New tape shows bin Laden's PR efficacy

Al-Qaida leader urges Muslims to become martyrs in video on anniversary of September 11 attacks.

September 12, 2007 04:51
4 minute read.

Two messages from Osama bin Laden in a matter of days have revived the game of questions over his health and whereabouts, but they also made clear he is al-Qaida's propaganda "top gun," able to draw attention in the West and strike a chord among sympathizers. In a new video released Tuesday, bin Laden's voice was heard commemorating one of the September 11 suicide hijackers and calling on young Muslims to follow his example in martyring themselves in attacks. It came on the heels of a video released Saturday containing the first new images of the terror movement's leader in nearly three years. It showed him urging Americans to convert to Islam and railing against capitalism, globalization and democracy as failed philosophies. Both releases on Web sites used by Islamic extremists may in part be an attempt to use bin Laden's charisma to win over supporters in an audience of growing importance for al-Qaida - Muslim converts and immigrants from Muslim countries living in the West, particularly Europe. Operatives from both groups have been implicated in several plots inside Europe in recent years, and the anti-globalization rhetoric could be aimed at giving disenchanted Muslims there further reason to join his cause, along with his traditional condemnation of US policy in the Mideast. The two videos, timed to mark the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States, also made a splash in the US at a time when the presidential campaign and falling support for the war in Iraq have prompted a debate on how America should be fighting terrorism. Presidential candidates weighed in on the question of whether the man US President George W. Bush once vowed to take "dead or alive" remains a threat. Republican Fred Thompson called bin Laden a "symbolic" figure, while Rudolph Giuliani insisted the al-Qaida leader needed to be taken down. US intelligence agencies, meanwhile, are poring over bin Laden's messages, looking for clues to the 50-year-old's health and location. Little was immediately evident, except for bin Laden's new beard - dyed a dark black from the mostly gray of previous videos. The images in Saturday's video were clearly recent - made at least since June, because bin Laden mentioned British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who took office that month, and perhaps done as recently as early August. Because bin Laden's image moves for only a few minutes in the first tape and not at all in the second, questions are being raised about his health. Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defense College, said trying to guess at bin Laden's physical condition from the images is pure speculation. But it is clear that the al-Qaida leader is plugged in, he said. "He's very much up on current events, but it is more than that. Bin Laden has learned to skillfully package and tap into issues that have political currency and a wide resonance outside his normal constituency," Ranstorp said. The messages end a long dry spell for bin Laden - his last video had been released in October 2004, while his last audiotape came out in July 2006. During that lull, numerous videos and audiotapes were issued by his deputy, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, who many analysts believe has a more direct hand in al-Qaida and has led the rebuilding of the network's command since the 2001 US assault on Afghanistan. Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University, said the evidence indicates al-Zawahri likely holds al-Qaida's operational reins, heading meetings of the network's top leadership in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Bin Laden is "still the marquee name ... wheeled out in dramatic fashion," Hoffman said. "He's a brand name, probably one of the most recognizable brand names in the world. So he has tremendous value in that respect. He's the headliner." Tuesday's video was the latest in an al-Qaida tradition: Every year on the anniversary of the September 11 attack it has commemorated one or two of the 19 suicide hijackers by releasing their videotaped "last will and testament." This year, the video included the testament of Waleed al-Shehri, one of the hijackers on American Airlines Flight 11 that hit the World Trade Center. An audiotape of bin Laden introduced the testament, played over a still photo of the terror leader taken from Saturday's video. Bin Laden praised al-Shehri, saying he "recognized the truth" that Arab rulers are "vassals" of the West and have "abandoned the balance of [Islamic] revelation." "It remains for us to do our part. So I tell every young man among the youth of Islam: It is your duty to join the caravan [of martyrs] until the sufficiency is complete and the march to aid the High and Omnipotent continues," Bin Laden said. One thing the messages may show is that bin Laden feels secure enough to emerge. "It means he is freer to move and to talk and he is in [a] safer place. Now he is more confident to communicate to the media," said Abdul Bari Atwan, editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi and author of "The Secret History of al-Qaida." By issuing two tapes in just four days, "he is saying, 'I'm back,'" Atwan said.

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