The latest videotape, featuring bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, aired by the al-Jazeera satellite channel on November 29, poses a number of questions both in terms of the content and the quality of the production.
The content features the standard warning against the United States for its policies in the Islamic world; stating that the struggle will continue until those policies change. This is al-Zawahiri’s second video appearance in a year, the last occasion being immediately prior to the third anniversary of the September 11 attacks of 2001. But between the two appearances there are some notable differences, notably in the level of confidence in his tone.
In the September 9 footage, al-Zawahiri declared that “the defeat of America in Afghanistan is just a matter of time” and that the troops were “refusing to come out of their trenches to fight the mujahideen”. In this last recording, in which al-Zawahiri appears thin and emaciated, the element of disdain gives place to flickers of defeatism. Where the last tape was replete with the tone of threat, this one speaks of a “patient struggle to fight you with God’s help until the last hour.” Al-Zawahiri also asks the U.S. to “choose between two methods in dealing with Muslims. Either cooperate with them on the basis of respect and the exchange of mutual interests, or consider them as free loot, robbed land and violated sanctity” — words whose tone suggest more a call to negotiations or a truce than a declaration of war.
More remarkable still is the tone of al-Zawahiri’s delivery: hesitant, stuttering and with frequent mistakes in delivering the prepared text. As one liberal Arab commentator observed: “It is odd that the tape was given to al-Jazeera without first having removed the bits where al-Zawahiri stutters, given that al-Zawahiri would well know that such passages would have a negative effect on the public.” (https://www.metransparent.com)
Elements of a more defeatist al-Qaeda tone also appeared in an earlier released audiotape by al-Zawahiri aired by al-Jazeera on October 1. There he urged Muslims to increase their efforts against “Crusader America” and not to wait until Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen and Algeria are invaded. Al-Qaeda has also since sent out a call for recruits to come to Afghanistan to reverse the country’s slide towards democracy. There was a conspicuous failure to disrupt the elections in Afghanistan, which observers have put down to disarray in mujahid ranks. In Mid-November calls came from warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to renew the jihad in southern Afghanistan, and from Taliban leader Mulla Omar, who pointedly insisted that “there is much more brotherhood, obedience and steadfastness in the Taliban’s Islamic movement than before.”
Another feature of interest was the departure from the general disdain with respect to Arab governments. By underlining how Arab and Muslim regimes could face the same fate as Saddam Hussein if they continued to renounce jihad, al-Zawahiri implies that their nemesis no longer comes from Muslim Mujahideen, but from the inexorable force of the United States.
There are also some questions on the production quality and the date of the tape. If the recording was made in the same week as that of bin Laden’s pre-US election address, it is odd that bin Laden’s tape appears clean in technical terms, while al-Zawahiri’s — distributed a full month later — appears to be in need of some editing. The implication is that, despite the apparent contemporaneity of the tapes (they both discuss the forthcoming U.S. election candidates), they appear to be made under different circumstances, or in separate locations, leaving further questions as to how coherent the al-Qaeda group actually remains.