Al Qaeda’s Dec. 28 claim of responsibility for the killing of Benazir Bhutto was not conveyed through the group’s former medium, Al Jazeera. The shift probably resulted from negotiations between the United States, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Al Qaeda’s Dec. 28 claim of responsibility for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto was not transmitted through the organization’s usual messenger, Al Jazeera. This change probably resulted from a deal between the United States, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Rather than using Al Jazeera, al Qaeda spokesman Al Qaeda Mustafa Abu al-Yazid — likely working through elements connected to Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus— transmitted a message via phone to Italian news agency Adnkronos International (AKI) and Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online. Asia Times Online previously has published several articles quoting both Pakistani intelligence and jihadist sources. The other announcement concerning al Qaeda’s involvement in the attack also originated in the Pakistani security establishment. The Pakistani Interior Ministry said the government intercepted a conversation in Pashto between Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan’s most prominent Taliban leader, and an al Qaeda commander identified as Maulvi Sahib in which both men congratulate each other for the “spectacular job.” With blame already being cast on the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for the assassination, the government evidently is taking great care in trying to clear itself of any involvement in the attack. Both AKI and Asia Times published a message by al-Yazid saying that “We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat [the] mujahadeen.” Both news agencies also reported that al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri made the decision to kill Bhutto in October. A new recording from Osama bin Laden produced by al Qaeda’s As-Sahab media arm further illustrates al Qaeda’s apparent break with Al Jazeera. The full 56-minute recording entitled “The Path to Foiling Plots in Iraq” soon will be posted on an Islamist Web site, though whether in audio or video format remains unclear. The Web site announcement included a statement reading “May God expose the cover-up by Al Jazeera, the channel of the infidels.” The fresh criticism against Al Jazeera stems from a shift in the Qatar-based channel’s coverage of al Qaeda activity. In late October, al Qaeda sympathizers posted a flurry of denunciations of Al Jazeera on a popular Islamist Web forum. The bulk of the messages focused on how Al Jazeera purportedly has misrepresented al Qaeda in Iraq by emphasizing excerpts in which bin Laden criticizes insurgents in Iraq and urges them to admit mistakes and unify — and by illustrating the divisions al Qaeda in Iraq is experiencing as its support base among the Sunni population erodes. The shift in Al Jazeera’s al Qaeda coverage probably resulted from negotiations between Doha, Qatar; Riyadh, and Washington. The Qatari government has come under pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia to rein in Al Jazeera and aid in Washington’s and Riyadh’s efforts to undermine support for al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Jazeera’s modification follows a recent rapprochement between Qatar and Saudi Arabia that emerged in a December deal between the two governments with several breakthroughs that included the return of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Qatar. (Saudi Arabia has not had an ambassador in Qatar since 2003, when the Saudi ambassador was withdrawn over an Al Jazeera broadcast critical of the Saudi royal family.) The deal also included Saudi King Abdullah’s attendance at the Gulf Cooperation Council in Doha in December. (King Abdullah has boycotted the meeting since it was last hosted in Doha, in 2002.) Finally, the deal provided that Qatar would ensure future Al Jazeera broadcasts no longer would “undermine” or campaign against Saudi Arabia; in exchange, Saudi Arabia would permit the network to establish a bureau in Riyadh. Even before the thaw in Saudi-Qatari relations, al Qaeda had been wary of using Al Jazeera as its primary messenger. Al Qaeda faces operational security risks in delivering video messages to news agencies. Al-Zawahiri has curtailed his video appearances significantly since the October 2006 missile attack in Chingai, Pakistan. The organization increasingly has become reliant on uploading audio and video files to Web sites, making the statements harder to trace. With its ties cut to Al Jazeera, al Qaeda's trust in its contact with news agencies like AKI and Asia Times Online now will be put to the test.