With an AK-47 at his side, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's No. 2, appeared in a videotape broadcast Thursday and claimed that the 7/7 bombings were payback for British participation in America's "policy of aggression against Muslims."
The video is another Al Qaeda message apparently intended to turn Western democracies against their leaders by explaining acts of terrorism as rational decisions from a group with specific political goals. It challenges the position of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Bush administration officials, who have insisted that the London attacks have nothing to do with Iraq and that terror attacks will continue regardless of policy.
"By linking the bombings to Iraq, he basically sent the message that no matter what Blair says, Iraq is the reason," says Bob Ayers, a counterterrorism expert at Chatham House, a think tank in London. "He's calling Blair a liar."
This latest tape was released on a day when an unprecedented police security operation was under way in London.
While Mr. Zawahiri didn't directly take credit for the London attacks, he promised more attacks on Britain, the US, and other allies, saying "tens of thousands" more American troops will be killed in Iraq if there isn't an immediate withdrawal.
It was one of three taped statements, all aired on Al Jazeera, that Zawahiri has made since the end of February, a pattern of rising communication from the Al Qaeda leaders that appears to belie statements from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that Osama bin Laden and his aides are on the run.
Zawahiri, an Egyptian exile whose terrorist career began at home and who hates the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak, did not mention the terrorist attack on Egypt's resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh on July 23. The omission, analysts speculate, suggests the tape was made before the Sharm attacks, and the second subway attacks in London.
While some of his audio and video tapes seem generally targeted at mobilizing Al Qaeda's "base," filled with Islamic illusions and glorification of martyrs designed to reassure adherents and draw new members, this communication from Al Qaeda's chief ideologue falls into a category of tapes that targets primarily a Western audience.
Rather than casting his jihad as an inevitable clash of civilizations, he frames acts of terrorism as justified by the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and offers to end attacks on the West if a full withdrawal is made from "Muslim lands."
"Blair has brought to you destruction in central London, and he will bring you more destruction, God willing,'' Zawahiri said, addressing the British people.
"As for you Americans, what you have seen in New York and Washington, what losses you see in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite the media blackout, are merely the losses of the initial clashes," he said. "If you go on with the same policy of aggression against Muslims, you will see, God willing, things that will make you forget the horrors of Vietnam and Afghanistan."
"To the people of the crusader coalition ... our blessed Sheikh Osama has offered you a truce so that you leave Muslim land. As he said you will not dream of security until we live it as a reality in Palestine,'' he said. "Our message to you is clear, strong and final: There will be no salvation until you withdraw from our land, stop stealing our oil and resources and end support for infidel [Arab] rulers."
Analysts cautioned that Zawahiri's statement is not evidence of direct Al Qaeda knowledge of the London attacks, and said it probably fits into Al Qaeda's evolution into an ideological motivator, rather than organizer, of attacks.
"Such messages are usually a call-to-arms, sort of top-down guidance to go forth and do your thing," says Ayers. He says while Al Qaeda was "tightly organized" before the invasion of Afghanistan, the dispersal of members since has left a "confederation of groups that adhere to the same fundamental principles.... essentially they are functionally autonomous groups."
Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at St. Andrews University in Scotland, agrees. "This is more of him rallying the troops - giving the green light to carry out attacks.... Here we have a clarion call to action. It is serving as an inspiration for like-minded extremists."
Some analysts, though, see it as an oblique claim of responsibility. "In many ways, this videotape can almost be seen as a claim of responsibility, bin Laden style,'' says Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism expert and author in New York. "When Al Qaeda is responsible for a big operation like the embassy bombings, 9/11, or London, it is much more characteristic for them to issue a statement such as this one, hinting at Al Qaeda involvement without removing that shadowy mystical aura that Al Qaeda leaders love to propagate."
Both Messrs. Kohlmann and Ranstorp point out that Zawahiri tapes are frequently followed by new attacks. "Zawahiri's latest ode may once again herald renewed terrorist violence. Even beyond the West, countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Pakistan are steeling themselves for possible future strikes," says Kohlmann.
The coordinated bombings of Madrid's train system in March 2004, which killed more than 200 people, came just days before elections in Spain that brought to power Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who had vowed to pull Spanish troops from the US coalition in Iraq. Though it's not clear whether that attack swayed voters enough to alter the result of the election, it's seen that way on jihadi websites.
US intelligence analysts say it's likely that bin Laden and Zawahiri are living in the mountains along the lawless border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, something that President Musharraf appeared to confirm at a press conference last month. He said Pakistani troops in the Waziristan region had obliterated Al Qaeda's "command and communications" infrastructure, and said the group is now relying on couriers who take "months" to carry messages out of the region.
But this video was recorded since the first London attack, less than a month ago. It shows Zawahiri sitting on the ground, outside, with a brown backdrop. "It is also a reminder that the US has failed in its mission to bring the ultimate mastermind to justice,'' says Ranstorp.
Ranstorp notes that Zawahiri has made repeated threats against Pakistan. "There is a duality to the message," he says. "There's the focus of making Iraq like Vietnam for the Americans, but there's also a threat to Pakistan. It could accelerate the confrontation between Musharraf and the the extremist religious elements."
• Staff writer Mark Sappenfield in Washington and correspondent Mark Rice-Oxley in London contributed to this report.