Barack Obama did not have to wait long before receiving a major warning from Al Qaeda. Last month an audio recording appeared on militant Web sites in which Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group's main ideologue, warned the president-elect against pursuing military actions in Muslim countries. While the tape was supposedly about Obama, it was actually much more revealing about the current state of Al Qaeda. It showed how quickly the group has adjusted to Obama's foreign-policy goals—pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, reaching a deal with Iran and refocusing America's war on terror on destroying the jihadists' sanctuaries on the Afghan-Pakistani border. Above all, it revealed how defensive the group has become.
The shift in the U.S. military policy promised by Obama has already begun to be implemented by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who will keep his job in the new administration. Strikes by Predator drones in the Afghan border region are becoming more efficient by the day, decimating the jihadists, who are already weakened by internecine conflicts.
Defusing that lethal danger has become a question of life or death for Zawahiri and his friends (Osama bin Laden has vanished from public view). This desperation is probably what led the Qaeda ideologist to lash out at Obama in the audiotape. Al Qaeda certainly has plenty to be nervous about these days. Obama, of course, is to be the first black president of the United States, not to mention the first with a Muslim father and a middle name of Hussein. As such, he stands a good chance of restoring U.S. popularity internationally, especially in developing countries, where U.S. standing reached an all-time low under George W. Bush. Zawahiri has tried to ward off these dangers by launching a campaign of snigger and slander. On the tape, he quoted from Malcolm X's autobiography to label Obama a "house Negro"—that is, an Uncle Tom, whom Malcolm X contrasted to the "field Negro," the embodiment of colonial exploitation and the bearer of revolution.
Playing the race card may well backfire on Zawahiri. In Arabic, the Qaeda leader disparaged Obama as abid, a very derogatory term meaning "slave." The use of this term by a white Egyptian aristocrat may play well in the Arab world, but it won't in Muslim countries south of Egypt, which are all too familiar with Arab racism. It certainly won't boost Al Qaeda's credentials among African Muslims. Indeed, the term was a bad blunder—and another sign of Zawahiri's increasing defensiveness.
The recent Mumbai bloodbath was probably another such sign. The attacks seem to have been carried out by Lashkar-eTaiba (LeT), a Pakistani Qaeda affiliate with backers in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. As military pressure has mounted on the Taliban and their associates, the jihadists have become desperate to open a second front to alleviate the danger. The Mumbai attacks may have been just such an attempt. The events certainly bore LeT's trademarks. The group, which was originally formed to carry out attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir, is known to abhor suicide bombing as practiced by Hamas, Al Qaeda and others. LeT fighters prefer to attain martyrdom and paradise by killing as many "infidels" (e.g., Indians) as possible in attacks, before being shot down and martyred that way. This was exactly the modus operandi of the Mumbai butchers.
Whatever connections between Al Qaeda and the Mumbai attackers are found to exist, both groups share an ideology (indeed, LeT joined bin Laden's International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders in 1998). By attempting to move the epicenter of jihad eastward after its failure to establish an Islamic state in Iraq, and by trying to bring India into the battle, the extremists are challenging Obama's goal of stamping out terror along the Afghan border and in Pakistan's tribal zones. Both Zawahiri's statement and the attacks should serve as a warning for Obama: that the jihadists will give him no respite, and will seek to establish a new terrorist front. But the power of Al Qaeda and LeT will be seriously diminished if the United States continues to pursue them militarily in the tribal zones and to pressure Pakistan's intelligence services to crack down on them. The terrorists have now shown—twice—that they are desperate. The coming months may represent the final lap in the race against them. So the stakes could not be higher as Obama begins his presidency.