What Zawahiri's Taped Taunts Portend

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's deputy leader, proved one thing this week: He's still very much alive and up for pursuing his holy war, despite the U.S. missile strike in Pakistan on January 13 that had reportedly targeted him.

Wearing his trademark white robes and turban, the Egyptian surfaced via a videotape excerpted by al-Jazeera, offering condolences for the 18 people killed in the attack and mocking President Bush for losing the war against al-Qaeda. Zawahiri said his statement was a "response to this raid," and rebuked Bush as "the butcher of Washington" and a "failed Crusader."

Is Zawahiri's latest diatribe also a coded warning of an impending Qaeda attack? He made no explicit threat, and refrained from even mentioning the notion of avenging the U.S. strike. Yet, intelligence officials are debating whether the tape is intended as a justification of a coming attack. Though couching al-Qaeda's war in defensive rather than offensive terms, Zawahiri noted that he was "participating" in jihad "until we defeat you."

The new Zawahiri tape, combined with the broadcast on Jan. 19 of the first audio diatribe from Osama Bin Laden in more than a year, amounts to a barrage of fresh rhetoric from the top leaders of al-Qaeda—in itself, perhaps a clue that something is afoot. Bin Laden's message offered the U.S. a truce similar to the one he proposed to European nations in October 2004, implying that al-Qaeda would cease attacks if Bush withdrew American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Nine months after the offer to Europe, London's subway and bus network was attacked by Islamist extremists. Bin Laden actually warns in his tape that "operations [inside the U.S.] are under preparation."

Experts continue to debate the extent to which bin Laden and Zawahiri—both believed to be in a mountainous region in northern Pakistan along the Afghan border—maintain operational control over al-Qaeda cells around the world. But their messages demonstrate that nearly five years after the September 11 attacks, despite being on the run with $25 million U.S. bounties on their heads, they are up to date on current events and remain able to communicate their views to a global audience with apparent efficiency and ease.

"Bush, do you know where I am?" Zawahiri taunts in his broadcast, in which he appears thin but relaxed, sitting without his customary Kalashnikov rifle in front of a curtain of black. He responds to his own question, saying, "I am among the Muslim masses." He could be speaking figuratively, meaning that while circumstances require him to lay low, he enjoys popular support. But he could well be speaking literally, in effect bragging that despite the relentless manhunt, he is able to move around in Muslim circles, "enjoying God's blessing."

Some U.S. counter-terrorism officials reportedly believed they had Zawahiri in their sights two weeks ago as he supposedly attended a dinner in a village in Pakistan's tribal region of Bajaur north of Peshawar. Zawahiri's tape provides no useful clues as to whether he had actually been in the vicinity that day or not. But the attack showed how badly the U.S. wants to bring down the taunting terrorist.