New Video Surfaces from Al-Qaida in Iraq
NEAL CONAN, host:
But first the new videotape from al-Qaida, which aired today and is the latest in a flurry of taped messages issued over the days leading up to today's fifth anniversary of the atrocities of 9/11. Joining us to discuss the tape and what it might mean is Jessica Stern, a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard and author of Terror in the Name of God. Nice to have you back on the program today.
Ms. JESSICA STERN (Author, Terror in the Name of God): Thank you so much. Nice to be here.
CONAN: And it's interesting. People are talking a lot about both what the video is and what it isn't. To begin with, what it is. It is a lot longer and in style and manner quite a bit different.
Ms. STERN: I think we see an evolution of al-Qaida moving from an attempt to appeal to zealots to an attempt to appear far more reasonable. And here we have Zawahiri looking like elder statesmen...
CONAN: This is Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two in al-Qaida, yes.
Ms. STERN: Mm-hmm. Yes. And we can also see Adam Gadahn initially talking about blood running in the streets and now - a week ago inviting American troops to join the winning side and also to convert to Islam. In other words, recognize that the U.S. is losing in Afghanistan and Iraq and realize that al-Qaida and its sympathizers have greater moral authority. But he's not acting like a zealot. He's acting, again, like a reasonable person who just has the wrong view.
CONAN: And sitting in front of a backdrop of a library; again, there are also training videos that come along with this and two martyrdom videos that had not been seen before.
Ms. STERN: Yes. And we see - it appears to be quite well scripted, quite well put together. And a claim that the American leaders are basically hiding from us the true extent of the disaster in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And warning about new attacks to come.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. As you mentioned, al-Zawahiri says that - essentially that wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are already lost and that al-Qaida's moving on to new pastures in the Persian Gulf and against Israel.
Ms. STERN: Yes. And of course it's very difficult to know whether those claims are warnings about imminent threats or just an attempt to inspire attacks that others would carry out.
CONAN: How seriously can this sort of thing be taken now? We've heard about political sorts of setbacks for al-Qaida, the loss of its leader in Iraq not so very long ago and its, well, significantly losing ground in the imagination to Hezbollah, which did take on Israel.
Ms. STERN: Yes. I think that al-Qaida is certainly competing with Hezbollah. Hezbollah has been more effective at providing social welfare support, something that al-Qaida takes very, very seriously. For al-Qaida this is, we have to remember, a war of ideas, and one of the ways that its strategists hope to win that war of ideas is by seeming to have greater moral authority in part by doing exactly what Hezbollah is doing, which is stepping in to provide social services, but also with tapes like the one that was released today. It's about the image of moral authority.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. We had seen a recent flurry of tapes but largely audio tapes. As you said, this is a - you know, looks like somebody's gone to film school.
Ms. STERN: Yeah. They take public relations, public diplomacy, extremely seriously. And I think that in some ways they're doing better than we are at that.
CONAN: Part of the images presented in this video is Osama bin Laden meeting with some of the men who planned the attacks on 9/11.
Ms. STERN: Yes. It's footage that apparently has never been seen before. And one of the things that struck me is one of the 9/11 bombers saying if we're content with being humiliated and inclined to comfort, the enemy will - the tooth of the enemy will stretch from Jerusalem to Mecca.
This scene, what Ayman al-Zawahiri has emphasized, the idea of Islam being humiliated and that it's critically important to respond to that humiliation with this so-called jihad.
CONAN: We've been talking about what this videotape is. There's also questions about what it isn't. Again, we do not see new videotape of Osama bin Laden.
Ms. STERN: Yeah. Yeah. It's a spectacle. It's a theatrical performance aimed at demonstrating moral authority but also reminding Americans that al-Qaida still is a major presence, even if bin Laden is not shown - new footage of bin Laden is not shown.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And we're left to speculate as to whether they didn't want to put him in it, they couldn't put him in it, different places. Who knows?
Ms. STERN: Right. I certainly don't.
CONAN: No. None of us do. Intelligence agencies, though, will no doubt be pouring over the finest details of this video, which I guess is, again, part of the problem of releasing videotape. You're also releasing evidence about at least where you've been.
Ms. STERN: Yes. But they seem to be fairly confident in that regard, given the number of tapes that have been released of late.
CONAN: And what message do you take away from this tape?
Ms. STERN: Well, the main message, I think, is the increasing sophistication of the public relations effort. And really another reminder that this really is about public diplomacy. That's the area where they think they can do well. And actually, unfortunately, I think they are doing relatively well.
CONAN: Thank you very much for being with us today.
Ms. STERN: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: Jessica Stern, a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard University and the author of Terror in the Name of God. She joined us on the phone from Cambridge in Massachusetts.
And when we come back, a summer internship to remember.
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