The latest audio by al Qaeda’s Iraq commander — posted 48 hours after the midterm elections — sends a clear signal to the readers of the jihadi strategic mind: Al Qaeda and its advisers around the world want to provoke an “American Madrid.” Portraying the United States as a bleeding bull in disarray, the war room projects its wish to see America’s will crippled. The video attempts to do the following:
1. Convince the jihadists that the United States is now defeated in Iraq and beyond. While no reversal of the balance of power has taken place on the ground, the jihadi propaganda machine is linking the shift in domestic politics to a withdrawal from Iraq. It projects the change in Washington as a crumbling of the political process in Baghdad and America’s foreign policy. Interestingly, others in the region are also “announcing” the upcoming defeat of America in the war on terror. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah declared: “The Americans are leaving, and their allies will pay the price.”
2. Spread political chaos at home. Jihadists portray the Democratic takeover of Congress and the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (and maybe others) as signs of American weakening in the resolve to fight jihadism. The video had a potential to frustrate U.S. citizens if it is not accurately interpreted by experts. Americans may end up believing that the message reflects the situation in the Middle East and that it is a logical outcome of a faulty U.S. policy. If the Bush administration and the new congressional leaders do not respond adequately to the video, some “chaos” of this sort may ensue.
3. The terminology used in the videotape is a powerful indicator that al Qaeda’s political network relies on Western-educated minds, familiar with political processes in the United States and serving as advisers to the jihadists. A regular al Qaeda emir does not use the term “lame duck.” It is more likely that a U.S.-based cadre, who understands the impact of political jargon on domestic audiences, had suggested the use of this word. Abu Hamza al Muhajir’s use of the term batta arjaaa (lame duck) is striking to any native speaker of Arabic. This term does not exist in Arab culture, let alone in jihadi rhetoric. Its use is yet another proof of the Americanization jihad has undergone. Thus, Iraq’s al Qaeda is using the term as a weapon — something most likely requested by the jihadi brains operating on the other side of the Atlantic.
So what do the speechwriters want to achieve with these kinds of tapes? They aim at sapping American public morale during a time when reorganization is taking place in the U.S. government. Reading from the jihadi wishful thinking, the audiotape of al Muhajir and the statements made by other radical Islamists send the following message: Americans are being thanked for removing Mr. Bush’s party from the leadership of Congress, which the jihadists attribute to the war on terror rather than U.S. domestic problems. Al Qaeda’s audio tells citizens in the United States that they were wise for having responded positively to the previous messages by Osama bin Laden. Al Masri’s words aim at convincing the American public to pressure their newly elected legislators to pull U.S. forces hastily from Iraq.
In short, al Qaeda wants an American Madrid: it wishes that a change of power in January would be accompanied by a change of national determination, not just a change of course within Iraq.
In the Salafis chat rooms, the commissaries explained to their audiences, that the Democratic Party victory in Congress means that America is now divided and al Qaeda can push to create more cracks in the system — as it has successfully done in Spain. The masters of the forum, emulating al Masri’s audiotape, said not only that “we got their soldiers on the run in Iraq,” but “we got their citizens on the run on their own soil” referring to the November electoral outcome. They promised that with more killings in Iraq, they will break the will of Americans at home; and that the new Congress, seeking to fulfill one of its electoral promises will force the Bush administration to pack up and leave the Middle East.
In Washington, both the administration and the new congressional leaders failed to seriously respond to the al Qaeda message. Grave mistake; for ignoring the speech would help convincing the jihadists that America is divided and crumbling and would embolden them to strike further, not only in Iraq but also inside the United States. The silent treatment works in favor of the Salafi combatants: It only leads them to believe that they are right and that their strategy is working; just as Allah had crushed the Soviets in Afghanistan, he has divided the Americans. It is, therefore, imperative that Washington strikes back in a unified manner at every opportunity that arises. It must tell the dreamers of a terror caliphate that American democracy will not serve as a weapon to defeat freedom worldwide.
Walid Phares is a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the author of “Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against America.”