Mad as Hellfire

James Robbins:

It looks like Ayman al Zawahiri is pretty mad at President George W. Bush. Who can blame him? You'd be upset too if the Eid ul-Adha feast you were planning to attend was suddenly visited by an unannounced Hellfire missile barrage, taking out some of your best terrorist buddies. It makes sense that you would want to vent a little after the shock wore off. And of course you would want to let your friends and supporters in the radical community know that you hadn't been reduced to a DNA sample.

Is this latest video really headline news? I guess any statement from one of the most-wanted criminals in the world will merit some level of attention. Yet the latest al Qaeda tapes simply don't have the spark of their earlier work. They are like a once-great pop group that can still command airtime even though their work is formula and forgettable, or the author whose first novel bursts onto the scene to rave reviews who then grows lazy and self-indulgent. You cannot sustain that special air of menace when you are basically phoning it in.

Back in the day, the terrorists issued communiqués worth paying attention to. Before 9/11 they threatened attacks that actually took place. In the months and years soon after what they call "Holy Tuesday" al Qaeda leaders explored the reasons for their struggle in exhaustive detail, quoting verses from the Koran and traditional poems to legitimize their actions. They made sophisticated arguments worthy of serious analysis and intellectual debate. The messages were scoured for coded orders to sleeper cells. In short, they were taken seriously.

By contrast, the full content of the most recent Zawahiri message seems to be "Nyah nyah! You missed me!" And he's not the only one who is having trouble coming up with something substantive. Osama bin Laden's last tape reads like something badly copied from an left-wing antiwar tract. Rather than seek validation in imaginative interpretations of Koranic passages he refers listeners to an inconsequential anti-Bush screed, a lazy man's footnote and not one revealing a very sophisticated or inquisitive mind. If they are going to crib they should at least put together a clip show of their own greatest hits. Remember Osama's vow back in 2003 to throw his steed and soul at the Americans, to die in the belly of the eagle? That's must-see terrorism.

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One point that might be worth noting is that both the bin Laden and Zawahiri tapes mention the prevalence of suicide among Coalition troops. It stands out like a focus-group-tested talking point, something they think will be particularly effective. Lest anyone buy it, note that suicide rates among soldiers are down by 50 percent this year, and are well below the rates for civilians in the same age group. Why al Qaeda has fixated on this issue is anyone's guess, but it is a bit ironic given that suicide is one of their most revered weapons of choice.

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There is more.

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