When we last heard from terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden in January he offered a truce to the Western world, stating that if we pulled out of the Middle East, he would temporarily call off his assault on the U.S. Three months later the deal is off. The war is back on. Attacks are coming. So he says. But we’ve heard that one before.
It is difficult to analyze fully the latest bin Laden tape because al Jazeera refused to run it in its entirety. We do not know when it was recorded, though from its context clearly very recently, for example making mention of the U.S. cutting off aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian government. Nor is it clear to whom the message is addressed, though it seems to be to his followers, those who are left.
Most noteworthy is the lack of any discussion of the situation in Iraq. True, AJ could have cut those bits out, but why would they? It would make sense that bin Laden would not want to delve too deeply into the Iraq situation, where his local emir Abu Musab al Zarqawi has been demoted by the other insurgents and banned from participating in strategic decision making, and where the al Qaeda brand name has been replaced by the more generic “Mujahedin Shura [i.e. consultative] Council.” Whatever the fortunes of the insurgents generally, al Qaeda has not attained the market share it was seeking in Iraq. The other insurgents eased al Qaeda out–those ingrates, after all Osama did for them.
Thus, it is no surprise that bin Laden now seeks to direct his movement’s energies elsewhere, both to the Palestinian Authority and Sudan. In the AJ excerpts bin Laden pays a great deal of attention to the latter, calling on his followers “to prepare all that is necessary to fight a long-term war against the Crusader thieves in western Sudan.” Osama lived in Sudan for many years, and offers some helpful tactical advice about the onset of the rainy season “which will impede movement and block dirt roads.” Good to know. But more to the point, he cautions prospective fighters not to defend the government of Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, who expelled bin Laden in 1996 after first offering him to the Clinton administration. “Our difference with [Bashir’s government] is great,” Osama notes. And bin Laden’s primary backer in Sudan in the 1990s, Hassan al-Turabi, the most famous theologian in the country and a major opposition figure, has recently come out in favor of Muslim women marrying Christians and Jews. So that guy is clearly off the list too.
Other than that, bin Laden tells the same old story. The West is foisting a cultural war on the Muslim world through TV and radio. The apostate rulers, especially the Saudi king, are sellouts and traitors. Liberal Arab intellectuals are ridiculing religion and spreading lechery. Moreover, the world has turned its back on their struggle. “Our countries are being burned, our houses are bombed, and our peoples are killed,” Osama complains, “and nobody cares about us.”
Well clearly, the Coalition cares, but maybe not the way bin Laden wants. This message comes in the context of several important blows to bin Laden’s organization. Abdul Rahman al-Muhajir, one of the 1998 embassy bombers, is said to have died two weeks ago in a strike in Pakistan. American forces in Afghanistan recently took out Palestinian-born Husam abu Baker, Zawahiri’s son-in-law and a close confidant to bin Laden. Perhaps most important was the death of Marwan Hadid al-Suri during a shootout at a roadblock in Pakistan on April 20. Marwan was reportedly the al Qaeda “bag man” who made support payments to the family members of terrorists in hiding. His papers show that families received $10,000 per year in quarterly installments, with an additional child-support payment of $500 per child per quarter. It does not sound like much but it is around five times the per capita income in Pakistan–by that measure the equivalent of $200,000 in the U.S. Security forces captured Marwan’s notebooks, laptop, and other assets that will no doubt furnish invaluable intelligence.
That is, if analysts know how to exploit it. There are some articles out there that quote unnamed intelligence officials who assert that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri are on the outs, noting that they stay in separate locations and do not refer to each other in their statements. Staying in separate locations could just be a normal security protocol; why risk having the entire leadership go down at once? As for snubbing each other in their respective statements, that is not even true. Bin Laden affirms Zawahiri’s views on the sacrilege of participating in elections in his latest message; and Zawahiri’s April 13 statement on the four-year anniversary of Tora Bora says with respect to Osama, “may God watch over him.” Not to join the chorus of critics of the intelligence community but it took about two minutes of research to dig that up. Maybe unnamed officials should spend more time reading and less time leaking.
–James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.