn on U.S. claims to democratic freedoms (but where no criticism was implied on the concept of freedom and democracy as such). In an earlier recording made on November 29, 2004, bin Laden delivered a text focused on the pragmatic advantages of the United States working with the Islamic world in a way that would serve their mutual interests. Conspicuously absent was the language of “permanent jihad until all sovereignty on Earth belongs to God alone” where mutual interests are irrelevant. Earlier, in June 2004, al-Zawahiri took issue with the ‘Reform Summit’ at Tunis and its agreement to promote Washington’s program for democracy in the Middle East, as being “of no advantage to the Arab world.”
Both the timing of these transmissions, and their vocabulary, serve to underline – in strategic terms – how al-Qaeda is increasingly being forced to operate within, and as a response to, political realities, instead of re-defining them. With each transmission there appears evidence of al-Qaeda’s fear of the argumentation of reform, the organization’s distrust of its own ideological pull — when openly stated — and its fears of increasing marginalization from the political debate.
One footnote to the latest recording is also worthy of interest. In the course of the video communiqué, Zawahiri launched an unprecedented attack on the Sudanese government. According to the Sudan Tribune, quoting Hani al-Siba’i the director of Al-Maqrizi Research Centre in London, the cause of the invective was Khartoum’s handing over of “files with photographs for most of the leadership of al-Qaeda and the Egyptian Jihad” who up to 1995 were based in the Sudanese capital. Bin Laden moved to Sudan after being expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991 for his anti-government activities, as a result of Riyadh’s decision to admit U.S. troops on Saudi soil in order to reverse Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Bin Laden worked with other exiled radical groups in Sudan until 1995, when he decamped to Afghanistan, after Khartoum expelled him under pressure from the United States. While, according to Al-Siba’i, the leadership at the time used fictitious names or forged passports for security reasons, “the Sudanese government knew their identities by virtue of a special agreement between the security bodies and the leaders of the Islamic groups” [www.sudantribune.com]. Al-Zawahiri’s sensitivity to the documents may give some indication of their continuing value.