Latest video from Zawahiri an exercise in band-wagoning

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 15

The latest video communication from al-Qaeda, broadcast on August 4 by the Qatar-based al-Jazeera satellite television station, was notable for a number of reasons. First of all, it prolongs the mystery of attribution of the London bombings. The speaker, Ayman Al-Zawahiri noticeably did not explicitly claim responsibility for the attacks — perhaps the strongest pointer yet as to whether al-Qaeda was directly involved, or rather, whether its involvement extended to more than an ‘aspirational’ role. There have been indications in the past of attacks carried out in their name (such as the Doha theatre bombing which they distanced themselves from), and the mixed implications for Islamist supporters in the United Kingdom leave their position on the July 7 bombings unclear. But in any case, an attack of such high priority, even if al-Qaeda were not involved, simply has to have a comment from the terror group, if they wish to retain their relevance. More than that, al-Qaeda can draw out the psychological impact of the bombings and benefit from them: if the attacks are a local affair, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri will take the credit for them.

Several audiences are intended for the video. For the Middle East, a large part of the five minute tape expounded on the occupation of Islamic lands by the infidel. The language of such addresses also typically focuses on the dangers of Western culture — notably the plan for democracy for the Middle East — presents to their vision of an Islamic world. For the Western audience, now grappling with the issue of whether to connect the London bombings with Iraq, and whether to take the route of Madrid, this message was intended to isolate the policymakers via inspiring foreboding among civilians and changing the political language among the intellectual elites. For British citizens: “Blair has brought you destruction to the heart of London, and he will bring more destruction, God willing.” For citizens of the United States: “If you continue the same policy of aggression against Muslims, God willing, you will see the horror that will make you forget what you had seen in Vietnam.”

Al-Qaeda still has its work cut out to reconcile the varying identities which it has accorded itself — as a defender of Muslims against Western geopolitical oppression and defender of Muslims against Western cultural infiltration, even where these formulate themselves in pro-democratic policies. Political representation of Muslims remains difficult for al-Qaeda, which has distinguished itself by dispensing with established national borders, using as in this tape, elastic terms such as “the land of Muhammad.” Hence, in its ‘political rhetoric’ in video recordings and propaganda literature, the use of innovative ‘para-political’ vocabulary: ‘Crusaders,’ ‘Zion-Crusaders’ (Sahyu-Salibiyyin), ‘infidels’ and ‘polytheists’ — most notably in the logo: “Akhriju al-Mushrikeen min Jazirat al-Arab” (Expel the Polytheists from the Arabian Peninsula). The strategy documents published by al-Qaeda for non-Western audiences, and which abound with this un-geographical (and un-chronological) terminology, indicate that the struggle will not end with a territorially defined settlement, but will remain an existential one.

Al-Zawahiri was careful to remind the Americans of bin Laden’s previous offer of a truce and the threats that “you will not dream of security before there is security in Palestine and before all the infidel armies withdraw from the land of Muhammad.” But one of the problems with al-Qaeda’s weak political credentials is the inability to enforce its own threats and rewards. Spain’s withdrawal from Iraq following the March 2004 train bombings has not spared its security forces subsequent Islamist threats.

For Western audiences, the al-Qaeda leadership is now experienced in nuancing its language for maximum resonance, at the same time sending alternative signals to the jihadi foot-soldiers. All the while Dr. Zawahiri spoke of the potential ‘truce’, expounded on more than one occasion as “cooperation with the Islamic nation on the basis of mutual respect,” he was wearing a black turban — a badge of war and a sign that his secondary intention is to exploit the raised passions of the bombings in London and Sharm al-Sheikh to instigate further actions.