Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ayman al-Zawahiri - "The parting of Bush and the arrival of Obama"

Yesterday, a new audio recording purporting to be from Ayman al-Zawahiri was released, and subsequently circulated globally. Al-Zawahiri is the right-hand man to Osama bin Laden, and widely accepted to be the ideological top man in al-Qaeda.

The prevalent take on this in the western media so far is that the most significant part of the statement is that al-Zawahiri apparently called Barack Obama a "house Negro". Some of the blogs and comments on news articles regarding this redefine irony - there are US citizens seemingly furious that the second-in-command of al-Qaeda was racially denigrating president-elect Obama. It seems to me if you're going to be angry at al-Qaeda, you can find better reasons than the occasional racial slur!

The balanced and incisive Juan Cole has an interesting take here. Cole has several reflections, which I would summarise as follows:
  • The Iraqi people never substantially supported al-Qaeda style Sunni extremism, and the actual upshot of the US winding down is that both the US and al-Qaeda have lost in Iraq - and that Iran are the big winners.
  • Cole believes al-Zawahiri is terrified of Obama's popularity (particularly outside the US), and that al-Zawahiri fears that support in the Islamic world for anti-US terrorism will collapse with the different dynamic that the new president will bring.

From Cole's article:
Obama has the opportunity to be the most popular US president in the Middle East since Eisenhower. If he is wise, he will defeat al-Zawahiri not just by military means but by stealing away al-Zawahiri's own intended constituency. Obama is about building communities up; al-Zawahiri is about destroying them. If Obama can convince the Arab publics of this basic fact, he will win.

I'd agree that Obama needs to defeat al-Qaeda ideologically, rather than militarily - in fact, I'd argue it is the only possible way to win. There is no point in arresting or assassinating the key players in a terror organisation, if the inspiration they provide to potential terrorists worldwide remains intact. Plus, Obama has some very difficult choices to make with what military action to take, particularly in the unstable and nuclear-armed Pakistan, so it could be argued that leaving bin Laden and his friends intact, while severely toning down US foreign policy might be the best way to de-tooth al-Qaeda.

One way or another, I cannot see how the terror threat can be dealt with without the US getting Israel to get back in line, and that includes reasonably quickly reaching a fully independent Palestinian state, in a physically contiguous area. If Obama can deliver that, then not only would he have achieved the greatest step forward in peace and general human rights within my lifetime, but al-Qaeda would be ideologically sunk.

In any case, I went looking for the full text of the statement. Western news outlets tend to only carry very limited excerpts and quotes, and I'd rather read the full thing myself. I finally found a PDF version claiming to be the translation from the Arabic here.

So, in the style of a western news organisation, here are the quotes that I find interesting:

[addressing Barack Obama]
If you still want to be stubborn about America's failure in Afghanistan, then remember the fate of Bush and Pervez Musharraf, and the fate of the Soviets and British before them.

This is more than a little bit presumptive - Bush's "fate" was to see through his entire double-term, and the party swap that is in progress is probably more due to the current domestic economics of the US than anything else. As for Musharraf, he was ultimately unseated by a groundswell of public opinion within Pakistan due to his increasingly stubborn refusal to relinquish power.

The Soviets and British in Afghanistan is where al-Zawahiri starts to aim slightly more true. Both the Soviets and the British invaded Afghanistan, and both were ultimately sucked in to guerrilla warfare in the country that they could not hope to win. In fact, the US was largely responsible for the Russian invasion of Afghanistan - Zbigniew Brzezinski (the National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter at the time) specifically wanted to goad the Russians into a long and unwinnable battle in Afghanistan, in order to give the USSR "their Vietnam". As has been pointed out in the past, a guerrilla war is never over until the guerrillas win.

Again to Obama:
You are neither facing individuals nor organisations, but are facing a Jihadi awakening and renaissance

This is an extensively debated point. Is the bin Laden threat still primarily from a centralised, command-and-control organisation (with trained and instructed fighters worldwide), or is al-Qaeda now an ideology which has penetrated worldwide, and which radicalised Muslim youth can use as their inspiration in perpetrating terror attacks as they see fit, without the knowledge of or instruction from the original al-Qaeda structures?

This goes to the heart of the threat facing western civilians. If the answer is the command-and-control structure, then one might imagine occasional, large, devastating set-piece terrorism might be the future, such as 9/11, Bali, the African embassy bombings, and so on. With this structure, effective counter-terrorism, intelligence and global cooperation might manage to put a lid on the current participants (not withstanding the fact that their place can always be taken by others.)

If however the threat from al-Qaeda is now largely ideologically "dispersed" rather than formally controlled, then the danger is much harder to contain, and terror attacks in western countries from previously unknown participants with no direct links or communication with al-Qaeda may occur. It's very, very hard to see how a threat of this sort can ever be contained adequately in a free society, unless you remove the desire of people to attack you in the first place.

Al-Zawahiri seems to be implying that the threat is more of a physically dispersed one, although whether this is current fact, or wishful thinking is a good question. It may well be the latter, as the next section (directed at Muslims worldwide) seems to be a call to arms:
America, the criminal, trespassing Crusader, continues to be the same as ever, so we must continue to harm it, in order for it to come to its senses.

Which brings us to the final passage, part of the end address which is (according to the statement) intended for the citizens of the US:
You incurred defeat and losses from the foolish actions of Bush and his gang, and at the same time, Shaykh Usama bin Laden (may Allah preserve him) sent you a message to withdraw from the lands of the Muslims and refrain from stealing their treasures and interfering in their affairs. So choose for yourself whatever you like, and bear the consequences of your choice, and as you judge, you will be judged.

This seems more aimed at the worldwide Muslim community to me than it does at the US. As Michael Scheuer (who was the creator and chief analyst in the CIA's "bin Laden" unit) pointed out in this fascinating interview in 1996, Bin Laden and al-Qaeda got quite a hard time in Islamic circles after 9/11, for several reasons.

Scheuer, with my italics:
Bin Laden was called on the carpet by his peers in the Islamic militant movement for three things. One was that he didn't give us enough warning. He's now addressed the American people on five separate occasions since 2002. So he's taken care of that one. He was also called on the carpet for not offering us a chance to convert to Islam. He's now done that three separate times, and Zawahiri has done it once. So they've covered that angle. The other thing they were taken to task for was that they didn't have the religious authority to kill as many Americans as they did. In the summer of 2003, he got a religious judgment from a very reputable Saudi cleric that he could use weapons of mass destruction, specifically nuclear weapons, to kill up to 10 million Americans.

So the end of this latest statement from al-Zawahiri could be seen in light of providing further warning to the US and others engaged in military action in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

And I can't help but wonder every time I catch one of these "clearing the decks" type statements that contains a warning, or an offer of a truce - what are they clearing the decks for?

No comments: