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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Monday, October 4, 2004

Does The Latest al Qaeda Audio Message Hint At Ayman al-Zawahiri Capture?

By J.M. Berger

The latest audiotape communique from Ayman Al-Zawahiri contained a new element that caught the attention of many analysts -- a reference to his possible death or imprisonment. According to a CNN translation, Zawahiri said:

"Oh, young men of Islam, here is our message to you. If we are killed or captured, you should carry on the fight."

The reference is interesting in the context of the past week. The Jerusalem Post reported last week that the top-level al Qaeda leader had been captured in Pakistan. (external link)

In itself, an unconfirmed report of Zawahiri's capture is not especially notable. There have been dozens of similar reports since September 11.

But the reference to capture in the new audiotape could be suggestive.

The audio message contained no clues about when it was recorded, unlike other Zawahiri messages this year which have referred to dated news events in order to establish that they were recently recorded. (external link) No previous Zawahiri message has referred to the possibility of his being captured or killed.

It's possible (and indeed, likely) that Zawahiri and bin Laden have pre-recorded messages to be released in the event of their death or capture. These messages would presumably exhort imminent attacks (as this message did) in reprisal, and they may also contain coded instructions to trigger specific, large-scale attacks.

Could this message be a sign that Zawahiri is, at last, in the custody of the U.S. and its allies? Perhaps. But there are other possible explanations as well.

The reference to being captured or killed may simply be a reflection of current al Qaeda thinking. It may be a reflection of a specific plan which entails high risk for Zawahiri or bin Laden, such as a border crossing or a public appearance. An al Qaeda operative may have mistakenly believed Zawahiri was captured and released a pre-recorded message without proper grounds.

Of course, the reference could simply represent a careless use of language. But considering the high publicity value of such messages, and the risk involved in disseminating them, this possibility seems the most unlikely of all.

If it does turn out that Zawahiri was captured before this tape was released, it would be grounds for raising the U.S. terror alert level to red, the status indicating an attack is imminent. (Presumably, but not assuredly, the U.S. government would know if Zawahiri had been captured.) The confluence of such a capture with the release of a pre-recorded tape would represent an extraordinary threat level for the short to medium-term future.


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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