Al Zawahiri's speech represents a departure from the Al Qaeda addresses of recent memory, most of which amounted to direct threats of violence targeting Western and Muslim regimes (including, needless to say, their civilian populations). This statement, by contrast, was not so much threat as political argumentation, and the audience was not Western but rather Arab and Muslim. Implicit in Al Zawahiri's speech was an acknowledgement that the United States is now actively competing in the war for hearts and minds in Muslim countries--leaving Al Qaeda no choice but to engage America at the level of politics and ideas.
Why does this worry me? Because in the current climate in the Arab world, I'm afraid it could get some traction. Zawahiri's speech is not standard al-Qaeda "blow up the infidels and build a bridge to the 12th century" rhetoric. Rather it tries co-opt (more accurately, pervert) liberal notions about freedom and justice into its radical ideology. Zawahiri states:
"The freedom that we want is not the freedom of interest-bearing banks and vast corporations and misleading mass media; not the freedom of the destruction of others for the sake of materialistic interests; and not the freedom of AIDS and an industry of obscenities and homosexual marriages; and not the freedom to use women as a commodity to gain clients, win deals, or attract tourists; not the freedom of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and not the freedom of trading in the apparatus of torture and supporting the regimes of oppression and Copts and suppression, the friends of America; and not the freedom of Israel, with their annihilation of the Muslims and destruction of the Aqsa mosque; and not the freedom of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
Our freedom is a freedom of monotheism and morals and probity and asceticism and justice. The freedom that we are striving toward is on three foundations: The first is the rule of the Shari'a. The Shari'a, revealed by Almighty God, is the path that is obligatory to be followed. ... The second foundation, upon which reform must be established--and this is a corollary to the first foundation--is the freedom of the lands of Islam and their liberation from every robbing and looting aggressor. It is unimaginable that any reform may be realized for us while we are under the coercion of American and Jewish occupation.
As for the third foundation, which is also a corollary of the first foundation, it is the liberation of man. The Ummah [pan-Islamic nation] must snatch back its right to choose its ruler and call him to account and criticize him and depose him, and snatch back its right to enjoin good and end that which is abominable. ... The Ummah must undertake [to end] repression and brute force and theft and fraud and corruption and dynastic succession in rule, which our rulers are practicing with the blessings and support of the United States.
This is a relatively clever bit of rhetorical jujitsu. It manages to sound somewhat liberal (even though it isn't), play on latent anti-Americanism, and oppose the current wave of elections, all at the same time. I can see that message carrying a lot of weight. In Iraq, for example, political parties were falling over each other to see who could be the most anti-occupation...even though they were doing it in the context of a democracy the occupation enabled. My guess is there is a significant portion of the Arab world that will jump at the chance to appear both anti-American and pro-reform. If al-Qaeda manages to portray itself as in that niche, we're in trouble.
To be 100% clear, I am not saying that al-Qaeda is in any way a reformist organization. They are not, but they are trying to appear that way. If their distortion works (and remember, the primary entity that can is and willing to refute this, the US, has precious little credibility here), that's when the trouble kicks in.
Oh, and Happy Birthday to me! Big 19 today. The blog doesn't turn 1 until June though. [sniff] It just grows up so fast...