Yesterday I finally had a chance to watch the VTR recording I made of Lawrence Wright on Book TV, talking about his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. One of the points that came out very clearly in the interview reinforced an observation from Publishers Weekly (quoted on the Amzon.com page) that "planning terror is a sloppy business." Put another way, the "road to 9/11" was not the steady and methodical advance through the steps of the plan of an evil genius. All of the "players" in al-Qaeda were as all-too-human as were the "players" in the FBI, CIA, and NSA; and each side was as capable of blundering as was the other.
I feel this is important to bear in mind in examining the Al Jazeera English report of the latest video to be posted on the Internet by Ayman al-Zawahri, generally regarded as the number two man in al-Qaeda (even if al-Qaeda's greatest strategic strength lies in its loosely distributed organization). In the video of Osama bin Laden that came to light immediately after 9/11, what may have been most striking was that he seemed almost bemused that things turned out as catastrophic as they did. He was sort of like the engineer who was silently thankful that, for once, he had escaped the clutches of Murphy's Law. The al-Zawahri video, in contrast, positively reeks of the sort of pride that, in a dramatic setting, would presage a fall from a great height; and, indeed, his deliberate efforts to taunt Bush may very well blow up in his own face, literally as well as metaphorically.
Consider the following excerpt from the Al Jazeera account of this video in which he talks about the congressional bill that tied funding for the US effort in Iraq to a timetable for troops to withdraw:
"This bill will deprive us of the opportunity to destroy the American forces which we have caught in a historic trap," al-Zawahri said, adding the bill was evidence of American "failure and frustration".
He did not mention the vetoing of the bill last Thursday by Bush.
Perhaps al-Zawahri made this tape before Bush had imposed his veto. Perhaps he had received news of the veto but did not appreciate its significance. Perhaps he did not realize that this kind of taunting would probably only strengthen Bush's resolve to keep "surging" (probably with increased forces), just as past resistance forces have drawn strength from Bush's arrogant taunts. At the very least those remarks are liable to sway the American public to be more sympathetic to Bush's persistence, which may well sandbag any hopes for substantive dialog between the Congress and the White House.
It seems to me that all paths towards reading this particular text lead to a strategic blunder. Whether or not it will turn out to be an Aristotelian "tragic flaw" for al-Qaeda in Iraq (if not for al-Qaeda's overall reputation) remains to be seen. From a dramatistic point of view, however, the fact that General David Petraeus seems to be figuring out how to do things right at the same time that al-Zawahri has made this media blunder may make for an interesting plot twist! Fortunately, things tend to move slowly in the Congress; so their natural pace should afford them the luxury to cool it long enough to see how Bush will respond to being taunted both here and in Iraq.