Foreign Policy Blogs

Al Qaeda Pulls the Race Card

In a recently released audio tape, al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri lashes out at President-Elect Obama both for his policies, and quite oddly, the color of his skin.  This is an unusual departure for al Qaeda leadership, many of whom have attempted to create a pan-ethnic and global Muslim identity distinct from race and ethnicity. 

In his message, al-Zawahiri slams Obama's policy aims, warning that "What you have announced before … that you will withdraw troops from Iraq (and send) to Afghanistan is a policy that is doomed to failure.” 

"If you still want to be stubborn about America's failure in Afghanistan, then remember the fate of Bush and Pervez Musharraf, and the fate of the Soviets and British before them,” he added.  This critique of American foreign policy has clearly been heard before.  Far more interesting, however, is al-Zawahiri's use of racially charged rhetoric against President-Elect Obama. 

In his audio statement, he refers to the American leader as “abeed al-beit,” literally translated as "house slave'.  Astutely, the al-Qaeda supplied subtitles read as "House Negro'.  The video also included still images of Barack Obama appearing in Jewish skullcaps speaking with Jewish leaders.  These images were juxtaposed with speeches given by Malcolm X, where he jeers "house negroes' as being more servile than those who worked the fields, as they act merely on the bidding of their white masters.  Al-Zawahiri explains the contrasted images, claming that Obama is “the direct opposite of honorable black Americans like Malcolm X'. 

The election of Obama poses serious problems for al-Qaeda and related organizations.  He not only represents a new image of America, but also a more tolerant, multi-cultural image not in sync with the fundamentalist concept of the "Christian Crusader'. With this in mind, the audio tape has two intended purposes.  The first is practical.  Despite all of the media attention, global vigor, and enthusiasm behind Barack Obama's campaign, the actual meat-and-potatoes of his foreign policy are not that distinct from Bush.  Zawahiri is trying to highlight these similarities.  In many ways, President-Elect Obama's emphasis on Afghanistan poses a more direct, existential threat towards al-Qaeda than does the War in Iraq.  For these reasons, Islamic fundamentalists should be far more concerned with the new administration than the prior. 

Second, al-Zawahiri is trying to strike at Muslim perceptions of Obama and the new American era his election has ushered in.  He is trying to persuade al-Qaeda sympathizers that, apart from skin tone, Obama represents nothing new.  “America has put on a new face, but its heart full of hate, mind drowning in greed, and spirit which spreads evil, murder, repression and despotism continue to be the same as always,” he adds.   Furthermore, despite Obama's long standing engagement with Palestinian issues, many of which often lead to American criticism, al-Zawahiri aims to paint him as the puppet of Israeli Zionists and the American "White/Christian' establishment; claiming his support for Israel has "confirmed to the Ummah (Islamic world) that you have chosen a stance of hostility to Islam and Muslims'. 

Will this tape resonate amongst the Arab world, many of its citizens already enamored and excited about the incoming administration?  Probably not, but al-Qaeda is left with little choice.  Are they to congratulate Obama on his election, thank him for his support of various Palestinian issues, and wait for the bombs to drop on Tora Bora? Their only option is portray him as an extension of Bush and hope that will translate to support.  It's certainly worked once before, just ask John McCain. 



Josh Hammer

Josh Hammer is an International Relations theorist, with expertise in terrorist ideology, American foreign policy, and war / conflict resolution. He currently holds a Master's of Science degree in International Politics from the University of Edinburgh, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations from the George Washington University. Josh's most recent work, his M.Sc. thesis, is a comparative analysis between Marxist / Leninist ideology and Osama bin Laden's global jihadi movement. He currently resides in New York.

Areas of Focus:
Terrorist Idealogy; American Foreign Policy; Conflict Resolution;


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