September 1, 2014

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Bin Laden tape is more about timing than substance, analysts say

Osama bin Laden’s latest message is a hodgepodge of anti-capitalist vitriol, impassioned Islamic evangelism and what can best be described as a twisted attempt at reconciliation: Join us, or we’ll kill you.

Analysts say the video that came out days before the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is more about timing than substance, an attempt by history’s most wanted fugitive to thumb his nose at the forces arrayed against him and remind the world that he hasn’t been caught.

He ridiculed President Bush on Iraq, saying events there have gotten “out of control” and comparing the American leader to “one who plows and sows the sea: He harvests nothing but failure.”

Despite widespread fears, al-Qaida has so far failed to launch a second attack on the scale of Sept. 11, and many believe the video message — bin Laden’s first since 2004 — was also an attempt to stay relevant.

Anne Giudicelli, a former French diplomat specializing in the Middle East who now runs the Paris-based consultancy Terrorisc, said bin Laden is well aware that his reappearance on the world stage — looking fit and with his beard dyed a youthful black — was itself a victory that went beyond anything he actually said.

“The objective is obviously to show that despite everything in place against him, he has survived. That’s the No. 1 message,” she said. “The mere fact of appearing in a video is already a message.”

Louis Caprioli of the risk management firm Geos, and former head of the French intelligence agency DST’s anti-terrorism operations, said, “What’s important is that he made an appearance.”

“The question everyone was asking is, is he dead or alive?” Caprioli said. “Now we have proof that he’s alive, surprising a lot of experts who thought he was dead.”

In the tape released Friday, bin Laden mentions the anniversary of the Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. He also refers to the Democratic Party’s congressional victory in last fall’s election and to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was elected in May.

Ben Venzke of the IntelCenter, a U.S.-based intelligence group that monitors terrorism messages, said the Hiroshima reference means the earliest the tape could have been made is on or shortly after Aug. 9 — less than a month ago.

While this was bin Laden’s first message in a year, and the first time he appeared in a new video since 2004, other al-Qaida leaders have been using the airwaves more and more in recent months. They have also been reducing the time it takes to get tapes out, a troubling sign that analysts and intelligence experts say could mean that the terror leaders are in greater command than previously feared, and perhaps better able to launch attacks.

The new video, which came just days before Tuesday’s sixth anniversary of the devastating attacks on New York and Washington, was released on the heels of two thwarted terror plots in Europe in the past week, both linked to al-Qaida.

German authorities say a cell there sought to launch an imminent attack on Frankfurt International Airport and America’s Ramstein Air Base, among other targets. In Denmark, officials arrested eight people, all of whom were allegedly in contact with what Danish anti-terror officials called “leading al-Qaida persons.”

Still, bin Laden made no overt threats of new attacks in the video released Friday. In fact, he seemed more concerned with lecturing on the evils of capitalism and the dangers of global warming, and even making reference to the sub-prime mortgage crisis roiling the United States.

In the video, bin Laden tells the American people his fighters are duty bound to “escalate the fighting and killing against you” in Iraq. But he adds that there is a solution to the bloodshed, saying: “I invite you to embrace Islam.”

Caprioli said bin Laden took pains in the video to present himself as a statesman, attempting to put himself on the same level as world leaders.

“He wants to change his role, to be a leader who speaks to other leaders, and to cast himself as a champion of the oppressed.”

“At other times, he has been a lot more threatening,” Caprioli added. “Here we don’t have a direct threat, because he’s talking on a strategic level. He says, ‘we will continue operations,’ he doesn’t say, ‘We’re going to blow up your planes, your pipelines, your boats.”

Whether the video will resonate on the Arab or Muslim street is not at all clear. In Iraq, where disillusionment with the United States runs high, most people voiced disgust with bin Laden’s latest message.

“This man (Osama) has nothing to do with religion,” Saad Ubo Mustafa, a local resident in Baghdad, told AP television news. “He is killing Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Christians, Jews and foreign people. Islam has got nothing to do with such kinds of people.”

Added another man, Abu Basheer: “This man lives in prehistoric times. No one should pay attention or listen to him.”

But even if the tape produces outrage or revulsion in most people, history shows that some will listen to what bin Laden has to say, and a few may even be moved to join him.

Bob Ayers, a terrorism expert at London’s Chatham House think tank, said that while bin Laden professes to be speaking to the American people, his message is not really aimed at them.

“The people who are going to follow are the ones who are already converts and radicalized,” he said. The other audience is almost certainly Western leaders — particularly Bush — who have so far failed to find him.

Ayers said bin Laden is thumbing his nose at U.S. leaders by “saying I’ve killed thousands of your people … and you’re ineffective.”