Al-Qaida’s No. 2 praised Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a videotape broadcast Friday but did not mention his death in a U.S. airstrike, suggesting the tape was made earlier.
Ayman al-Zawahri focused on political developments in the Palestinian territories, Sudan and Egypt in the tape broadcast by the Al-Jazeera network. The video is the sixth al-Zawahri has issued this year.
An Al-Jazeera anchorman said the tape was made before al-Zarqawi’s death was announced Thursday because al-Zawahri praised the al-Qaida in Iraq leader’s efforts to confront U.S.-led forces in Iraq.
“God bless the prophet of Islam in Iraq, the persistent hero of Islam, the holy warrior Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,” al-Zawahri said.
He also sent greetings to the Shura Council of Mujahedeen in Iraq and insurgents, “who are confronting crusaders and their apostate aides and the merchants of religion.”
Appears to be authentic
The network did not say how it obtained the recording. It broadcast about six minutes of the approximately 17 minute-long recording, an editor there told The Associated Press.
The authenticity of the tape could not immediately be confirmed independently.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: “I know the intelligence community has done an assessment of the tape and confirmed it is Zawahri’s voice.”
A U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity while events were unfolding, said government experts were doing a technical analysis of the video, but there was no reason to doubt its authenticity.
The official noted that al-Zawahri does not make any threats against the United States in the message, and its content is reminiscent of other propaganda statements al-Qaida has made in attempts to appear relevant. References in the video suggest it was made no earlier than the end of May.
The tape is part of a stepped-up level of messaging from al-Qaida’s leadership, “higher than at any point in the group’s history,” said Ben Venzke, head of IntelCenter, a private U.S. company that monitors militant message traffic and provides counterterrorism intelligence services for the American government.
Osama bin Laden has issued three audiotapes this year, breaking a silence that lasted more than a year.
The bearded al-Zawahri wore a white turban and tunic and sat before a black background with an automatic weapon propped behind his right shoulder. He repeatedly waved his right hand and pointed his finger in a gesture of admonishment.
No mention of Hamas
Al-Zawahri and bin Laden are believed to be holed up along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan in rugged, remote terrain, protected by loyal tribesmen.
The al-Qaida deputy leader criticized a proposed referendum in the Palestinian territories on establishing a state alongside Israel and recognizing the Jewish state.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said the Hamas-led government must recognize Israel or face a referendum on the idea. He has given the Islamic militant group until the weekend to respond.
“I call on Muslims to reject any referendum on Palestine, because Palestine is part of the Islamic world and not subject to any compromise. I call upon Muslims everywhere to support the brothers in Palestine,” he said, mentioning armed Islamist militants, prisoners and their families.
However, he did not mention Hamas.
McCormack said: “I don’t think it should come as any surprise that a terrorist is advocating people turning away from peaceful means of resolving their differences.”
To U.S.: ‘Kneel down’
Al-Zawahri also lashed out at the United States and Israel, accusing them of trying to make the Palestinian people “kneel down and to give in to the supreme powers that are trying to impose the Israeli entity on the lands of Islam through the military occupation and the betrayal of the Arab leaders.”
He said an example of that Arab “betrayal” was the peace initiative adopted by Arab states in 2002. He also criticized Arab leaders for not providing financial support for the Palestinian people, blaming President Bush for Western countries’ decisions to freeze aid to the Palestinians after the election of Hamas.
Arab countries have largely failed to make good on pledges for financial aid to the Palestinians.
“The Arab leaders didn’t have the courage ... to meet the Palestinians’ needs for one month because the Caesar of Washington gave orders to make the Palestinians starve by besieging them,” he said.
Al-Zawahri also commented on developments in Sudan’s Darfur region, criticizing a recent visit by a U.N. Security Council delegation ahead of an eventual deployment of peacekeepers as being “to prepare to occupy and divide it.”