Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy to Osama bin Laden, has not been heard from since the Egyptian protests began.
By Robert Windrem
NBC News investigative producer
for special projects
Two weeks into the Egyptian revolution, there’s been no communiqué, no message from the hills of the Pakistani hinterland. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have been notably silent.
For years, the two have regularly spoken in audio and video messages about events and trends in the Muslim World, attempting to continue their legacy as leaders of radical Islam. Now with Egypt, al-Zawahiri’s home turf, in turmoil, shouldn’t they have issued something?
An al-Zawahiri aide did release a statement last weekend but it was short and not broadcast. Moreover, the deputy, Thirwat Shehata, was forced to admit that his and al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad have had no role in the uprising. “Indeed, the Pharaoh and his rotten party must depart, ” Shehata’s statement said.
But Shehata is not al-Zawahiri or bin Laden, NBC News analyst and former NSC official Roger Cressey said, adding that without something directly from them, the two “are in danger of becoming the ‘emperors with no clothes’.” Moreover, the lack of an al-Qaida role or even a message was undercutting their influence.
“I think it’s curious why they haven’t. Al-Qaida needs to inject itself. It’s been presented with an opportunity to be supportive of their narrative,” Cressey said.
One reason, according to analysts inside and outside the U.S. government, could be the declining security situation in northeast Pakistan where both are believed to be hiding.
Weeks pass and still nothing
Getting a message out will often take a week to 10 days and involve a network of couriers. Egypt’s revolution is still only two weeks old. But others point out that the first demonstrations in Tunisia began nearly a month ago … and still nothing.
“They may be working on it,” one counter terrorism analyst inside the U.S. government said. “They operate on their own timetable, not ours. Just because we expect one, doesn’t mean they feel that way.”
He and others noted that the frequency of statements by al-Zawahiri and bin Laden had dropped off significantly in the last year, which they attribute to the ramped up use of Predators and other armed unmanned aerial vehicles by the U.S.
Starting in the middle of 2008, the U.S. has carried out 200 or so strikes. They’ve killed some 1,300 militants. Attacks have increased dramatically under President Obama. The strikes have gone from about 35 in 2008 to 50 in 2009 and 115 last year, said a U.S. official.
“They may simply be hunkered down,” added the counter-terrorism official.
“These attacks are not just aimed at thwarting operations,” said Cressey. “They are aimed at preventing them from getting out their message.”
Beyond personal safety — and delays in transmitting a message, often by hand, from secure locations to trusted computers — there may be political considerations.
Evan Kohlmann, another NBC News analyst who tracks radical Islamic forums, said it’s less personal safety or logistics that have kept bin Laden and al-Zawahiri off the air.
“I think they are sitting and watching what happens before jumping the gun ... they call it the benefit of hindsight,” Kohlmann said.
Bruce Riedel, a former high ranking CIA official with a long history in the Middle East, wrote last week that al-Zawahiri “probably also has very mixed feelings about what is going on in his homeland.”
“No doubt he welcomes Mubarak’s demise,” he added. “He has called for the Egyptian leader’s overthrow for three decades. But al-Qaida and Zawahiri know they have been bypassed in the streets of Cairo, Suez and Alexandria. This is not their revolution and they are not its inspiration. They may try to jump on the bandwagon but this is not their caravan.”
Peaceful protest seems to work
The U.S. official said he doesn’t disagree, adding al-Zawahiri may be “nervous” that his whole life’s work may be at risk.
“He’s worked a lifetime on this and gotten nothing. It’s the demonstrators who are effecting regime change,” he said.
Cressey added, “Each day’s demonstration shows how irrelevant al-Qaida’s philosophy is because it (al-Qaida philosophy) is based on violence. But al-Qaida had nothing to do with this.”
And, the U.S. analysts said, this could lead to opportunities for the United States.
“People see that with patience, consistency and commitment, you can change things,” said the U.S. official. “If there is a peaceful transition, it’s a huge blow to their al-Qaida philosophy, and it follows Tunisians being able to do the same thing. It proves you don’t have to go to Pakistan to carry out a suicide bombing. You can protest.”
Riedel wrote even the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics was unlikely to change the perspective that this is a “disaster” for al-Qaida.
“They have denounced the Brotherhood for years for participating in Mubarak’s rigged elections and for advocating change through non-violence,” Riedel wrote. “Both Zawahiri and bin Laden were once members ... but long ago they left it because it would not support their use of terror. To see the Brotherhood now playing a significant role in changing Egypt is a major setback for al-Qaida.”
Further reading: Who is Ayman al-Zawahiri?
Update: Al-Qaida's "Islamic State of Iraq" (ISI) has published a new written statement appealing “to the Muslims in beloved Egypt.” In its message, the ISI urged protesters in Egypt to wage violent jihad against the Mubarak regime and avoid “malicious secularism” and “infidel democracy.”