By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 20, 2008
BERLIN, Nov. 19 -- Al-Qaeda delivered a harsh, personal message to President-elect Barack Obama on Wednesday, tagging him with a racial slur in an attempt to undercut his political appeal in parts of the world where the network has recently tried to expand.
In a videotape posted on the Internet, al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, describes Obama as subservient to whites and suggests that the president-elect has forsaken his father's Muslim heritage to become a stooge for Israel.
"You have reached the position of president, and a heavy legacy of failure and crimes awaits you," says Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician who serves as al-Qaeda's second in command under Osama bin Laden. "You were born to a Muslim father, but you chose to stand in the ranks of the enemies of the Muslims and pray the prayer of the Jews, although you claim to be Christian, in order to climb the rungs of leadership in America."
In the 11-minute video, Zawahiri unfavorably compares the first black U.S. president-elect to Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam leader who was assassinated 43 years ago. Zawahiri says Obama, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her predecessor, Colin L. Powell, all "confirmed" Malcolm X's definition of a "house Negro," a derogatory term used to describe black leaders who cater to white interests.
Analysts said Zawahiri's use of such racially charged language was risky and could backfire. They noted that while al-Qaeda has tried to appeal to Muslims of all races and nationalities, its leadership has always been dominated by Arabs and followers with darker skin have found themselves marginalized.
"Al-Qaeda is not a model of racial harmony, and it's never been one," said M.J. Gohel, chief executive of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London research group. "It's led by a small coterie of Arab Muslims, in particular Egyptians. The rest have been treated as second-class citizens, people to whom orders are given."
For instance, analysts said al-Qaeda's leadership has been conspicuously silent about racial problems in Sudan, including widely reported discrimination by Arabs against black Muslims. They said bin Laden in particular has overlooked such problems in part because he was based in Sudan in the 1990s and friendly with its Arab rulers at the time.
The video released Wednesday consists of an audio recording of Zawahiri's remarks in Arabic, with English subtitles scrolling underneath a still photo of the bespectacled doctor, dressed in white in front of a bookcase. In one segment, he is flanked by a photograph of Obama and one of Malcolm X; Obama is shown wearing a skullcap during a meeting with Jewish leaders, while Malcolm X is on his knees, praying in a mosque.
It is at least the second time Zawahiri has invoked Malcolm X in an attempt to appeal to black Americans. In a videotaped interview posted online in May 2007, Zawahiri repeatedly praised the Nation of Islam leader and quoted him as justifying the use of violence to resist oppression.
In that recording, Zawahiri included video clips of Malcolm X disparaging other black leaders as "house slaves." Foreshadowing his later attack on Obama, Zawahiri again used the term to refer to Powell and Rice.
"I am hurt when I find a black American fighting the Muslims under the American flag," Zawahiri said, according to a transcript of the 2007 interview made by the SITE Institute, a research firm that tracks al-Qaeda statements. "I hope no one replies to me by saying that blacks in America have been delivered from its tyranny because there are the likes of Colin Powell -- the liar of the Security Council -- and Condoleezza Rice in power."
Evan F. Kohlmann, a terrorism expert and senior investigator for the Nine/Eleven Finding Answers Foundation, said al-Qaeda was trying to put a dent in Obama's popularity in the developing world, particularly in African countries where al-Qaeda has tried to establish a beachhead, such as Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Mauritania.
"There's a sentiment on the part of al-Qaeda that Obama is very popular, and they are trying to figure out how to attack him," Kohlmann said. "But I'm not sure calling Obama a 'house Negro' is a great way of winning the support of these people."
According to U.S. intelligence officials, Zawahiri, 57, is hiding in Pakistan. He has distributed dozens of video and audio recordings in recent years, despite a $25 million reward for his capture posted by the U.S. government.
U.S. counterterrorism officials did not dispute the authenticity of Zawahiri's recording but declined to respond publicly to his statements.
Zawahiri's video was the first official statement from al-Qaeda since Obama was elected. The recording bore the stamp of as-Sahab -- or, "the clouds" in Arabic -- the longtime propaganda arm of al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda has experienced severe difficulty in distributing its video and audio recordings on the Internet since September. Several password-protected Web forums that it relied upon to release the recordings were infiltrated and shut down. The latest major Web forum used by al-Qaeda and other Muslim extremists, al-Hesbah, was closed two days ago.
Kohlmann said Zawahiri's video was released on a lesser-known Web forum that had not been used by al-Qaeda until recently, demonstrating its ability to adapt to hackers and infiltrators.
In the video, Zawahiri also calls Obama's election "an admission of defeat in Iraq" and warns the president-elect against sending additional troops to Afghanistan. "If you still want to be stubborn about America's failure in Afghanistan, then remember the fate of Bush and Pervez Musharraf, and the fate of the Soviets and British before them," Zawahiri says, referring to the former president of Pakistan, who resigned under pressure this year. "And be aware that the dogs of Afghanistan have found the flesh of your soldiers to be delicious, so send thousands after thousands to them."
Staff writer Joby Warrick and staff researcher Julie Tate, both in Washington, contributed to this report.