Media treatment of al-Zawahiri's message reveals al-Qaeda's declining influence

Al-Zawahiri’s message did not garner much media attention. (Reuters TV/Reuters)

Al-Zawahiri’s message did not garner much media attention. (Reuters TV/Reuters)

By Rajeh Said for Infosurhoy.com – 31/08/2011

LONDON – Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's new leader, issued a new message on August 14th in which he addressed the situation in a number of Arab countries and confirmed his organization’s adherence to the continued pursuit of "jihad", as he describes his group's operations.

Al-Zawahiri’s message however, did not garner much media interest, and was largely ignored. This rarely happened in the past when Osama bin Laden, the former al-Qaeda leader, issued the organization’s messages.

While the media's disinterest in al-Zawahiri’s message may be linked to its preoccupation with the bloody confrontations in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, it could also be attributed to a fact that even al-Qaeda's advocates now admit to: the organization's message has become marginalized and does not reflect the aspirations of the majority of Arabs who are staging revolts against their regimes.

Al-Qaeda has been trying for some time to attach itself to demonstrations during the “Arab Spring” and attempting to take advantage of the political instability that follows the fall of regimes, as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt, or bloody conflicts between protesters and security forces as occurred in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

This belated attempt at breaking into the revolutionary movement is attributable to the fact that the peaceful protest movements in Arab countries apparently surprised al-Qaeda as much as they did various Arab regimes. Neither al-Qaeda nor these regimes expected that powerful governments which held power for decades would fall after protestors voiced their demands in a peaceful manner in streets and public squares.

Al-Qaeda’s belated awakening to events in the Arab world came at a time of significant change in the organization’s hierarchy with the killing of its founder Osama bin Laden in a raid by American commandos in Pakistan on May 2nd and al-Zawahiri's succession as leader.

Al-Zawahiri had to find a solution to the dilemma that turned al-Qaeda into a marginal player in the Arab Spring demonstrations. He also needed to rebuild an organization that was fragmented in bin Laden's own admission. Prior to his death bin Laden reportedly said that he no longer knew the organization’s field commanders because they were being killed one after the other shortly after assuming their responsibilities.

Al-Zawahiri’s speech sounded conciliatory towards Islamist movements, including jihadists, an apparent attempt to mend bridges that were broken between the various groups.

Al-Zawahiri undoubtedly knows that he is a primary reason why al-Qaeda became alienated from other Islamist movements, both those that believe in armed action and others that believe in political pluralism and peaceful action. In his famous book, “The Bitter Harvest,” he included harsh criticisms of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s and 1990s. He also spearheaded the campaign that attacked Egyptian jihadist leaders of the Islamic Group who issued reviews in which they abandoned the use of violence against regimes in the Muslim world and criticized al-Qaeda's excesses in bombing campaigns.

Al-Zawahiri’s new and largely ignored message reflects a desperate effort to take advantage of political events in the Arab world after several previous attempts failed.

He attempted to step into the crisis in Libya by issuing a warning that the West is seeking to “occupy” that Islamic country. The Transitional National Assembly that represents the rebels, and which has received international recognition, responded indirectly by continuing to seek aid from international organizations such as NATO to protect the population from Moamer Kadhafi's regime.

Al-Zawahiri also expressed his support for the demonstrators in Syria against President Bashar Assad's regime which prompted the protestors to quickly distance themselves from his statements by declaring their adherence to peaceful protests and refusing to turn it into an armed conflict which could happen if al-Qaeda joins the effort.

In Egypt al-Zawahiri again tried to join in by calling for a system of government based upon Islamic Sharia law, but that sentiment does not appear to be the consensus among the various groups that were active during the revolution that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak.

In the Aug. 14 message al-Zawahiri attempted to remind jihadists that Islam did not die when the Prophet Mohammad died, and al-Qaeda will not end with bin Laden’s death. He spoke of the importance of “the battle of persuasion” to win the hearts and minds, emphasizing that a campaign of persuasion is equivalent to the battlefield in importance. He called on the jihad movement to lead that effort because “it knows the nature of the enemy” and knows how to respond to what he referred to as “distortions and lies” against it. He said jihadists should exploit new media freedoms to spread jihadist ideas, an opportunity which increased after the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt fell.

The al-Qaeda leader also spoke of individuals he referred to as the “unknown soldiers” who lead jihadist media campaigns, calling them the “knights of jihad.” He called on those working in jihad media forums to unify their efforts, a reference apparently directed at supervisors and participants in many online forums that describe themselves as jihadist and which publish communiqués issued by al-Qaeda’s branches.

Al-Zawahiri concluded his message by calling on al-Qaeda supporters to fight the United States and defeat it, an affirmation of his adherence to bin Laden’s message in his war against the United Sates and the West in general.

This is the same message that contributed to the disintegration of al-Qaeda as it became associated with indiscriminate killing that targets civilians whether they are in civilian aircraft, commercial towers, trains, buses, restaurants, bars, or just tourists visiting Islamic countries.

Al-Zawahiri undoubtedly knows that those actions not only cost al-Qaeda sympathy and support in the court of Western public opinion, but they also contributed to a loss of support among the Arab population. The organization even lost support among the jihadists, as many of them viewed al-Qaeda’s actions as an absurdity that do not yield any results, according to numerous reviews issued in recent years.

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