January 31, 2006,
It looks like Ayman al Zawahiri is pretty mad at President George W. Bush. Who can blame him? You'd be upset too if the Eid ul-Adha feast you were planning to attend was suddenly visited by an unannounced Hellfire missile barrage, taking out some of your best terrorist buddies. It makes sense that you would want to vent a little after the shock wore off. And of course you would want to let your friends and supporters in the radical community know that you hadn't been reduced to a DNA sample.
Is this latest video really headline news? I guess any statement from one of the most-wanted criminals in the world will merit some level of attention. Yet the latest al Qaeda tapes simply don't have the spark of their earlier work. They are like a once-great pop group that can still command airtime even though their work is formula and forgettable, or the author whose first novel bursts onto the scene to rave reviews who then grows lazy and self-indulgent. You cannot sustain that special air of menace when you are basically phoning it in.
Back in the day, the terrorists issued communiqués worth paying attention to. Before 9/11 they threatened attacks that actually took place. In the months and years soon after what they call "Holy Tuesday" al Qaeda leaders explored the reasons for their struggle in exhaustive detail, quoting verses from the Koran and traditional poems to legitimize their actions. They made sophisticated arguments worthy of serious analysis and intellectual debate. The messages were scoured for coded orders to sleeper cells. In short, they were taken seriously.
By contrast, the full content of the most recent Zawahiri message seems to be "Nyah nyah! You missed me!" And he's not the only one who is having trouble coming up with something substantive. Osama bin Laden's last tape reads like something badly copied from an left-wing antiwar tract. Rather than seek validation in imaginative interpretations of Koranic passages he refers listeners to an inconsequential anti-Bush screed, a lazy man's footnote and not one revealing a very sophisticated or inquisitive mind. If they are going to crib they should at least put together a clip show of their own greatest hits. Remember Osama's vow back in 2003 to throw his steed and soul at the Americans, to die in the belly of the eagle? That's must-see terrorism.
Of course Zawahiri's tape has the usual threats. They all do. Even the Osama message saying he would accept a truce had a few. It might be more worrisome if they did not threaten anything, at least that would be a variation in the pattern. Zawahiri also predicts success, another staple in his rhetoric. Back in December 2005 Dr. Z released a lengthy harangue which he prefaced by saying "I am confident that victory is imminent." Good stuff to keep the followers motivated, but could you be more precise? Is that imminent in the colloquial sense or by some type of cosmic time scale?
One point that might be worth noting is that both the bin Laden and Zawahiri tapes mention the prevalence of suicide among Coalition troops. It stands out like a focus-group-tested talking point, something they think will be particularly effective. Lest anyone buy it, note that suicide rates among soldiers are down by 50 percent this year, and are well below the rates for civilians in the same age group. Why al Qaeda has fixated on this issue is anyone's guess, but it is a bit ironic given that suicide is one of their most revered weapons of choice.
Zawahiri has a hard time maintaining his cool in the video, and his strident tone detracts from his message. Again, understandable under the circumstances he is probably still trying to figure out who sold him out two weeks ago, and whether there are some surprises in store at the next feast. But his insults and bluster ring hollow. It is reasonable to be skeptical when a fellow who spends every day flitting from hut to cave in the trunk of an old Toyota calls the president a "loser." Zawahiri taunts that we cannot find him, but we are pretty clearly closing in. He states somewhat fatalistically that "if my hour does not come, neither you, nor all the world's forces, nor all human beings can bring forward my death." On the other hand, if the hour does come, it could come tomorrow, inshallah.
James S. Robbins is author of the forthcoming Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point and an NRO Contributor.