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The purpose of Al Qaeda’s latest video message is to get Muslims to hate Barack Obama. It didn’t work.

NEWSWEEK: Ahmed Benchemsi

The video message from Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which he called Barack Obama a “house Negro,” demonstrates, if anything, that the terrorists are always damn good in PR. You feel disgusted? Horrified? That’s exactly their aim. In this regard, Zawahiri’s diabolical comparison of Obama and Malcolm X (“an honorable American who converted to Islam,” as Zawahiri put it) is an even bolder move: not only do they insult the American president-elect, but they rub it into one of America’s deepest wounds—the racial divisions and the profound antagonisms generated by Malcolm X’s radical claims. In terms of “hatred arts,” this is just brilliant. Those who are shocked by Zawahiri’s words have merely to remember: spreading hate is the terrorists’ job. Hating you is not enough; they also need you to hate them, so the struggle goes on unchallenged.

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Al Qaeda and all its followers badly need to perpetuate Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” paradigm. The West and Islam are deadly enemies, in the radicals’ view. The more irreconcilable the former, the happier the latter. In this regard, the agenda of Bush and the neocons was a true blessing for the terrorists. Consider this: after 9/11 and the U.S. strike on Afghanistan, Al Qaeda was badly hit and its leaders were piteously hiding in caves. Later, by attacking Iraq for no valid reason–which caused, as a direct or indirect consequence, hundreds of thousands of deaths among innocent civilians–Bush’s administration provided Al Qaeda leaders with a new rationale. They reinvigorated, prospered and recruited hundreds, if not thousands, of brand-new adeptsfollowers, infused with a strong willingness for jihad. “War on terror”? If they could, they would just keep it on forever.

Al Qaeda’s true problem with Obama has indeed nothing to do with the color of his skin. By proposing to meet Iran’s Ahmadinejad without preconditions instead of just bombing him out, the American president-elect thinks outside of the confrontation box. The radicals just hate that. And above all, they hate the idea of the United States resuming the chase of Al Qaeda operatives in the mountains of the Pakistan-Afghanistan borders. He’s coming to them, how could they not react fiercely?

There is something else, which I witness everyday in the streets of Casablanca, where I live: Muslims tend to claim Obama as their own—because he’s black, because he comes from an oppressed minority, because his middle name is Hussein. I presume this holds true for all the nonradical Muslims (the vast majority of them) throughout the world. Not that they think Obama is a Muslim himself—he made clear that he was not. Yet he could have been. His father was. Anyway, this man looks like a “brother” to many Muslims, which is indeed a good thing for the prospect of global peace.

Not surprisingly, Zawahiri’s video message targeted this specific point: “Obama is not a Muslim, he’s a renegade who abandoned his ancestor’s religion to embrace the ‘crusaders faith’ and the ‘Zionists’ ideology’,” Zawahiri suggests. The genuine message being: please don’t like him!

Well, too bad for them: we do. We will like him more, of course, if he keeps his promise of backing out of Iraq within 16 months and putting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track. Meanwhile, let’s all of us, Muslims and Westerners, take advantage of the honeymoon period. And let’s enjoy the terrorists’ embarrassment: it’s a rare occasion.

Benchemsi is editor and publisher of the Moroccan newsweekly magazines TelQuel and Nichane

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BERLIN, Nov. 19 — Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command used a racially demeaning term to refer to President-elect Barack Obama in a videotape released Wednesday, and said Obama’s election represented “the American people’s admission of defeat in Iraq.”

In the 11-minute video, posted on the Internet, al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, repeatedly and unfavorably compared the first black U.S. president-elect to Malcolm X, the black Muslim leader and activist who was assassinated 43 years ago.

“You represent the direct opposite of honorable black Americans like Malik al-Shabazz, or Malcolm X,” Zawahiri said, according to English subtitles of his Arabic remarks provided by al-Qaeda’s propaganda arm. “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, although you claim to be Christian, in order to climb the rungs of leadership in America.”

Zawahiri said Obama, Colin Powell and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “confirmed” Malcolm X’s definition of a “house negro,” a term the militant black leader often used to describe black leaders who were subservient to white interests.

The biting comments were the first time al-Qaeda’s leadership has reacted publicly to Obama’s election since he defeated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) two weeks ago. Some analysts said the delayed response reflected uncertainty within al-Qaeda’s ranks over how to respond, given that Obama is widely seen in the Muslim world as the mirror opposite of the group’s longtime archenemy, President Bush.

“Zawahiri and others in al-Qaeda recognize that Obama has a certain appeal, not just to Americans but to people in the developing world,” said Evan F. Kohlmann, a terrorism analyst and senior investigator for the Nine/Eleven Finding Answers Foundation. “They feel a need to dampen this sense and enthusiasm and excitement for Obama.”

Zawahiri, 57, an Egyptian physician, is the second-ranking leader of al-Qaeda, behind only Osama bin Laden. According to U.S. intelligence officials, he is believed to be hiding somewhere in Pakistan. He has distributed dozens of video and audio recordings in recent years, eluding capture despite a $25 million reward offer posted by the U.S. government.

In Wednesday’s video recording, Zawahiri welcomed the pending withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq but warned Obama not to send additional forces to Afghanistan, as the president-elect has pledged to do.

“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,” Zawahiri said, referring to the former president of Pakistan, who resigned under pressure this year. “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.”

The video consisted of an audio recording of Zawahiri’s remarks in Arabic, with English subtitles scrolling underneath a still photo of the bespectacled doctor, dressed in white in front of a bookcase.

On the tape, Zawahiri is flanked by two separate photographs of Obama and Malcolm X. In his picture, Obama is wearing a skullcap and surrounded by Jewish leaders as he visits the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. Malcolm X is shown on his knees, praying in a mosque.

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