Obama’s Popularity Threatens Qaeda Credibility: Analysts

WASHINGTON ~ Al-Qaeda’s first message to Barack Obama two weeks after his election to the US presidency shows a “panicked response” to his popularity, counterterrorism experts said Wednesday.

In an Internet message broadcast earlier in the day, Al-Qaeda deputy Ayman Zawahiri lashed out against Obama for being “the enemy of Islam and Muslims” and a “house Negro.”

The closest aide to Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden also warned Obama that the United States could face the same failures as the Soviet Union in Afghanistan if he makes true on his pledges to deploy thousands more troops there.

Despite the threatening air of Zawahiri’s verbal broadside, experts argue it reflects the terror group’s anxiety over a leader who may restore America’s image abroad and thus hamper the group’s ability to finance, justify and recruit for its extremist agenda.

“This most recent message from Ayman Zawahri is further evidence that Al-Qaeda fears the restoration of America’s international prestige,” says RP Eddy, former director of counterterrorism at the National Security Council (NSC).

“The overwhelming international admiration towards America, seen in the global headlines on November 5, demonstrates a new reality that has sent shockwaves through the terrorist network.”

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the central front in the US-led “war on terror,” Obama has said.

He has also vowed to send more troops to Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban insurgency and said he would not shrink from authorizing targeted strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions along its border with Afghanistan, where US intelligence services say bin Laden and his deputies have taken refuge.

Obama “is much more considerate and engaging globally than Bush. This takes away the ‘bete noire’ that the United States represented for Al-Qaeda,” says counterterrorism expert Thomas Sanderson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“On one side, it makes America look better and on the other side it makes Al-Qaeda look a little less relevant,” he adds. “They would have been happier having someone closer to President Bush’s policies.”

Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war propelled him to the national stage early on in the election season. The president-elect has promised to withdraw US troops within 16 months once he is sworn in on January 20.

Al-Qaeda’s leaders “probably don’t know quite what to think right now, because on the one hand, they almost certainly believe that an American president is just going to do what Americans do in their view, which is rampage and humiliate Muslims,” says Steven Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“They are looking in this case at a president who has a lot of popular appeal overseas, who has Arabic names – Barack and Hussein.”

An English transcript of the speech in Arabic purportedly by Zawahiri was provided by Al-Qaeda’s media arm As-Sahab. Much of the video juxtaposes a photo of 1960s Muslim black militant leader Malcolm X with Obama wearing a yarmulke when visiting the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

The video is “a panicked response to the future,” according to Eddy.

“Many have speculated that the new administration will face a major challenge early on, and that well may be. But the latest message from Al-Qaeda is not it,” he says.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a US counterterrorism official nonetheless warned that “make no mistake: this is still a group that can do serious damage.”

At least six militants were killed in a suspected US missile strike in northwest Pakistan on Wednesday, the day Zawahiri’s message was broadcast, according to Pakistani officials, including senior Al-Qaeda member Abdullah Azam al-Saudi of Saudi Arabia.

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