In their four years of addressing the world in taped broadcasts, neither of al Qaeda’s top two leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, has ever produced a performance as slick and polished as did Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on the videotape he circulated over the Internet Tuesday, April 25.
Bin Laden and Zuwahri habitually pose in stationary stances against unidentifiable backgrounds that do not give their whereabouts away. A single camera angle focuses on them full face, never in profile or in motion.
Zarqawi, in contrast, had himself photographed in free, vigorous motion from different angles, in close-up and long shot, sitting and standing, shooting, talking to aides and sending fighters out on operations.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that this videotape offered enough material for US and Israeli intelligence experts to enhance frames, analyze them and, after poring for 48 hours, deduce their location as being a mountain in southeastern Syria – most probably Jabal Tanaf.
Located 5 kilometers from the border of the Iraqi Anbar province, Jabal Tanaf lies in an arid, rugged region riddled with caves. In one of the shots, the intelligence analysts identified pickups in the background fitted with recoilless guns and Russian-made ZSU-23 anti-air artillery.
These weapons have never been seen in Iraq, but are known to be used by Syrian border units.
The Syrian Red Crescent used to maintain a small installation on Jabal Tanaf guarded by military personnel. The Syrians are believed to have abandoned the site after the US invaded Iraq in 2003, handing it over to Zarqawi’s men as a hideout.
Egyptian information blackout to minimize the damage
The carefully-staged 37-minute tape was timed precisely for 19:10 hours Iraq time, 24 hours to the minute after three bomb blasts terrorized and wrecked the eastern Sinai Red Sea paradise resort of Dahab on April 24.
(DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources believe the official Egyptian figures of 23 dead and 60 injured are deliberately held down to minimize the damage, when the real figures hover between 35 and 42, with some 170 people hurt.)
Zarqawi’s record shows his predilection for serial, coordinated terrorist operations.
The suicide attacks on the Sharm el-Sheikh hotels on July 23, 2005, which killed 88 people, were followed three weeks later by a strike at the Multinational Observer Force, which has been stationed in northern Sinai since 1981 and is staffed mainly by US troops. Two female soldiers were hurt then.
This time, Zarqawi shortened the time lag. He waited 15 hours before sending two suicide bombers to blow up the same MFO base on Wednesday, April 26. Witnesses told debkafile there were casualties among the US military personnel at the base, but American, Egyptian and MFO officials quickly drew a dense screen over the incident.
Egypt cast the same blackout over an attack on the same day at the other end of Sinai. All that our sources have ascertained is that a group of gunmen attacked an Egyptian police station at Bilbit, a village near Ismailya on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal. A shoot-out ensued leaving casualties on both sides.
These three events were designed to magnify the impact of Zarqawi’s first public appearance unmasked in more than a decade.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts in terror maintain that the terrorist commander was intent first on making a strong impression on the Muslim-Arab public, the al Qaeda hierarchy and fellow jihadist groups, and only second, on terrorizing the Americans, their Arab allies and Israel by his coordinated operations in Sinai.
Four primary messages for the West
1. Al Qaeda’s mujehaddin are the victors of the Iraq War and have attained invincibility – whatever the American army or any other military force may do.
2. Al Qaeda is therefore ready to expand the battlefield from the “distant enemy,” i.e. the United States, to the “near enemy”, namely the apostate Arab regimes next door to Iraq. Hence the bombing attacks in Egyptian Sinai. The Bilbit raid on the shores of the Suez Canal, which brought the al Qaeda offensive much closer to home than the Red Sea coastal bombings, signaled to Hosni Mubarak‘s government that Zarqawi’s fighters were advancing on Egypt’s heartland to embark on an Iraq-style campaign of terror.
3. The attempt to blow up the MFO base in northern Sinai told the United States that its forces were vulnerable in every corner of the Middle East – not just Iraq – and that al Qaeda had upgraded its striking capabilities from explosive devices in 2005 to suicide bombers in 2006.
4. Zarqawi said he had placed Israel in his sights; the warfare al Qaeda had brought to Jordan and Egypt was on the way to the Jewish state.
In the context of al Qaeda and his Muslim audience, he programmed his powerful, youthful performance to contrast graphically with the static image projected by the fundamentalist group’s two top leaders – especially the Egyptian Zawahri, who in his recent video appearances showed signs of age and the wear and tear of his long years in the wilderness.
To them, he had this to say:
First, Osama bin Laden may be the unchallenged ideologue of the Islamic terrorist group, its senior and most powerful operations director, but Abu Musab al Zarqawi is equally the only commander waging a proactive war on the Americans.
Second, the agile, athletic image he projects on the videotape belies the reports put out mainly by American sources that he was seriously injured last year in Iraq and needs constant medical care. It was claimed that he could hardly move around and was therefore increasingly prone to capture. None of this is apparent in any of the shots.
Third, he mentions no name other than that of bin Laden of whom he speaks with great reverence and respect. He never refers once to al Qaeda’s Number 2, Ayman Zawahri.
Zarqawi aims high
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s al Qaeda specialists interpret this omission and other signs as implying that Zarqawi is laying claim to the Number 2 slot himself, in place of bin Laden’s longtime sidekick – as a potential stepping stone to the top.
Pointers to this effect have been circulating around radical Muslim circles close to al Qaeda in recent weeks and were picked up by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources. Some reflect a view gaining ground in leading terrorist circles outside Iraq and their religious guides that Zawahri is a spent force, whose influence on the organization’s different fronts, including Iraq, is on the wane.
The view has been voiced in various publications including the websites of jihadist groups close to al Qaeda that Zawahri is out of touch with events, whereas Zarqawi is in the forefront of the action.
The Egyptian Islamist Osama Rushdi, the former media spokesman of the banned Egyptian al-Jamaah al-Islamiya, is quoted by the authoritative London publication Shawq al Awsat of April 20 as saying:
“Al Zawahiri is losing his reputation among the fundamentalists by his repeated appearances and his talk about everything from Afghanistan to Iraq and Palestine.”
In sum, Zarqawi’s ambitions to break out to the front of the fundamentalist pack come to the surface in the way he disseminated his tape.
Rather than rely on one of the Arabic television stations, al Jazeera or al Arabiya, for an airing, he demonstrated that he himself can do a better job unaided of propelling himself to the top of the news on the world media.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s media experts say he obviously went to a great deal of trouble with professional help to obtain good quality photography and make his presentation smooth and convincing.
Zarqawi spoke like a cultivated Muslim, well-versed in religious lore; his Arabic was literary with no errors of syntax or grammar. The text he read out had obviously been written by experts and he had learned it by heart.
It was published Tuesday night simultaneously over hundreds of Web sites across the world, to beat any US effort to block it.
Al Qaeda’s Iraq chief proved his organization’s operational and technological mastery by staging at one and the same time, a series of suicide attacks spread across two days and a successful broadcast on videotape.