Using a racially derogatory term, Al Qaeda's second-in-command disparaged US President-elect Barack Obama in an apparent effort to deflate high expectations among Muslims that relations between the United States and the Islamic world will improve under an Obama administration, say Al Qaeda experts.
But Ayman al-Zawahiri's racist demeaning of President-elect Obama as one of America's "house negroes," implying that he does the bidding of whites, may backfire. There is also speculation among terrorism analysts that this latest statement may reflect of Mr. Zawahiri's weakening support base.
"This won't play well. Zawahiri has over-reached," writes William McCants in an e-mail. The Washington-based founder of www.jihadica.com, which monitors Al Qaeda activity on the Internet, says that after Obama's victory racist remarks about him on jihadi websites were not universally welcomed.
Zawahiri is said to be under a lot of pressure these days because of Al Qaeda's loss of popular support following suicide attacks in Pakistan and Iraq. In addition, the group has been plagued by infighting among top officials in recent months that has included virulent attacks on Zawahiri from former confederate Sayyid Imam.
Esteemed in jihadi circles as a major theoretician, Imam has renounced jihadi ideology in writings from an Egyptian prison, where he is serving a life sentence. Imam's latest denunciations of Zawahiri, including that he worked for Sudanese intelligence in the 1990s, are appearing in the Egyptian newspaper, Al Masry Al Youm, according to jihadica.com.
Extremist websites broadcast Zawahiri's 11-minute message. It was the terrorist group's first official reaction to Obama's win.
The video showed only a still image of Egyptian-born Zawahiri, along with other pictures, including one of Obama wearing a yarmulke and meeting Jewish leaders.
"You were born to a Muslim father, but you chose to stand in the ranks of the enemies of the Muslims and pray the prayer of the Jews," said Zawahiri of Obama, according to an English transcript from Sahab, Al Qaeda's publishing arm.
Addressing Muslims, Zawahiri said that despite the election of its first African-American president, America remains "the criminal, trespassing Crusader ... so we must continue to harm it ... This, then, is the path, so stick to it."
Mustafa Alani, director of counterterrorism research at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, says Zawahiri is trying to "dampen expectations and the improvement of the US image" that have followed Obama's election.
The historic vote on November 4 was largely greeted with joy and relief in the Middle East, where the Bush administration's foreign policies are widely disliked. Many also praised the American electorate for moving away from the racial discrimination that has marred its professed ideals.
"By returning to American values the world admires, Obama sets Al Qaeda back enormously in the battle of ideas," said Richard Clarke, former director of counterterrorism at the National Security Council.
Khalid al-Hubayshi, a former jihadi fighter in Afghanistan who spent three years at Guantánamo, said Zawahiri no doubt felt compelled to comment on Obama's election because it was such an important event in the US.
"Who's his enemy? America. So he has to say something," says Mr. Hubayshi, who now lives in Jeddah. "Many Muslims around the world think Obama will be good for Muslims," because he wants to close Guantánamo and get out of Iraq, says Hubayshi.
So Zawahiri "wants to say that he will do the same things that the white guy is doing. He wants to convince Muslims that [Obama] will not be good for them," says Hubayshi.
In what he called his "message," Zawahiri, who is believed to be in hiding somewhere in the tribal hinterlands of Pakistan, compared Obama unfavorably to Malcolm X.
"You represent the direct opposite of honorable black Americans like ... Malcolm X," Zawahiri said. "And in you and in Colin Powell, [Condoleezza] Rice and your likes, the words of Malcolm X (may Allah have mercy on him) concerning 'house negroes' are confirmed."
Zawahiri has mentioned Malcolm X in past speeches, says Mr. McCants, adding that this reference appears to be an effort to impress African-American Muslims "who he may feel are more susceptible to his message."
Obama has taken a hard line against Al Qaeda, saying that the capture of Osama bin Laden is "critical" for US security. He also has said that he wants to increase US combat forces in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban insurgency there.
To this, Zawahiri replied with his own version of President George Bush's "Bring 'em on!" remark that referred to Iraqi insurgents.
"It appears that you don't know anything about ... the history of Afghanistan and its free and defiant Muslim people," he said. "And be aware that the dogs of Afghanistan have found the flesh of your soldiers to be delicious, so send thousands after thousands to them."