Zawahiri Taunts Bush After Attack Misses Him

By Craig Whitlock and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

BERLIN, Jan. 30 -- The deputy leader of al Qaeda aimed a fresh fusillade of threats and scorn at the United States in a videotape broadcast Monday, serving notice that he was alive and well despite a recent attempt by the CIA to kill him with a missile strike in Pakistan.

Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician and second in command to Osama bin Laden, called President Bush the "butcher of Washington" and "a curse" on the United States in a speech that was broadcast in excerpts on the satellite television channel al-Jazeera. Echoing recent remarks by bin Laden, Zawahiri called U.S. policy in Iraq a failure and warned of more bloodshed.

The videotape appeared to have been made sometime in the past 11 days, a period that counterterrorism analysts called strikingly short. In the past, fugitive al Qaeda leaders have taken several weeks or months to smuggle recorded messages to the outside world.

In his speech, Zawahiri referred directly to comments made by bin Laden in an audiotape broadcast on al-Jazeera on Jan. 19, as well as to the attempt on his own life in a Pakistani border village on Jan. 13. "Bush, do you know where I am?" said a taunting Zawahiri, dressed entirely in white and speaking in front of a pitch-black background. "I am among the Muslim masses."

Analysts also noted the professional production quality of the tape, in which Zawahiri also condemned Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, for cooperating with the United States. "This was not done in some cave," one senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official is not authorized to speak on the record.

The attempted strike against Zawahiri by an unmanned Predator aircraft destroyed a home in the Pakistani village of Damadola, killing about a dozen villagers and, according to Pakistani intelligence sources, several figures in al Qaeda. One of them appears to have been Zawahiri's son-in-law, according to the Pakistani officials.

In his tape, Zawahiri denied that any of his al Qaeda compatriots were there, calling the explosion an attack on innocents.

But he said that in the U.S. effort "to kill my humble self and four of my brothers, the whole world has discovered the extent of America's lies and failures and the extent of its savagery in fighting Islam and Muslims," according to a translation of the videotape by the Associated Press.

Zawahiri delivered his message as Bush is preparing to visit Pakistan in early March as part of a South Asian trip that will include a stop in neighboring India.

The al Qaeda deputy leader repeated several of the themes in the bin Laden tape, including a description of Bush as a "liar" and a "failure" who has brought, and will bring, "only catastrophes and tragedies" to the United States.

But Monday's message had a generally harsher tone than bin Laden's statement. While bin Laden used some conciliatory language and offered the United States a "truce" if it withdrew its forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, Zawahiri spoke in an openly hostile and aggressive way. He rebuked White House officials for refusing to negotiate over the truce offer and warned Americans and Britons to expect blood and misery if their forces remain in Iraq.

Zawahiri repeated past al Qaeda themes that its fight is also with Muslims who cooperate with the United States. "The American planes conducted a raid with the compliance of Musharraf the traitor and his security apparatus, the slaves of the Crusaders and the Jews," he said.

The claim of Pakistani cooperation in the attack highlighted Musharraf's challenge in aiding U.S. anti-terrorism efforts while protecting Pakistan's sovereignty and its people.

In an interview with Lally Weymouth published Sunday in The Washington Post, he said the Jan. 13 raid "was definitely not coordinated with us" and "we condemn it." But noting the presence of al Qaeda figures on Pakistani soil, he said it would be false to say "that sovereignty is only violated when someone comes by air."

The video was at least the ninth recording that Zawahiri, al Qaeda's leading theoretician, has released in the past year. He was last heard from on Jan. 6, when he declared that U.S. plans to withdraw some troops from Iraq represented a victory for insurgent forces.

Despite the frequency of his statements and a $25 million reward posted by the U.S. government, he has eluded a massive manhunt. He is widely believed to be hiding along the remote Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Al Qaeda had been sheltered by the Taliban movement that ruled most of Afghanistan until the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.

M.J. Gohel, a terrorism analyst and chief executive of the Asia-Pacific Foundation in London, said it appeared that Zawahiri and bin Laden had coordinated their recent messages. He said it was noteworthy that al Qaeda's leaders had fashioned an effective system of communication that Western intelligence agencies have been unable to penetrate.

"Bin Laden is playing a very clever propaganda game," Gohel said. "Bin Laden offers a truce, while his deputy follows up with a threat. It's a carrot-and-stick approach. It's almost like these tapes are preparation for an attempted attack in the next few weeks or months. They could then say, 'Look, we told you so, we warned you, we offered a truce but you wouldn't listen.' "

A logo on Zawahiri's tape, in Arabic and English, credits the work to al-Sahab, an underground video production company that has made Zawahiri's and bin Laden's tapes since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Evan Kohlmann, a New York-based terrorism researcher who studies radical Islamic postings on the Internet, said al-Sahab -- which translates as "the clouds" in Arabic and is believed to be a reference to the atmosphere atop Afghanistan's tall mountains -- is known for its high-quality work. He said its technical sophistication has improved in recent months.

Al-Sahab, he said, usually releases a full version of its videos on the Internet a few weeks later, complete with English subtitles aimed at a global audience.

"There's a steady progression in the quality of the videos and the English subtitles," he said. "They're getting very elaborate."

Pincus reported from Washington. Researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company