- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Ayman al Zawahiri, the No. 2 man in al Qaeda’s terror network, appeared on a videotape last week delivering a new warning of death and destruction to the West, unless coalition forces withdraw from Iraq and the West stops supporting corrupt regimes in the region.

“Our message to you is clear, strong and final: There will be no salvation until you withdraw from our land, stop stealing our oil and resources and end support for infidel, corrupt rulers,” said al Zawahiri, in the tape first aired on the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network.

In short, there was nothing new in al Zawahiri’s message. Or was there? While the verbal message delivered by the al Qaeda leader was “standard,” there was an important — albeit subtle — point made in the video, which contained some revealing, and one might add, disturbing, information. But you had to see, not hear it.

As with most such videos delivered by al Qaeda in the past and aired on the Arab networks first and later picked up by Western media, weapons are frequently used as props. This time was no exception, and behind Osama bin Laden’s deputy was a weapon nonchalantly positioned against the wall of wherever al Zawahiri taped his message.

At first glance, the weapon passes for a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle, initially built by the Soviets, but since cloned by several former Eastern Bloc countries, as well as by Yugoslavia, China and North Korea. More than 50 armies in the world have firearms created by Kalashnikov.

But a closer inspection of the weapon reveals it has a little black tube attached under the barrel, quite similar to the ones on the American M-16, which turns it into an M-203 grenade launcher.

The disturbing fact in this instance is that al Zawahiri is making a bold statement in showing off his new hardware. New, sophisticated weapons, such as the one in the video are not the kind peddled by arms dealers in shady backwater Middle East arms bazaars. This weapon appears to be a state-of-the-art modern gun made in either China or North Korea.

Quick research shows the weapon behind al Zawahiri is called a Wz. 1974 Pallad grenade launcher. According to the Kalashnikov Web site, the attachment was initially developed in the late 1960s to replace the not entirely successful Wz. 1960.72 grenade-launching adaptations of the AK. But as is often the case, the plans remained shelved for many years before it was developed and manufactured.

Interestingly, in a dozen conflicts this reporter has covered in the Middle East since the early 1970s, he had never come across such a weapon. Instead, the preferred adaptation used by fighting forces throughout the Middle East, from the Palestinians to the Iraqis, starting from the early 1960s and through the most recent conflicts, has been a grenade attached to a rod that fits into the barrel of the AK47, called “energa.”

Charles Henderson, a former U.S. Marine warrant officer and author of several books on warfare, who saw action in Vietnam and Lebanon, thinks al Zawahiri’s weapon “is more modern than any old Soviet Kalashnikov.” Mr. Henderson, too, has never come across one before during his years of deployment in Vietnam and Beirut.

Al Zawahiri displaying his new model Kalashnikov sends a message that al Qaeda is still able to purchase sophisticated gear. This detail begs the question; who is still selling al Qaeda such guns?

Mr. Henderson thinks the Pallad can only come from governments.

“The weapon is no doubt North Korean or Chinese,” he told United Press International. “The modern rifle raises many questions, and I think makes a statement that there are governments with arms-making capacities who are supplying these devils.”

One of the problems in fighting, particularly affecting undercover agents, is troop morale, explains Mr. Henderson. And when sleeper agents hiding in the West see brand-new weapons of that caliber on television, Mr. Henderson says “it sends a message saying we are not out of it, not by a long shot.”

“Meanwhile, North Korea, China and half a dozen other nations are having their diplomatic discussions about maintaining peace in that region, and all the while [North Korean leader] Kim [Jong Il] is selling Kalashnikovs to al Qaeda, and thinking us the fools. They have the perfect distraction, Iraq, while they rebuild too,” said the former Marine.

“While we are being distracted by Iraq, al Qaeda is regrouping and reorganizing,” said Mr. Henderson.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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