Many Western analysts and pundits have been increasingly skeptical about Bin Laden's ability to influence Muslim sentiments across the globe. When President Bush met with Pakistan's President Musharraf last March in Islamabad, he didn't mention Bin Laden or his whereabouts either in his speech or in the press conference that followed. He instead praised Pakistan's role in the war on terror, discussed the recent earthquake in Pakistan and even laughed about cricket while, according to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, Bush's nemesis was "only a few hours drive away in Pakistan's Pashtun belt."
The White House regularly maintains that Bin Laden is harried and constrained. Commenting on the new Bin Laden tape, White House spokesman Scott McClellan downplayed its importance. "The Al Qaeda leadership is on the run and under a lot of pressure," McClellan said. "We are on the advance. They are on the run."
It is true that for almost five years, Bin Laden has evaded capture by a reported dozen or more intelligence agencies tracking him. During this time, his ability to directly plan and organize strikes on the West has dissipated. Recent attacks in Europe and in Iraq have been orchestrated by new Al Qaeda franchise leaders, such as Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who stole the limelight from the Al Qaeda founder.
Nevertheless, one cannot write off Bin Laden's influence. He is on the run, but has adopted a new strategy: the pen -- or in his case, audio and videotape -- is mightier than the sword.
Unlike his previous recordings, which were mostly rhetorical and peppered with threats, his latest speech disseminated to his followers was Bin Laden's smartest ever. Through lashing words and a dash of poetry, Bin Laden looked toward current events to paint a picture of a clash of religions and inspire more attacks against the West.
"The war is a responsibility shared between the people and the governments," Bin Laden said, in a complete departure from his offer of a truce to the United States. He touched on a full range of current events that strike a chord with many Arabs and Muslims. Addressing Palestinian frustrations, Bin Laden declared that "the blockade that the West is imposing on the government of Hamas proves that there is a Zionist crusaders' war on Islam." Referring to the crisis in Darfur, Sudan, he urged his supporters to foil what he termed Western and American efforts to divide the country. The "mujahideen and their supporters," Bin Laden said, "especially in Sudan and the Arab peninsula," should "prepare for a long war against the crusader plunderers in Western Sudan." He denounced the UN Security Council, mocked King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and called on Muslims to expand the boycott resulting from the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in Denmark.
Bin Laden has recognized that much of the current war is about winning the hearts and minds of Muslims. He has one plan in mind: to inspire, influence and instigate attacks on Western targets or Arab regimes that support the West.
Nearly three years have passed since the last attacks on Sharm El Sheikh, a large Egyptian resort close to Dahab. Following those July 2005 attacks, Arab media revisited rumors of an elusive terrorist group calling itself the Al Qaeda Organization in the Levant and Egypt that might have been behind the bombings. The Egyptian government has neither confirmed nor denied the Al Qaeda connection.
What target will Al Qaeda choose next? These are the questions that perhaps no intelligence agency can answer until the White House and analysts alike re-evaluate their assessment of Bin Laden's sphere of influence.
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April 25, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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