There was something of a minor surge in Al-Qaeda media traffic around the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. On September 9 Al-Jazeera television received a video tape featuring al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in his first appearance in a year. Notable too was the absence of bin Laden from the tape. Clearly timed to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary, in what is taking on the appearance of a tradition, Al-Zawahiri’s address warned Americans that “defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan has become just a question of time, God willing”, due to their being “caught between two fires: if they remain there they will bleed to death, and if they withdraw they will have lost everything.” (Tape released to al-Jazeera, 9/9/2004)
The tape’s recent production was supported by a reference to the recent troubles in Darfur, and its authenticity was generally agreed upon by intelligence analysts. All of which makes the non-appearance of bin Laden himself all the more intriguing, leading to speculation of his death, or at least of his reduced leadership role in Al-Qaeda’s operations. Although the tone is triumphalist, and intended to demonstrate ‘business as usual’, the most interesting feature of the address was that it contained clear undertones of a pep talk aimed at boosting morale. Al-Zawahiri’s claims to Taliban control of ‘the entire east and south of Afghanistan’ are certainly disputed by the U.S. military and also by President Hamid Karzai, who considers disarray among the participating regional warlords a greater threat to Afghanistan than remnants of the Taliban.
Morale boosting was certainly the governing tone of the latest issue, no. 24, of the al-Qaeda online magazine Sawt al-Jihad, which appeared on Islamist websites in time for the 9/11 anniversary. Here, in amongst the theological justifications for jihad in the holy month of Rajab, considerable space has been given over to exhortations to continue the fight, despite all the reverses. In an opening address entitled: Yes, Bush, you cannot defeat terrorism! (Sawt al-Jihad, p.3), and liberally sprinkled with Qur’anic quotations, Sheikh Hamud al-‘Utaybi acknowledges the major reverses, such as the fall of the Islamic state in Afghanistan, but paints them as ‘temporary victories, … for you cannot conquer the Believers, since the present struggle is simply a continuation of the Ayyam, [the days of early Muslim struggles against the infidel]’. He then goes on to point to the subsequent American reverses in Iraq and Afghanistan ‘the graveyard of U.S. soldiers’, and equates the Russians with the same fate, listing the Ingush and Chechen attacks, and the latest series of suicide bombings including the Beslan school operation, ‘a victory like that of the theatre operation in Moscow, Praise God’.
The theme is continued with Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid’s essay: ‘Stand fast, O People of Islam, for Victory is Nigh!’ (Sawt, p.16). Again the text is rich in doctrinal quotations and thin on hard facts to back this victory up, and soon dissolves into exhortations to greater piety and observance of the obligations of the faith, or study of their ancient mujahideen forbears as the surest road to conquest. The defensive tone continues when the subject of Saudi successes against the al-Qaeda leadership is broached: ‘When one leader dies, there arises another…If Abu Hajar [al-Muqrin] or others are killed, God Almighty brings forth sincere men who will dismay you’ (Sawt, p.28). ‘There is no conquest without martyrdom’, the argument continues, now fleshed out by extracting texts from the 8th century Islamic legal authority Imam al-Shafi’i, demonstrating how defeat is merely a precursor to victory (Sawt, p.30). Finally, Al-Ayyiri’s essay: Jihad is not Dependent upon a Single Battle (Sawt, p.31) recalls nothing if not the tone of the 1914 poster countering the demoralization of the French: ‘Citizens, we have lost a battle, but we have not lost the war.’
A similar conclusion can be drawn from a second 9/11 anniversary tape, this time published by al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, which appeared on Islamist websites on September 11. Less verifiable for the date of its production, although authenticity seems established, Al-Zarqawi’s address follows the same pattern of bluster followed by undertones of anxiety. ‘The holy warriors’ he states triumphantly, ‘made the international coalition taste humiliation … lessons from which they are still burning’. The battle with the Shi’ite militia of Muqtada al-Sadr he dismisses as a sideshow designed to scare the true opposition in ‘the courageous and steadfast Sunni Triangle’, but the tone of bravado soon gives way to frustration. Al-Zarqawi appeals to the mujahideen who have come from abroad to ‘keep your hands on the trigger’, remain alert, and remember that ‘missions [to propagate the faith] have never been a road lined with roses and sweet basil; the price is heavy… a plethora of torn limbs and blood.’ He continues, ‘Far be it from God to leave you to perish…. You will subdue America. By God you will subdue America, though it may take a while longer’.
Although the appearance of the taped address was soon accompanied by the latest crescendo of attacks undertaken by his Tawhid and Jihad group, and which caused 150 fatalities over a period of three days, as if to emphasize its continuing capacities, numbers may mislead. There is reason to give considered weight to the tone of Al-Zarqawi’s address, over against the bombing statistics alone. Supposing the tape to be of recent production, at a time when U.S. air strikes are targeting insurgent groups, there may be reasons for his advice not to fear enemy airplanes since ‘God is above [their] airplanes and is of yet greater might.’ In a final plea which may refer to the recent deals made by U.S. negotiators with local leaders in towns of the Sunni triangle, Al-Zarqawi makes ‘a call for help from the deep to the lions in Baghdad and Al-Anbar, and to the heroes in Diyala and Samarra, and to the tigers in Mosul and the north’.
It may be that despite the popular use of the title of ‘al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq’, Al-Zarqawi is actually feeling himself isolated even within the broader movement. A tantalizing glimpse of possible friction at the top was provided by the Arabic newspaper Al-Zaman (issue 8-9 September). On its front page the Iraqi daily quoted Moroccan intelligence sources that revealed ‘the existence of differences between Ayman al-Zawahiri, the right hand man to the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’. The Moroccan sources maintained they had information that ‘there is a current in al-Qaeda which is changing over to Al-Zarqawi and which is prepared to offer him allegiance instead’. The differences, the sources maintained, ‘centre on the post of second man in al-Qaeda, a position which Al-Zawahiri occupies as his successor to bin Ladin in the case of the latter’s death or imprisonment.’
Is there an indication here that bin Laden is still alive, but ailing fast? If so, it would provide an explanation for his mysterious non-appearance in Al-Zawahiri’s ‘anniversary’ video. We may therefore expect a further, more important announcement from Al-Zawahiri.