WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Al Qaeda’s deputy leader accused Barack Obama of betraying his race and his father’s Muslim heritage on Wednesday and urged more attacks, as the group tried to counter the incoming U.S. president’s global popularity.
Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command Ayman al Zawahri attacked Obama as a “house Negro,” a racially-charged term used by 1960s black American Muslim leader Malcolm X to describe black slaves loyal to white masters.
“You represent the direct opposite of honorable black Americans like ... Malcolm X,” Zawahri said in an 11-minute recording publicized on the Internet on Wednesday. It was al Qaeda’s first high-level commentary on Obama’s election on November 4. Bin Laden could also release a message on Obama within the next two weeks or so, one analyst said.
Zawahri criticized Obama’s support for Israel and plans to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, where he said they were destined to fail. He urged Islamist fighters to keep striking a “criminal” United States until it withdraws from Muslim lands.
The recording was distributed on a videotape that carried pictures of Obama at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and Malcom X, flanking Zawahri in the center.
U.S. officials and analysts, alert for signs of an attack in the period leading up to the transfer of presidential power on January 20, said there was no sign of an imminent threat.
They cast Zawahri’s message as an attempt to shift al Qaeda’s focus from U.S. President George W. Bush and maintain an enmity against the United States among its supporters.
“They’re faced with what is by any accounting a change in this country,” said one U.S. counterterrorism official who asked not to be identified.
“The way they’re dealing with the change represented by the election of an African American as president of the United States is to insist that nothing has changed,” he said.
Obama’s transition office declined to comment.
His election was greeted with broad hope in the Middle East, where U.S. relations with Arabic countries were deeply strained under Bush.
Daniel Benjamin, a counterterrorism official under former President Bill Clinton, said Obama’s election on a platform of breaking with Bush policies was a boost to American “soft power,” or nonmilitary international influence.
“I think they (al Qaeda) are deeply threatened by the fact there is a new American president and that he has come to office saying he wants to have a more constructive relationship with the one billion Muslims in the world.”
Zawahri, he said, “feels like he has a competitor for the hearts and minds.”
Zawahri referred to Obama’s Kenyan father, who was raised Muslim but became an atheist. Obama is a Christian. “You were born to a Muslim father, but you chose to stand in the ranks of the enemies of the Muslims,” Zawahri said.
The Malcolm X reference probably reflects the influence of American-born al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn, believed to be close to Zawahri, said a U.S. terrorism monitor who goes by the pseudonym Laura Mansfield.
Zawahri has employed the “house Negro” insult before, when in 2007 he used it to label Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her predecessor, Colin Powell, who are both black.
“And in you and in Colin Powell, Rice and your likes, the words of Malcolm X ... concerning ‘House Negroes’ are confirmed,” Zawahri said in the message released on Wednesday.
His spoken remarks could also be translated as “house slaves,” but al Qaeda’s accompanying English translation, distributed by the IntelCenter Web monitor, used “house Negroes.”
Mansfield said it typically takes bin Laden, deep in hiding, longer than Zawahri to produce a statement reacting to events and relay it to an outlet. But it would not be a surprise if he released one soon, she said.
(Additional reporting by Inal Ersan and Firouz Sedarat in Dubai)
Editing by David Storey