The South Asia Channel

What the new Zawahiri tape means

What the new Zawahiri tape means

On September 15, al Qaeda’s as-Sahab Media released a speech by Ayman al-Zawahiri to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the "start of the crusader campaign." Although the ninth anniversary of 9/11 clearly influenced as-Sahab’s timing, al-Zawahiri’s speech never mentioned the attacks on New York and Washington. For the moment at least, al Qaeda aims not to remind viewers of the destruction it caused nine years ago, but to remind potential supporters of the grievances it hopes will motivate them today.

If as-Sahab does not release material explicitly referencing 9/11, it would be an important departure for al Qaeda’s media operations, which have in the past sought to remind viewers of the 9/11 attacks with dedicated propaganda around the anniversary. Previous examples include the release of 9/11 hijacker "wills," and statements from Osama bin Laden and American al Qaeda member Adam Gadahn. Last year as-Sahab released a statement from bin Laden addressed to the "American People" that specifically referenced the 9/11 attacks.

Instead of a victory lap or appeal to the West, al-Zawahiri’s statement seems intended to frame al Qaeda’s fight over the past nine years for supporters and would-be supporters not as a series of bold strikes but as a response to various "crusader" offenses during that period: invasion, religious and cultural insults, and, primarily, support for local regimes that al Qaeda considers unacceptable. The content of al-Zawahiri’s speech is rote by al Qaeda standards and is notable primarily because the timing of its release suggests that other themes might have been chosen.

Al-Zawahiri singles out Pakistan in particular for criticism, which is not surprising considering al Qaeda’s rhetorical focus on the south Asian state since the 2007 Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) incident that catalyzed anger among anti-Pakistani militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Pointing to a variety of standard failures by the Pakistani government, al-Zawahiri also mentions its poor response to the floods ravaging the country and accuses the Pakistani "ruling class" of preventing jihadis from waging war in Kashmir.

There is little doubt that 9/11 is still al Qaeda’s most important calling card, but videos such as al-Zawahiri’s suggest that, nine years on, al Qaeda believes its supporters expect more from the group than the memory of that Tuesday morning.

Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.