Bin Laden suggests that President Bush should allow Zarqawi’s body to be returned to his family in Jordan, but this is a matter that is up to the Jordanian government, which so far has not shown much interest in facilitating a homecoming. Bin Laden mocks King Abdullah II, calling him a Coalition minion, and asking “what scares you about Abu Musab after he’s dead? You know that his funeral, if allowed to happen, would be a huge funeral showing the extent of sympathy with the mujahedin.” A large crowd would definitely turn out, though most people would be on hand to demonstrate their anger and disgust. Last November’s hotel bombings in Amman, masterminded by Zarqawi, are still fresh in people’s memory, and mentioning them to Jordanians has the same visceral impact as memory of the 9/11 attacks does here. Jordan has adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards those who choose to mourn the country’s least favorite son, and four opposition members of parliament who paid condolences to Zarqawi’s family have been arrested for fomenting sectarian strife. Don’t count on that funeral any time soon, but they have already held a wedding.
From what I know of the bin Laden tape there is not much of importance in it, other than the fact that it exists. After not releasing any new material in 2005, this year Osama has been something of a chatterbox. In January he warned that attacks were coming in the US, but offered a truce if we would leave the Middle East. In April, he made more threats of coming attacks, and by the way the truce is off you ingrates. In May, he informed us that Zacarias Moussaoui was not involved with the September 11 attacks — information that would have been more valuable to Moussaoui’s defense had it come to light before he was convicted. (Couldn’t bin Laden have been called as a surprise witness for the defense? Talk about a surprise!)
It is interesting that bin Laden has chosen to release only audio and not video tapes; and to use websites as his medium of transmission rather than established media outlets. The latter can be explained as a response to the editorial discretion that al Jazeera and others have exercised when he has granted them exclusives. Bin Laden must have been surprised when they chose not to run his usual 45-minute or longer messages uncut and unedited. Don’t they know news? Hey, it’s me, Osama! So rather than let the AJ editors try to figure out what parts of his messages are the most significant he has chosen to release statements over the web to guarantee they get out in toto.
But contrast bin Laden’s recent statements with the outpouring from his number-two man Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has not only managed to release eight statements this year alone, on video, but has demonstrated that he can respond to events much more quickly than his boss. For example, Zawahiri’s video encomium to Zarqawi appeared a week ago; he had it in al Jazeera’s hands before June 23. And the day before, he had released another video condemning the Afghan regime. He’s clearly more comfortable with the medium, and, frankly, he comes off better. OBL’s rare video performances have been uniformly stiff and uninspired, as though just being him is enough, the viewer will be enthralled simply seeing him. Maybe that would work back in 2001, but these days he just doesn’t have that kind of star power. Why Zawahiri is willing to release videos while Osama is not is a mystery — could be bin Laden has changed his appearance — maybe he is just more cautious. Or maybe he is afraid of cameras.
Some interesting information on al Qaeda’s media strategy came to light recently with the publication of an interview with Qari Mohammed Yusuf, one of a reported half-dozen cameramen used by Zawahiri to get the word out. Apparently they are all on call, and when the need arises the terrorists summon the closest available. It is an interesting story, if true. But the implication is that none of Zawahiri’s coterie are able to operate a handycam so they have to bring in the experts. Plus who does post-production for Al-Sahab Media Productions is anyone’s guess. And anyway Yusuf may have just been lying about the whole thing, because if he were for real why would he give the interview anyway? Why expose all that important information? Doesn’t he know that the next time he gets the call to do a taping he’ll be what winds up on the cutting-room floor?
It is ironic that in the years before 9/11 when bin Laden was releasing lengthy, substantive statements on important matters of al Qaeda objectives and strategy few people were paying attention; and now when he has the world’s ear all bin Laden can muster are empty threats, puerile mockery, and hollow clichés honoring fallen members of his ever-shrinking group of followers. None of the promised domestic attacks of the last five years have materialized. And since Zarqawi’s demise attacks on Coalition forces in Iraq have fallen by 15-20 percent. Osama is going to have to work a lot harder than this to prove he is still relevant.
– James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.