Ayman al-Zawahiri has been unusually quiet this year. The Egyptian doctor who is the deputy leader of al Qaeda, Zawahiri has for the last several years been a propaganda juggernaut, producing dozens of video- and audio-tape messages and several books, always in the service of the global Islamic jihad. He even did the functional equivalent of a call-in show for terrorism in 2008, inviting inquiring fanatics to email their questions to jihadist websites, which he would answer in an hours-long audio message. But not this year. Since last December, he has been missing in action. He has appeared briefly only in a couple of al Qaeda messages with recycled old recordings.
Now, Zawahiri is back. On Wednesday, Al Jazeera broadcast an excerpt from a new audio message in which he eulogizes two al Qaeda leaders killed in Iraq in April. Just as the U.S. is juggling its counterterror team after a series of near-misses with disaster from Detroit to Times Square—by switching out Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair—al Qaeda is putting its A Team back on the field.
We can assume Zawahiri’s recent absence from the airwaves was related to his concerns that his security was jeopardized in the elaborate set up to stage the Khost attack, not to a case of laryngitis.
In his audio message, Zawahiri lauds the men, Abu Omar al Qurayshi al Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al Masri, for reviving the jihad in Iraq after the death of Abu Musaib al Zarqawi, al Qaeda’s first leader in Iraq, who was killed in 2006. Zawahiri accuses the Crusader-Safavid alliance of killing the two jihadists, a reference to al Qaeda’s conspiratorial argument that America secretly colludes with Iran (once the Safavid empire) against the Iraqi Sunni Arabs. Zawahiri promises the al Qaeda movement in Iraq will strike back.
• Philip Shenon: Feds Issue Warning to Pakistan Leaders Other top al Qaeda operatives have also mourned the Iraqi leaders’ deaths. Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch even dedicated to al Baghdadi an attempt to assassinate the British ambassador in Sana earlier this month. In that message, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula reminded their followers that that the United Kingdom had given “the Jews control over the land of Palestine with the wicked Balfour promise” in 1917, which still makes it a legitimate target for jihad 93 years later. London will also get payback, they promise.
Zawahiri went silent after al Qaeda sent a suicide bomber into the CIA’s base in Khost, Afghanistan, on December 30, 2009. The bomber was a double agent, a Jordanian al Qaeda agent who had feigned recruitment by the Jordanian intelligence service to spy on al Qaeda in the badlands along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He persuaded his Jordanian case officer and the CIA that he had information on the location of Zawahiri. That was the bait that got him access to the CIA’s camp. It was the second worst day in the agency’s history with seven of its officers killed, as well as a Jordanian intelligence officer. We can assume Zawahiri’s recent absence from the airwaves was related to his concerns that his security was jeopardized in the elaborate set up to stage the Khost attack, not to a case of laryngitis.
While Zawahiri was indisposed, his partner Osama bin Laden has made at least four appearances this year; other al Qaeda officials helped keep up the propaganda stream. Nonetheless, Zawahiri’s absence was noted in jihadist circles. The pressure the CIA drones are putting on al Qaeda has its limits, but it is disrupting their operational activities, including their propaganda. Now that he is back we may get an earful from the Egyptian doctor as he catches up on the world since the new year.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At the president’s request he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. His book, The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future, came out in paperback in March with a new postscript.