It is difficult to come away from al-Qaeda operational commander Ayman al-Zawhiri’s latest message without finding the broader message as anything other than a call for unity among Sunni and Shi’a in support of Hizballah’s hot war with Israel. It is also clear that the Hizballah-Israel fight is not viewed as isolated or limited by borders, but rather an integral part of a greater battle between, as Zawahiri and al-Qaeda believe, Muslims and the ‘Crusader league’ in which he explicitly includes Russia, India, Israel, the United States and its coalition partner nations as well as the current Iraqi government.
With a unified Sunni-Shi'a call to jihad as the intended message, this should serve to further and definitively dispel the notion that al-Qaeda would not cooperate with Shi’a terrorist groups and states such as Hizballah and Iran. This even though groups like al-Qaeda are heavily influenced by salafist or wahhabi teachings and have regarded and still regard the Shi'a as outside the fold of Islam. Former al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi referred to them as ‘apostates.’. However, the common enemy today is greater than their differences, which can be dealt with among themselves at a later time.
The technical aspects of the video indicate a well-equipped and skilled al-Qaeda media operation and demonstrate an effective ability to not only disseminate public messages but also exercise effective command and control of terror operations. (The al-Jazeera broadcast of Zawahiri's message is downloadable here.)
The Video: Sophisticated Media Operation on Display
The video itself, aside from the message it delivers, demonstrates the sophisticated media production capabilities of as-Sahab, al-Qaeda's video production house. The video is of professional quality, interestingly including ‘green screening,’ a technology that allows an individual to sit before a precisely toned green background, which can be digitally edited out and replaced with either a static or moving image. This is the technology used by news organizations to display a meteorologist over a map or satellite image background for forecasts. This technology does not necessarily require a professional studio and, as in this case, can actually be used to give the appearance of being filmed in one.
Several aspects of the video indicate telltale signs of green screening. The most telling is early on in the message where the image of Zawahiri appears to slightly shift horizontally. The brief image shift is rigid and lacks the analog properties that would be present if the camera were physically moving. If it were, the background image would shift as well, but it does not, indicating that the background is an edited-in image, seemingly a photograph of a studio set likely not constructed at Zawahiri’s filming location. The shift appears digital in nature and a likely byproduct of post-production editing.
Further indicators of the usage of ‘green screening’ include the presence of a thin dark line between the contrast of his upper shoulders and the background images of Muhammad Atta and Muhammad Atef and lighting differences between Zawahiri and the background. It should be noted, however, that the video clip viewed for this analysis – though still of relatively high quality - is an unknown-generation copy of the al-Jazeera broadcast. Production analysis of the original supplied to al-Jazeera would be far more definitive.
The presence of this quality video and the usage of professional editing skills and technology indicates two things primarily. First, it suggests that the al-Qaeda leadership – at least Zawahiri – is not necessarily holed up in a cave and isolated.
Second, it also suggests that al-Qaeda leadership is still effectively able to extend command and control to the degree that they may desire to do so. Zawahiri’s eyes are clearly following a teleprompter, suggesting that the camera in use is a studio-quality production camera complete with teleprompter technology. A closer examination by enhancing the reflection in Zawahiri’s glasses on the tape may very well reveal the square face of a broadcast studio production camera. This camera need not be in a studio in order to be used. The use of ‘green screening’ makes a more subtle filming location infinitely more possible.
While not a ‘controlled technology,’ a studio-production video camera with teleprompter technology in front of the lens is not something that can be obtained by purchase through the local electronics store, so to speak. In order to obtain this, Zawahiri and the al-Qaeda leadership must not be in a position where they are isolated and without connections to the point of feeling they cannot trust anyone. If they can acquire such equipment in trust without fear of tracking and/or reprisal, via black market or locally connected broadcast collaborators, it must be assumed that they can also effectively lead and direct terror operations through similar means and channels.
The Message: One Ummah, One Jihad
A primary analysis of Zawahiri’s message must first begin with the greater overall message. The general message imparted is clearly a call for unity among the Ummah – uniting Sunni and Shi'a - against a common enemy: Israel, the United States and their allies. The Shi’a Hizballah war is recognized as legitimate jihad by Sunni al-Qaeda, or part of one in which the entire world is the battlefield. Specifically, Zawahiri links the “liberation of Palestine” to the restoration of Islamic rule to “every land that used to be a territory of Islam, from Spain to Iraq.” Linking the “liberation of Palestine” to the current jihad waged by Hizballah in Lebanon, Zawahiri imparts that this is the beginning of that restoration, which should spread through the efforts of those who would hear his message.
"The entire world is an open field for us, so just like they attack us everywhere we will attack them everywhere, and just like they united to fight us, our Ummah [Nation], we will unite to fight them." Again, Zawahiri includes the Shi'a expressly with the usage of ‘us’ and ‘we’ within the context of both Gaza (Sunni) and Lebanon (Shi'a) being hit by the ‘Zio-Crusaders.’
Zawahiri calls the Shi’a Hizballah brothers, saying to Muslims everywhere, “We cannot remain silent and cringe while watching these missiles pouring fire on our brothers in Gaza and Lebanon.”
He also draws the current Israeli conflict with both Hamas (et al) and Hizballah into his vision of unified jihad by referring to “ten thousand hostages in Israeli prisons,” germane to the demands of a prisoner exchange by both Hizballah and Hamas. By contrasting that number with three Israeli soldiers held by the terrorists, Zawahiri crafts an image of an Israeli aggressor and a defensive Ummah victim comprised of both Sunni and Shi’a alike.
Further stressing unity in purpose, Zawahiri then encourages unity by addressing the Ummah as descendants of both Sunni and Shi'a heritage. "How can we remain silent, and we are the sons of Abi Bakar, Othman, Hamza, Ja’afar, Ali, al-Hussein, Sa’ad, Khaled, Talha, al-Zobier, Akrama, Salah al-Din, Yusef ibn-Tashfeen, and Muhammad the Conqueror. We are the sons of the ones who confronted the apostates, opened the world, and transformed the people from darkness of polytheism to the light of unification, and from worshiping humans to worshiping Allah." Clearly, the early Shi'a are not considered apostates here, but al-muminin. In this message, Zawahiri includes them as “brothers.”
Message: al-Qaeda in Iraq as the Fountain of Jihad into Palestine
This brotherhood between Sunni and Shi'a now sought by al-Qaeda for the purpose of facing their common enemy as defined makes the inclusion of Zarqawi as a “martyr Imam - as we consider him” an interesting usage. While Zarqawi is likely used as an inspirational figure for influencing Zawahiri’s principal audience, an Arab Sunni population, this is done at the risk of alienating the Shi'a at the same time.
Zarqawi had named the Shi'a ‘apostates’ as his principle enemy, even above the infidel Americans in Iraq, and was himself responsible for the deaths of many Shi'a. This is a point surely not lost to other Shi’a that Zawahiri also considers part of his audience. Zarqawi is a liability in this respect.
To be sure, for Zawahiri and his call for unity under one banner of “jihad fi sabillillah”, Zarqawi is far less a liability now in the silence of his death than he otherwise would have been in life. This is particularly apparent when one considers that Zarqawi would most likely have opposed such a show of unity.
Zawahiri's use of 'jihad fi sabillillah' is an attempt to draw the Muslim listener into his view that war, and more specifically this war, is of the greater jihad as opposed to being a lesser jihad or specifically 'jihad bis sayf' - the jihad of the sword.
Even damaged as it is by American and Iraqi military attacks and counterterrorism operations, al-Qaeda in Iraq is still considered by Zawahiri to be the strongest and most important arm of al-Qaeda. Further, he appeals to the Shi’ia to support the jihad in Iraq as he calls upon Sunni to support Hizballah’s jihad in Lebanon, suggesting that al-Qaeda in Iraq will be a fountain of jihad warriors into Palestine.
“By Iraq being near Palestine it is an advantage; therefore the Muslims should support its Mujahideen until an Islamic Emirate of jihad is established there. Subsequently it would transfer the jihad to the borders of Palestine with the Aid of Allah, then the Mujahideen in and out of Palestine would unite and the greatest conquest would be accomplished.”
It should also be noted that in Zawahiri’s eyes, his al-Qaeda’s jihad to install an Islamist government in Iraq takes priority over the Palestinian issue, as the fountain of would flow to the Levant only after this objective is met. But to bridge that gap and immediately following the reference to Zarqawi within that context, Zawahiri deftly brings Lebanon and Hizballah into the fold by saying “Perhaps the events of the Zio-Crusaders’ attack on the Muslims [Hizballah in Lebanon] may push the traitors in Iraq [current elected government] to swallow their shame and their disloyalty…”
The Message: World Call to Jihad on Israel, US, Russia, India
Again stressing unity of purpose among the Shi’ite and Sunni Ummah, Zawahiri addresses all when he says, “Dear Muslim brothers everywhere” twice in succession. He listed both Sunni and Shi’ite conflicts in calling for attacks on “Jewish and American targets everywhere.” But in listing the conflicts (Chechnya, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon) where he calls on all Muslims to fight as a required “according to the Islamic Shari’a,” and implicitly then includes Russia, India and all American Coalition allies. These nations are therefore part of the “Crusader league” and accordingly necessary targets of the One Ummah’s One Jihad.
As was stated earlier by Zawahiri, the war with Israel cannot be decided by “a treaty, cease fire, Sykes-Picot Treaty agreements, patriotism or disputed borders.” It is “jihad for the Cause of Allah until the entire religion is for Him only.” Some might also see this as an additional indication of Zawahiri's desire to see a unified body of the faithful - “until the entire religion is for Him only” - as this could reasonably be a means to implore the faithful to give up their differences and interests and seek to fulfill the will of Allah alone.
The Zawahiri broadcast is an open message of support for Hizballah in their war with Israel and recognition of it as not only a legitimate jihad, but as part of a greater jihad ideally fought as a unified Ummah, Sunni and Shi'a alike. This jihad is against not only Israel and America and her coalition allies or the implicitly included Russia and India, but also includes the “governments of the Arabic and Islamic countries” described as “inefficient and conniving.” These nations are condemned for their lack of effective support of Hizballah and for their conniving – a reference to the two faced approach that many of these states practice.
This message also could be intended as a reciprocal activation call to al-Qaeda cells around the world, following the same call reportedly made by Hizballah to its international cells. Whether or not that is the case, the video message demonstrates both a sophisticated technical media capability as well as al-Qaeda leadership's desire to exert effective command and control of its network.
Zawahiri’s primary audience being Arab Sunni and his clear call for them to follow his lead and recognize and engage in one jihad presents a further attempt by al-Qaeda to remain at the forefront of the war against the West. But he also clearly addresses the Shi’a as well, appealing for the same from them. In addressing both, by referring to the Ummah as the sons of both Sunni and Shi’a historical figures, Zawahiri has made a significant gesture of al-Qaeda's leadership against the West and its purported allies in the Middle East.
This does not mean that any ‘merger’ is taking place or even being sought, necessarily. But it is at the minimum a message that hopes to impart upon all Muslims the idea of one single jihad against a multitude of enemies, one indistinguishable from another by association. This also equates to an improved cooperation to the extent that Sunni-Shi'a rifts are shelved, at least temporarily.
This presents a curious dilemma for al-Qaeda with regards to Iraq, as the stated goal is to ‘establish an Emirate of jihad’ in Baghdad. To-date, the strategy employed to this end has been to foment the very sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’a in Iraq that Zawahiri now seeks to apparently shelve (at least for the rest of the region).
For both al-Qaeda in Iraq and the larger Ummah, squaring this inconsistency may prove problematic. The non-Sunni Islamists may not get past this and as such disregard Zawahiri’s call to a large extent. And what then of the sectarian strategy in Iraq? Will al-Qaeda in Iraq abandon it for the ‘greater cause’ of One Jihad as Zawahiri implores of the Shi'a? If so, what strategy will take its place that can effectively rock the elected Iraqi government? Or will adhering to his own call prove simply to damaging to al-Qaeda’s Iraq mission, which to Zawahiri supersedes the Palestine/Israeli issue strategically?
Another possible course in Iraq might be that both the Sunni and Shi'a insurgencies work to destabilize the existing government while limited their attacks on one another. The point here being to bring about an end to the elected government and present an opportunity for the creation of a jihadist alternative.
To that end, the message from Zawahiri also serves as a simpler recruiting call to Arab Sunnis regardless of the eventual effective level of al-Qaeda’s adherence to their own public suggestion of one Ummah, One jihad. By assailing Arab regimes as corrupt collaborators of the Zio-Crusader league, he appeals to their sense of oppression as inspiration to stand and join the jihad against their regimes, such as those in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Outside the region, Russia, India, the United States and her allies have once again been put on notice by al-Qaeda, as Zawahiri makes pointed reference – prominently in both word and image - to both the attacks of 9/11 and the terrorists who planned and executed them, promising double the number on the next strike.
The difference is that now al-Qaeda is appealing not simply to fellow Sunni, but to Shi’a as well, to engage in and support such attacks and recognize one Ummah and one Jihad.
What matters most, however, is not what Western observers analyze and think, including this writing, nor even what Zawahiri himself thinks and aims to achieve. What is most important is how this message is received by both the Shi'a and Sunni target audiences. Can the Shi'a square the inconsistencies within the message and can the Sunni accept the Shi'a into their vision of the Ummah? Or, conversely, will it amount to little more than a recruiting video at the end of the day? In this regard the message may prove to be an indicator of Zawahiri’s leadership and influence.