By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Soon after the November election, al-Qaeda's No. 2 leader took stock of America's new president-elect and dismissed him with an insulting epithet. "A house Negro," Ayman al-Zawahiri said.
That was just a warm-up. In the weeks since, the terrorist group has unleashed a stream of verbal tirades against Barack Obama, each more venomous than the last. Obama has been called a "hypocrite," a "killer" of innocents, an "enemy of Muslims." He was even blamed for the Israeli military assault on Gaza, which began and ended before he took office.
"He kills your brothers and sisters in Gaza mercilessly and without affection," an al-Qaeda spokesman declared in a grainy Internet video this month.
The torrent of hateful words is part of what terrorism experts now believe is a deliberate, even desperate, propaganda campaign against a president who appears to have gotten under al-Qaeda's skin. The departure of George W. Bush deprived al-Qaeda of a polarizing American leader who reliably drove recruits and donations to the terrorist group.
With Obama, al-Qaeda faces an entirely new challenge, experts say: a U.S. president who campaigned to end the Iraq war and to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and who polls show is well liked throughout the Muslim world.
Whether the pro-Obama sentiment will last remains to be seen. On Friday, the new administration signaled that it intends to continue at least one of Bush's controversial counterterrorism policies: allowing CIA missile strikes on alleged terrorist hideouts in Pakistan's autonomous tribal region.
But for now, the change in Washington appears to have rattled al-Qaeda's leaders, some of whom are scrambling to convince the faithful that Obama and Bush are essentially the same.
"They're highly uncertain about what they're getting in this new adversary," said Paul Pillar, a former CIA counterterrorism official who lectures on national security at Georgetown University. "For al-Qaeda, as a matter of image and tone, George W. Bush had been a near-perfect foil."
Al-Qaeda's rhetorical swipes at Obama date to the weeks before the election, when commentators on Web sites associated with the group debated which of the two major presidential candidates would be better for the jihadist movement. While opinions differed, a consensus view supported Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) as the man most likely to continue Bush administration policies and, it was hoped, drive the United States more deeply into a prolonged guerrilla war.
Soon after the vote, the attacks turned personal -- and insulting. In his Nov. 16 video message, Zawahiri denounced Obama as "the direct opposite of honorable black Americans" such as Malcolm X. He then used the term "house Negro," implying that Obama is merely a servant carrying out the orders of powerful whites.
Since then, as Obama has begun moving to reverse controversial Bush administration policies, the verbal attacks have become sharper, more frequent and more clearly aimed at Muslim audiences.
On Jan. 6, Zawahiri issued a message calling for a global jihad by Muslims to counter Israel's military campaign in Gaza. He then sought to frame the Israeli assault as a "link in the chain of the crusade against Islam and Muslims," with then-President-elect Obama at the head of the chain.
"These raids are Obama's gift to you before he takes office," the Egyptian-born Zawahiri said in the message, addressed to "Muslim brothers and mujaheddin."
"This is Obama, whom the American machine of lies tried to portray as the rescuer who will change the policy of America," Zawahiri said, according to a translation provided by Site Intelligence Group, a private company that monitors jihadist communications.
Days before Obama's inauguration, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden chimed in with a mocking prediction that the new president would founder under the weight of the military and financial burdens he would inherit. No matter what he tried to do, Obama would ultimately lose, bin Laden said on Jan. 14.
"If he withdraws from the war, it is military defeat," he said in an audiotaped message. "And if he continues it, he drowns in economic crisis. How can it be that [Bush] passed over to him two wars, not one war, and he is unable to continue them? We are on our path to open other fronts, with permission from Allah."
Friday, a new al-Qaeda salvo attempted to embarrass Obama, a day after the new president announced his plans for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Appearing on the videotaped message were two men who enlisted in al-Qaeda after being freed from that detention center.
"By Allah, imprisonment only increased our persistence in our principles for which we went out, did jihad for and were imprisoned for," said Abu Sufyan al-Azdi al-Shahri, who described himself as a deputy commander for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The translation was also provided by the Site group.
Site founder Rita Katz said the messages show "just how much al-Qaeda is intimidated by Obama."
"The leadership of al-Qaeda is very concerned about the wide support that Obama has been receiving from Arab and Muslim countries," Katz said. "To combat this threat, al-Qaeda has embarked on a propaganda campaign against Obama, not only by linking him to the policies of the Bush administration, including the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also by accusing him of actions in which he had no part."
Other jihadist groups appear less threatened, or perhaps more accepting of an American commander who appears more open to peaceful accommodation, Katz said. A publication known as Al-Samoud, linked to the Taliban in Afghanistan, viewed Obama's election as a welcome sign that Americans are "very much tired from the bitter war" and do not wish to prolong a conflict "ignited by Bush's insanity and his satanic policy."
Regardless of how Obama is viewed now by the Muslim world -- savior, menace or something in between -- the opinions will almost certainly change in the coming months. For Muslim countries, as for the United States, perceptions based on rhetoric and image will soon collide with reality as the policies of the new administration take form, said Pillar, the former CIA official.
"Inevitably Obama will make certain decisions that will be unpopular and which the propagandists will quickly castigate," Pillar said. "I expect that the honeymoon will be just as fragile and short as with the American electorate."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.