The Western Media and al-Qaeda’s Messages
For years, videotapes and audio recordings released by Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have been gold mines of information about al-Qaeda for Western media outlets. As the manhunt for Bin Laden unfolded after the September 11 attacks, al-Qaeda’s tapes served to update the media on the status of key leaders, the group’s reaction to certain events, and plans for future operations.
In June 2002, the New York Times reported on an al-Qaeda audio tape, broadcast by Al Jazeera, which claimed responsibility for a synagogue bombing in Tunisia and “dismissed reports that Mr. bin Laden and his main lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been killed or wounded during the American-led assault on the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan.”Neil MacFarquhar, “Qaeda Says Bin Laden Is Well, and It Was Behind Tunis Blast,” New York Times, June 23, 2002, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/23/us/qaeda-says-bin-laden-is-well-and-it-was-behind-tunis-blast.html.
In March 2004, Al Jazeera broadcast an audio recording of al-Zawahiri just days after Pakistan thought it was closing in on his location along the Afghanistan border. The Guardian noted that, while the voice had not been authenticated as al-Zawahiri’s, “Its appearance yesterday suggested a deliberate taunting of the Pakistani government and military over their failure to capture him.”James Astill and Brian Whitaker, “Zawahiri Tape Taunts Pakistanis,” Guardian (London), March 25, 2004, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/mar/26/pakistan.alqaida.
Another video from al-Zawahiri in February 2005 criticized the U.S. for trying to spread democracy, warning that it “will end with your defeat, the killing of your sons and the destruction of your economy.” Trying to determine when al-Zawahiri recorded the message, CNN reported on his comment that it had been about three years the U.S. began detaining prisoners in the war on terrorism at Guantanamo Bay. According to CNN, “It could not be determine when or where the Ayman al-Zawahiri tape was recorded, but…The United States did move Taliban detainees early in 2002 from Afghanistan to [Guantanamo Bay], where there have been allegations that some of them were tortured.”“New al-Zawahiri Tape Lashes U.S. Policy,” CNN, February 21, 2005, http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/meast/02/20/zawahiri/.
In April 2008, another audio message from al-Zawahiri suggested to media outlets that al-Qaeda may have been changing its tactics and public relations strategy. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the fact that al-Zawahiri answered critical questions from users on al-Qaeda internet forums “suggested that dissent among its supporters may be forcing Al Qaeda to change tactics…” Another signal that the group was changing tactics was al-Zawahiri’s denials about targeting innocent civilians. When a web user asked him who was killing innocent people in “Baghdad, Morocco, and Algeria,” al-Zawahiri responded that, “If there is any innocent who was killed in the Mujahideen’s operations, then it was either an unintentional error or out of necessity.”Arthur Bright, “New Zawahiri Tape Suggests Al Qaeda PR Shift,” Christian Science Monitor, April 4, 2008, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/terrorism-security/2008/0404/p99s01-duts.html.
In August 2011, months after Osama Bin Laden was killed, a video message from al-Zawahiri telling his followers to, “Hunt [America] down wherever you may encounter her,” prompted ABC News to wonder if the tape was intended as a 9/11 message.Rym Momtaz and Brian Ross, “9/11 Message? New Al Qaeda Leader Calls for US Attacks,” ABC News, August 15, 2011, http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/911-message-al-qaeda-leader-calls-us-attacks/story?id=14308081.
Finally, CNN described an April 2014 video released by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as “unsettling” after it showed deputy emir Nasir al-Wuhayshi being greeted by followers. The report warned that the U.S. has “good reason to worry,” because as Peter Bergen noted, “The main problem about this group is that it has a bomb maker who can put bombs on to planes that can’t be detected.”Barbara Starr, “Unsettling Video Shows Large Al Qaeda Meeting in Yemen,” CNN, April 16, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/15/world/al-qaeda-meeting-video/.