by Roula Khalaf
The Financial Times
Al-Qaeda is usually portrayed as a collection of Islamist fanatics, bent on the destruction of democratic values and, as the US often says, the obliteration of the western “way of life”. But four years after the September 11 terrorist attacks led to the devastation of the group’s haven in Afghanistan, the remaining leadership appears to be adopting a more political strategy. The political image of al-Qaeda has come across more strongly in recent months, as Ayman al-Zawahiri, second-in-command to Osama bin Laden, has raised his profile, leading a propaganda campaign to win support from the Muslim masses. His latest move came two weeks ago when he made a televised appeal for aid for victims of the Pakistan earthquake. The videotape broadcast on the Qatar-based al-Jazeera television station was the softest intervention yet from the Egyptian doctor, who is thought to be hiding somewhere near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But it was only the latest in a series of television addresses that have highlighted a more sophisticated political message. “His Pakistan message promotes a different image of al-Qaeda to gain currency among Muslims,” says Raymond Ibrahim, the Egyptian-born expert who is translating Mr Zawahiri’s writings from Arabic. “He also needs to win over the Pakistanis, because they are pivotal to his success and survival. They are the people around him, who help him and cover him.” Some Arab experts on Mr Zawahiri fear his media appearances could indicate that he is plotting a new terrorist act. Others, however, say that, as top al-Qaeda figures have been hunted down and the focus of its war has moved to Iraq, the 54-year-old Mr Zawahiri is assuming a more political tone to remain relevant….