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Al Qaeda's Media Blitz

10 MINS READJul 6, 2006 | 05:25 GMT
By Fred Burton Al Qaeda's media arm recently released not one, but two new videos, both featuring Osama bin Laden and audiotaped messages in which he discusses Iraq. The videos — released on June 29 and July 1 — came shortly after bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, also put out a video (broadcast June 23) in which the focus was Iraq. Needless to say, the rash of recordings constitutes something of a "media blitz" — the recording in June marked the third consecutive month in which bin Laden has made a public statement, and brought to five the number of recordings featuring the al Qaeda leader so far this year. Equally interesting, both bin Laden — in his June 29 address — and al-Zawahiri chose to eulogize Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — a regional commander of whom they seldom had spoken publicly before, and with whom they were not always well-aligned. Given the historical frequency of broadcasts featuring the top al Qaeda leaders, as well as the context of these recent statements, it is clear that al Qaeda's leadership views itself as having reached a critical juncture in the U.S.-jihadist war. Moreover, with the death of al-Zarqawi, they have been moved to act with some urgency. A Bumpy Merger In a certain sense, al-Zarqawi's death on June 7 was — though welcomed by many — not altogether significant for the United States or many other key political players in Iraq. It did not bring an end to the violence there or even result in a noticeable decrease. But from the perspective of the jihadists, who long ago joined and have exploited the Sunni insurgency for their own ends, it was quite another matter — and its significance has been underscored by the recent rash of statements from several well-known figures. These include not only bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, but also Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who issued a rare statement of his own on June 9. (Omar, of course, is interesting from a targeting standpoint — but his statements do not necessarily reveal anything about the state of al Qaeda or the course of the overall war, and should be considered separately from those by top al Qaeda leaders.) Forensically speaking, the overlap — and the time lapse — between the bin Laden and al-Zawahiri eulogies contains some intriguing clues. The fact that their statements reached broadcast outlets six days apart, and were made with very different formats, indicates the obvious: They are not in the same location, and possibly not in close communication with each other. It is true that the two leaders have appeared together in videos made following the 9/11 attacks, but the last time this occurred was in September 2003. And while they may retain the means to meet or communicate periodically, it appears that this has not been the case since at least early June. Nevertheless, both clearly felt it was important to eulogize al-Zarqawi — and to do so quickly, upon receiving news of his death. The key question, particularly given the history of their relations with the Jordanian, is why. It is important to recall that al-Zarqawi was not among the trusted core of Afghan Arabs or mujahideen who helped to bring al Qaeda into being. He was an upstart and an outsider who had set out making a name for himself well before declaring allegiance to bin Laden's group — a bold marketing maneuver if ever there was one. In fact, it was not until the very end of 2004 that the al Qaeda leadership-in-hiding publicly recognized al-Zarqawi as their "man" in Iraq. In many ways, the partnership served both sides well: al Qaeda's "brand" recognition was coupled with al-Zarqawi's operational effectiveness, and both groups prospered (or, at least as much as possible with $25 million bounties on the leaders' heads). But beneath the seemingly smooth surface, there was turbulence. In April 2006, al-Zawahiri called for Muslims to throw their support behind al-Zarqawi's group in Iraq; this followed the interception last fall of a letter in which he decried the Jordanian's penchant for attacking Shiite Muslims and urged him to halt strikes targeting innocents among the ummah. In recorded statements, al Qaeda leaders have praised the actions of the "mujahideen" in Iraq many times — preserving the public facade of unity — but it is noteworthy that in a tape broadcast in early January 2006, al-Zawahiri spoke of "coming victory" in Iraq that he credited to the ummah at large, with no mention of al-Zarqawi specifically. Given that context, it is intriguing that bin Laden, in his eulogy, spoke of al-Zarqawi as the quintessential jihadist, and as an example for all mujahideen and Muslims to study and follow. He was not just respectful, but excessive in heaping praise on the Jordanian; his eulogy lasted more than 19 minutes. Bin Laden also defended him against charges (including those implicitly leveled by al-Zawahiri) that he had killed innocent Iraqis. Two Tapes, Two Days For bin Laden — who has been, to put it mildly, rather reticent since fleeing U.S. forces in Afghanistan — to issue two recordings in as many days on any subject is atypical behavior. Clearly, he saw a compelling reason to do so. Something has generated a sense of urgency; there is an issue that needed to be publicly addressed from the highest echelons of al Qaeda, without delay. The last time bin Laden put out two statements so closely timed was in February 2003 — on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which the leadership correctly perceived as being very significant for al Qaeda. They viewed the coming invasion as the continuation of what bin Laden had termed the "Crusader war" to eradicate Islam, and wanted to make sure they properly framed the event in the minds of the Muslim public. So they pulled out all the stops with a media blitz to that end. Similarly, Iraq remains the focal point in the current blitz. The two bin Laden recordings and that by al-Zawahiri have demonstrated that the death of al-Zarqawi is perhaps a sign of something far more significant than the death of one man. It is crucial to note that al Qaeda's core leaders have not responded to the deaths of other regional commanders — including a string of them in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden's homeland — in this way. Moreover, many senior leaders killed or captured since 2001 were personally much closer to bin Laden and al-Zawahiri (such as Mohammed Atef, whose daughter is married to one of bin Laden's sons) yet there has no prior instance in which both men issued statements (let alone, lengthy ones) praising the martyr — any martyr. The shift, however, makes sense when placed in a wider context. Several weeks ago, we argued that the situation in Iraq was approaching a break point, and we viewed the death of al-Zarqawi as a sign that the break point had indeed been reached. Judging from the sequence and tone of these latest recordings, the central al Qaeda leadership has reached a similar conclusion. There is a shift occurring in Iraq, and the leaders are engaged in a media offensive in attempts to shape perceptions and counter that shift. After eulogizing al-Zarqawi, bin Laden — in the July 1 message, titled "To the Muslim Ummah in General and the Mujahideen in Iraq and Somalia in Particular" — urges the Sunnis in Iraq to fight rather than negotiate politically, which he describes as only half a solution. Bin Laden says the Sunnis cannot hope to convince "the apostates" to stop killing Muslims without using violence. In his terminology, that is like "trying to convince a wolf to stop attacking sheep." Instead, he says that the only way to convince the enemy is to fight — and that ignoring Allah's orders to do so will ensure the Sunnis' defeat. He concludes with a prayer for Abu Ayyub al-Masri, al-Zarqawi's successor in Iraq — telling him to be patient and to continue the struggle until the caliphate is established. Clearly, bin Laden does not want a negotiated settlement to take hold in Iraq — nor does he seem to be optimistic about the current trend. We have argued that al-Zarqawi's death — or more precisely, his betrayal — was of symbolic importance in the formation of a new Iraqi government. For al Qaeda, however, it has left a significant void at a critical juncture. Despite his (at least nominal) subordination to the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) — the umbrella organization established to put an Iraqi face on the jihadist segment of the insurgency — there is no person in Iraq's jihadist milieu who was or is his equal. His departure has left the jihadists in disarray; al Qaeda wants to gain more control over al Qaeda in Iraq, as do the local Iraqis. There is additional tension within the MSC as Iraqi jihadists who have tribal or other ties to the mainstream Sunni leadership are pressured to engage in the political process — and to part ways with the transnational jihadists. The setbacks in Iraq also must be viewed in the context of other fronts in the jihadist war. Since 2001, that war has not gone well for al Qaeda. Not a single country has been taken over by radical Islamists since the fall of the Taliban, with the one exception of the recent shift in Somalia. And yet, even the Somali Islamists (who, like their Iraqi brethren, were singled out for special mention bin Laden's July 1 message) seem to be going out of their way to to distance themselves from al Qaeda's radicalism. Having failed to carry out any attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11 and with the jihadist node in Saudi Arabia losing ground, al Qaeda no longer poses the global strategic threat it once did. Add to this the prospect of a negotiated settlement in Iraq and the ensuing loss of that important front in the war against the United States, and al Qaeda's sense of urgency becomes easier to understand. By asserting more influence and attempting to claim ownership of jihadist operations in Iraq, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri seek to ensure that anti-American operations continue in what has become the main theater of the war — and a highly effective rallying cry for the jihadist cause. Quite pointedly, al-Zawahiri, in his June 23 address, repeatedly criticizes Muslims for abandoning their faith and bowing to the Crusaders who seek to "pervert" Islam. He makes clear references to those Muslims who have chosen to participate in the political process in Iraq — the very Muslims who may have decided that al-Zarqawi had outlived his usefulness. The goal, from all appearances, was to turn Iraqis against the local Sunni leaders — or at least to generate enough psychological pressure that they would reconsider their participation in the political process. It is not clear, however, that from a distance either he or bin Laden can do more than exert psychological pressure.

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