It's been hard to keep track of Ayman al-Zawahiri's many audios and videos of late. He's just released the second part of his response to questions submitted over the internet, and speeches on March 23 (focused on Gaza) and April 17 (focused on Iraq). (Oh, and I forgot his mammoth 200-odd page response to Dr Fadl, which continues to sit ominously on the side of my desk demanding to be read. Ugh.) Bin Laden also released a Palestine- centered tape on March 20. This blizzard of activity it is one indication of al-Qaeda Central's determination to maintain a high media profile and assert its relevance in a rapidly shifting political landscape. All of these tapes may well have diminishing returns: Zawahiri repeatedly answers questions with an exasperated reference to other speeches by himself, bin Laden, or Abu Omar al-Baghdadi - suggesting perhaps that even his base can't keep up with everything.
Since I've been looking these over for a different project, I thought I would write up a few thoughts about this batch of tapes and what they suggest about AQ's approach right now. One of the most important but least discussed things about these tapes (especially the April 17 one) is Zawahiri's sharply drawn and explict links between Iraq, Palestine, and the domestic crises across the Arab world (including the repression of moderate Islamist movements trying to contest elections, the bread crisis, and the struggles of Hamas in Gaza). Another is what seems to be a concerted effort to restore the centrality of al-Qaeda Central to the jihadist universe, while expanding its theaters of active conflict (hence the heavy focus on AQ in the Maghreb). This aggressive media strategy should be read against the many indications that al-Qaeda is embattled these days and losing its relevance.
The Combatting Terrorism Center has just released an evaluation of part one which includes the original Arabic and English translations of almost 1900 submitted questions. The most striking thing about part one was the amount of time devoted to refuting questions and challenges about the killing of Muslim civilians in North African and beyond. The CTC report points out that in the first part he spent a great deal of time on
his beefs with Yusuf al-Qaradawi and with Dr Fadl even though fewer than 1% of the
questions posed mentioned him, avoided serious discussion of Iran, and devoted little time to questions
about Iraq or about al-Qaeda's internal decision making despite a lot
of questions about those topics. Part two includes a lot of really, really long questions and generally fairly brief responses from Zawahiri - I don't know why, but it catches the eye. Where Part One dealt a lot with Hamas - as did the March 23 tape and bin Laden's tape - Part Two says virtually nothing about the Palestinian arena. Part Two overwhelmingly focuses on three issues: Iraq and Iran; North Africa; and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I'll leave the Maghrebi part aside and focus on his arguments about the two issues I follow closely - Iraq and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Iraq and Iran
The first five questions in Part Two all deal with Iraq, but don't really seem to break any new ground. He defends the Islamic State of Iraq project (as he has before), and warns of the dangers of the "Afghanistan scenario" in which a successful jihad collapses into the fitna of fighting among warlords and tribes (a common theme in the forum debates over the last year). He calls for dialogue and unity in one entity among the Sunnis of Iraq (which he calls a majority, including the Kurds and Turkomen), and urges reconciliation on terms favorable to the ISI. He also defends Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who he says is "unknown" only because of security concerns. In both releases, he urges Muslims to support the jihad in Iraq with men and money and technical expertise. Overall he argues once again that things are going well for the jihad in Iraq and skates over more sensitive issues. He makes this case more forcefully in the April 17 tape where he argued that the US is trapped, in a widely quoted passage, because "if American forces leave they will have lost everything and if they stay they will die of exhaustion." That argument is little changed, despite all that has happened.
The most widely-remarked part of the various releases is their sharper than usual focus on "the Iranian-American conspiracy" in Iraq. He seems positively delighted by the spectacle of battles between what he considers different Iranian agents, and seems to take particular pleasure in needling Moqtada al-Sadr. Condi Rice's taunting of Moqtada al-Sadr directly followed Zawahiri's April 17 script, which spent a long paragraph taunting Sadr as a "source of international ridicule" because "Iranian intelligence has manipulated this naive fool, who claims to be resisting the occupier by handing his weapons one at a time, and demonstrating against him at others." Much of the discussion of this part in the Arab media, including al-Jazeera's prime time program devoted to the tape, has revolved around the question of whether Zawahiri's anti-Iranian rhetoric was meant either to rebut the rumors of Iranian support for al-Qaeda in Iraq (spread in part by the Awakenings people who have figured out its propaganda value and by Saudi media such as al-Arabiya) or to use the Iranian threat to reunite the Sunni community against a common enemy (keeping in mind the consistent and even rising anti-Iranian rhetoric of the Awakenings, and their frequently stated assessment of the Maliki government as part of an "Iranian occupation of Iraq").
Bottom line: Zawahiri appears to be treading water on Iraq, frankly, while pitching his appeal to the global Islamic umma rather than to Iraq itself. His rhetoric suggests neither the urgency of imminent defeat nor the excitement of impending victory. He regrets the divisions in the Sunni community, but expects (or at least hopes) that they can be overcome and urges his audiences to keep the faith for a long jihad which will ultimately prevail. He doesn't expect the US to withdraw any time soon, but is happy to provide whatever statements are necessary to convince the Americans to stay. The overall tone is one of... dare I say it... strategic patience.
Just as Part One devoted a surprising amount of space to Qaradawi and the Muslim Brotherhood, Part Two devotes a great deal of time and criticism to the Muslim Brotherhood. His single longest answer to any question (5 full pages of my 16 page printout) is a detailed critique of the Muslim Brotherhood's draft party platform. In that lengthy answer, he argues that the platform is not truly based on sharia and is fundamentally nconsistent with the principle of hakimiya (God's sovereignty) because of its efforts to work within the Egyptian constitution. He works through the party platform point by point to demonstrate that their "reform" program subordinates the sharia to the constitution, proving their abandonment of true Islam.
Zawahiri attacks the MB for including the word democracy "19 times" in the program, presenting the standard salafi-jihadist critique of
democracy as opposed to the sharia because it puts the will of the
majority over the will of God. It's important to recall that this anti-democracy position puts him - and al-Qaeda
as a whole - very much in a minority position in the Muslim world.
Acceptance of democratic principles is deeply rooted in the Muslim
Brotherhood, and democracy is widely popular throughout the Muslim
world according to every public opinion survey. Like the practice of takfir and the doctrine of jahiliyya, the rejection of democracy is one of the many areas where al-Qaeda's doctrine is out of step with its efforts to reach out to a mass Muslim audience
But if the argument against democracy in principle has limited resonance, the argument against participating in a democratic process openly manipulated by authoritarian governments has more appeal. That's probably why in his April 17 tape, rather than rehearse the doctrinal issues presented in the Part Two or in his books, he instead details the Egyptian government's repression of the Muslim Brotherhood and crude intervention in the municipal elections, the
struggles of Gaza under Hamas, and the mistreatment of Islamist parties
in Morocco and Jordan in Parliamentary elections. Whatever one thinks of democracy in principle, he suggests, the practice in today's Arab world makes a mockery of those advocating participation.
Bottom line: This should be troubling. It looks like al-Qaeda is trying to capitalize on the anti-democratic retrenchment by governments in the region, using it to fuel discontent with Arab regimes and with the moderate Islamist parties alike (while of course blaming it all on the US and Israel). The April 17 tape goes further by attempting to harness the Egyptian bread crisis and the economic struggles across the region to the jihadist program. This argument is sharply framed, and well-crafted to attract frustrated young Muslims whose attempts at peaceful political participation have just been crushed. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership won't be swayed, but will they be able to hold on to mobilized, frustrated people who have seen their political strategy fail?
UPDATE: Today, several Arab papers weigh in on the latest from Zawahiri. Al-Sharq al-Awsat offers these: he denies having ever met Imad Mughniya ("this is a strange question, I don't know what is behind it") and blasted Hezbollah's TV station al-Manar. Al-Quds al-Arabi leads with the criticism of al-Manar and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as his attacks on Iran and Hamas and his highlighting of Lebanon. Al-Hayat also notes the concentration on Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, but adds Lebanon to the top of his priority list - see this lengthy commentary by Abdullah al-Iskandir and the leader from al-Quds al-Arabi about the significance of his comments on the jihad in Lebanon (the significance of which I'll leave to those who follow Lebanese affairs more closely than I do). One takeaway from the way the Arab media is covering this al-Qaeda offering: Zawahiri may say that Iraq is a central front in the war against "the Crusaders", and urge the "jihadist generation" to support the effort there, but his strategic vision extends far beyond Iraq and seems increasingly focused on other theaters such as North Africa and Lebanon.