Messages from two al-Qaida leaders within three days highlight the increasingly symbolic role of Osama bin Laden and the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the dominant operational figure.
Bin Laden rehashed some familiar themes in a tape released on Sunday, accusing the West of waging a “crusade” against Muslim countries and urging militants to open a new front for holy war in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region.
Zarqawi, al Qaida's leader in Iraq, warned Sunni militants against abandoning the insurgency and promised further attacks as Prime Minister-designate Jawad al-Maliki sets out to form a government of national unity.
Reading between the lines
The striking difference was one of presentation.
Bin Laden issued his message in the form of an audiotape and has not now been seen on any new video since October 2004, fuelling speculation he is either sick or is hiding at a remote location with limited access to technology.
Zarqawi, for the first time, issued a lengthy on-camera statement in which the bearded Jordanian appeared without a mask or disguise — a bold move for a man with a $25 million reward on his head who narrowly escaped capture by U.S. forces in Iraq in February 2005.
“It signifies that he’s in a very good position from a security and tactical point of view,” said Mohamed al-Sayed Said, deputy director of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
“He’s not someone who is trembling or fearful. He feels victorious to the point of arrogance, he’s talking as if he had already won victory.”
Zarqawi was shown speaking with an assault rifle alongside him, and later firing long bursts from an automatic weapon --apparently deliberate echoes of earlier bin Laden videos.
Accompanying footage also showed him as a hands-on operational commander, receiving a battle report, poring over a map and discussing military strategy.
All that was in stark contrast with the current invisibility of bin Laden, assumed to be holed up somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghan border and reduced to delivering occasional and largely symbolic rallying calls.
Loyal to bin Laden
It was striking, though, that Zarqawi spoke deferentially of bin Laden as “our prince and commander” and presented the image of a loyal lieutenant, not a challenger.
“He’s still under the wing of bin Laden. His legitimacy still lies in supporting bin Laden ... This will help a lot in recruitment,” said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.
The United States fanned speculation of a rift between Zarqawi and the al-Qaida leadership last year when it released an intercepted letter in which bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, criticized some tactics of the Iraq insurgency.
He admonished Zarqawi over the beheading of hostages and attacks on Shia civilians, and raised the question whether the Jordanian should cede leadership of the Iraqi mujahideen, or resistance fighters, to a local.
Projecting a unified front
There are signs Zarqawi has indeed made concessions on these issues, for example by halting the beheadings, at least in public, and by placing his group in January under the umbrella of a Mujahideen Council led by an Iraqi, Rashid al-Baghdadi.
The latest video seemed designed to heighten the impression of harmony between Zarqawi and the al Qaida leadership, said a European intelligence source, adding that there was no doubt the tape was genuine.
Rita Katz, director of the Washington-based SITE institute which monitors militant groups on the Internet, said: “All the messages indicate that the relationship between Zarqawi and Osama is strong, definitely better than it was historically ... Today they are closer than ever before.”
She said the video had provoked excitement and celebrations in Islamist militant circles.
“The support within the jihadi network after this video is just unbelievable. They have been analyzing every piece of the video, from what Zarqawi is wearing to what kind of weapon he has in his hand.”