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Ayman al-Zawahiri's Ambition for al-Qaeda

Author: Ed Husain, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
June 21, 2011
Guardian UK

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A week before becoming leader, on 8 May, Zawahiri spoke about his next steps for al-Qaida. America's fiercest enemy laid out its new battlegrounds, exposed its major weaknesses, targeted new global audiences and made public new aspirations. All the while, America looked inward and focused on the tidbits of lewd photos of an American lawmaker. Only a month ago, the US was in jubilation about Bin Laden's killing. America's short attention span – in contrast to al-Qaida's long-range view – was a theme to which Ayman al-Zawahiri repeatedly alluded in al-Qaida's latest 30-minute broadcast to the world.

Released last Wednesday evening, in the middle of a busy media week with the German Chancellor in Washington DC and the trivia of Representative Anthony Weiner, most of America ignored Ayman al-Zawahiri's excellently timed video. He was not operating on US time; he was on Arab time. It was a carefully orchestrated release to ensure that al-Qaida's communication was ready for the beginning of the Arab weekend: Thursday and Friday. By Thursday, tens of thousands of young Arabs across the Middle East had viewed the video. By Friday, many more were talking about it on jihadist web forums. More importantly, al-Qaida was alive and relevant to the unfolding developments of the Arab Spring, or civil wars, in Yemen, Syria and Libya on Friday.

A frail, ill-looking Zawahiri stabbed the air repeatedly as he delivered his barbaric message to new audiences that are now operationally accessible for al-Qaida in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Pakistan and Somalia. Zawahiri mentioned those countries repeatedly for a reason: there was an al-Qaida presence in those places that could now be expanded to demand hardline interpretations of sharia as state law. His interest was not in Saudi Arabia, or Iraq – as was the case a decade ago. Moreover, leading clerics in several of those countries had openly mourned Osama bin Laden's "martyrdom"; they had held mass funeral-in-absentia prayers in Cairo, Karachi, Somalia and elsewhere. Zawahiri senses a new radical sympathy for al-Qaida. His best evidence for this development was the fact that the US government did not release pictures of Bin Laden dead, for fear of offending these very supporters of al-Qaida. Can we fault his logic? Zawahiri knows he is onto something: he scents fear in his enemy.

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