By Brigitte L. Nacos
Last summer President George W. Bush spoke at an Air Force Base in Charleston, S. C. It was another of his “al-Qaeda speeches” in which he emphasized the grave terrorist threat from al-Qaeda, its affiliates in Iraq and elsewhere to justify the continued Global War on Terror—especially in Iraq. By my count, in that particular 3505-word and less than 30-minute speech the President mentioned al-Qaeda 91 times, Osama bin Laden 23 times, and Ayman al-Zawahiri and other al-Qaeda and alleged al-Qaeda leaders 18 times. Since then, bin Laden’s core terrorism organization that is hiding out and operating from the mountains of Pakistan regained strength according to the National Intelligence Estimate. But whereas President Bush, his administration and the news media hyped every bin Laden message, when al-Qaeda Central was weakest and trying to recover from its post-9/11 fate, Washington’s decision-makers and the media have all but ignored bin Laden’s latest communications—in spite of his organization’s reported revival. Thus, when the second bin Laden audio tape in two days was released last weekend, it was not commented on by high administration officials and not included in the media’s “breaking news” items.
At first sight, one would applaud this waning attention to the publicity-hungry al-Qaeda leadership. After all, terrorist strikes and the threat thereof are most of all means to intimidate foes and impress friends and potential supporters. Moreover, leaders of terrorist organizations strive for legitimacy on the domestic or the world stage—or both. When the heads of government react publicly and swiftly to such communications, they treat the bin Ladens and al-Zawahiris of the world like legitimate leaders and unwittingly enhance their status among those in whose name they claim to act.
Yet, I wonder about this sea change from public over-attention to
al-Qaeda messages to mostly ignoring such communications in public discourse.
The following lines are from an on-line ABC News report by Brian Ross and Rehab El-Buri (headline: “New Bin Laden Tape: Who Cares? Al Qaeda Leader Losing Relevance”) about one of bin Laden’s latest audio tape releases:
“Isolated and in hiding, Osama bin Laden's taped messages no longer have the power to send shivers through the Western world. The release overnight of his third audiotape message of 2008, timed to the 60th anniversary celebration of the founding of Israel, provided proof the al Qaeda leader is alive but also showed his desperate attempt to remain relevant.
‘He's definitely found himself on the back burner,’ said former FBI agent Brad Garrett, an ABC News consultant. ‘It's a case of measured irrelevance. We used to do back flips when one of his tapes would arrive but no longer,’ Garrett said.”
The man who masterminded 9/11and thus the trigger event for the war on terror is no longer relevant?
Since the mainstream media tend to take their cue in foreign and security policy reporting from authoritative Washington sources—or their surrogates--and since both decision-makers in government and media stopped their over-attention to al-Qaeda leaders at roughly the same time, this development seems hardly coincidental.
Perhaps, the stunning argument of a no longer relevant bin
Laden is simply an effort at distracting those Americans who continue to wonder
why bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and the rest of the al-Qaeda Central crew have not
been captured more than 7 years after 9/11.
Or perhaps more important, “going silent” on bin Laden and al-Zawahiri keeps the obvious conflict between al-Qaeda and Iran out of the mass-mediated debate at a time, when President Bush and others inside and outside the administration continue to emphasize Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism. While Tehran supports Hezbollah, Hamas, and probably other terrorist organizations, there is no credible evidence for such connections between Iran and al-Qaeda in spite of contrary charges by the Bush administration.
Recently, al-Zawahiri attacked Tehran and Hezbollah for spreading the rumor that not al-Qaeda but Israel carried out the 9/11 attacks. This is what the Associated Press reported on this:
“Osama bin Laden's chief deputy in an audiotape Tuesday
accused Shiite Iran of trying to discredit the Sunni al-Qaida terror network by
spreading the conspiracy theory that Israel was behind the Sept. 11
attacks. The comments reflected al-Qaida's No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri's
increasing criticism of
Iran. Al-Zawahri has accused Iran in recent messages of seeking to extend its power in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and through its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.”
Al-Zawahiri charged furthermore that it was Iran’s intention “to cover up its involvement with Americain invading the homes of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
In short, there is no love lost between Sunni al-Qaeda and Shi’ite Iran.
But since bin Laden and al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda are now said to be irrelevant, it is likely that few in the general public know about the feud between Iran and al-Qaeda.
One can only hope that the "irrelevance" of bin Laden & Company is just meant for public consumption and does not signal a turn-around in the counterterrorism community's priority list.