Bin Laden's deputy leads al-Qaeda into battle for Muslim hearts and minds
Roula Khataf, FT Syndication Service
CAIRO: Al-Qaeda is usually portrayed as a collection of Islamist fanatics, bent on the destruction of democratic values and, as the US often says, the obliteration of the western "way of life". But four years after the September 11 terrorist attacks led to the devastation of the group's haven in Afghanistan, the remaining leadership appears to be adopting a more political strategy.
The political image of al-Qaeda has come across more strongly in recent months, as Ayman al-Zawahiri, second-in-command to Osama bin Laden, has raised his profile, leading a propaganda campaign to win support from the Muslim masses.
His latest move came more than two weeks ago when he made a televised appeal for aid for victims of the Pakistan earthquake. The videotape broadcast on the Qatar-based al-Jazeera television station was the softest intervention yet from the Egyptian doctor, who is thought to be hiding somewhere near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
But it was only the latest in a series of television addresses that have highlighted a more sophisticated political message.
"His Pakistan message promotes a different image of al-Qaeda to gain currency among Muslims," says Raymond Ibrahim, the Egyptian born expert who is translating Mr Zawahiri's writings from Arabic. "He also needs to win over the Pakistanis, because they are pivotal to his success and survival. They are the people around him, who help him and cover him."
Some Arab experts on Mr Zawahiri fear his media appearances could indicate that he is plotting a new terrorist act. Others, however, say that, as top al-Qaeda figures have been hunted down and the focus of its war has moved to Iraq, the 54-year-old Mr Zawahiri is assuming a more political tone to remain relevant.
Considered the brains behind al-Qaeda, Mr Zawahiri is now getting his opportunity effectively to lead the network. Once the leader of Islamic Jihad in Egypt, he joined Mr bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s and, together, they created the "World Islamic Front", which issued the infamous 1998 declaration of jihad against "Jews and Crusaders".
"To kill the American and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty incumbent upon every Muslim in all countries," said the declaration.
Experts say it was Mr Zawahiri's influence on Mr bin Laden that turned al-Qaeda into a global organisation, aiming at international targets. More recently, Mr bin Laden has been quiet, leaving his number two to conduct the network's propaganda. Mr bin Laden, experts speculate, is hiding in more difficult conditions and may even have changed his physical appearance.
Mr Zawahiri's media campaign appears to be a tactical shift that recognises two key developments. The first is that the old al-Qaeda created in Afghanistan has become more diffuse, with the traditional leadership possibly out of touch with changes on the ground. The second is that it is being upstaged by a new al-Qaeda, based in Iraq and led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
"Qaeda is like a college: it graduated people and each has an ideology and works on his own, according to his own circumstances," says Yassir al-Sirri, an Egyptian Islamist dissident. "Zarqawi doesn't need al-Qaeda anymore; he took what he needed from it."
The Pakistan earthquake broadcast followed a September videotape in which Mr Zawahiri commented on Afghanistan parliamentary elections, dismissing them as illegitimate. The message highlighted a new pattern in which Mr Zawahiri resorts to political arguments to counter US-driven democratic progress.
In the same tape, he criticised the US promotion of political reform in the Arab world, saying: "The Americans will never permit any Islamic regime to assume power in the middle of the Islamic world, unless such [a] regime is in full collaboration with them, as the case is in Iraq."
After the July bombings on London's transport system, Mr Zawahiri appeared in a videotape that included a recording of a statement by one of the suicide bombers. His objective was to claim an al-Qaeda role in the attacks and dispute British government claims that they were unrelated to foreign policy, or the Iraq war.
Perhaps inadvertently the US itself is helping to create an image of Mr Zawahiri as an astute political player. This month the office of the Director of National Intelligence released a letter purportedly sent in July by Mr Zawahiri to Mr Zarqawi in Iraq. Experts have cast doubt on the authenticity of the letter but few dispute its general message: that Mr Zawahiri is lamenting the impact on Muslim opinion of the mass killings of Shia and beheading of hostages.
"I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma [the Muslim nation]," the letter says. "However far our capabilities reach, they will never be equal to one thousandth of the capabilities of the kingdom of Satan ... And we can kill the captives by bullet. That would achieve that which is sought without exposing ourselves to the questions.. . "
Faisal Devji, the author of Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity, says: "Zawahiri was always the more theoretically inclined of al-Qaeda leaders and he thinks more in political terms, while bin Laden's statements leave people baffled. But he has also been using the same rhetoric used by the west: the idea of winning hearts and minds. It shows he tracks western language closely."