Osama bin Laden’s surprise appearance in the last days of the presidential campaign is unwelcome news for whoever wins the election and for the U.S. counter-terrorism effort -- but not for the reasons one might expect, experts said Saturday.
Al Qaeda watchers had concluded long ago that the elusive Saudi exile had relinquished much of the day-to-day leadership of the terrorist organization he founded more than a decade ago. But the latest videotape has caused concern at the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies about Bin Laden’s potential new role, as an elder statesman for aggrieved Muslims worldwide.
The 18-minute videotape, portions of which were aired Friday, contains no overt threats of an attack on U.S. interests, particularly the kind of strike on American soil that authorities have been warning about. In the footage, Bin Laden’s first videotaped comments in three years, he lacks any of his usual trappings of warfare, including camouflage clothing, a dagger or a rifle, said a U.S. official familiar with the tape.
In fact, what has caught the attention of the U.S. intelligence community is the strangely conciliatory nature of Bin Laden’s new message, said some government officials and outside experts.
These experts said Bin Laden appeared to be intensifying his campaign to “re-brand” himself in the minds of Muslims worldwide, and become known more as a political voice than a global terrorist.
“In some ways the tone of the message is as intriguing, and alarming, as the timing,” said a U.S. official familiar with the tape, and the intelligence community’s analysis of it. “The absence of an explicit threat does represent a different point of emphasis for this guy.
“Is he still an enemy? Absolutely. Is he still focused on terrorism? Yes,” continued the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But the tone of this is something we’re looking at very closely to see where this guy is placing his emphasis.”
The official said “a political spinoff [of Al Qaeda] is one of the greatest fears” of U.S. counter-terrorism authorities, with Bin Laden and his network following the path of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hezbollah and the Irish Republican Army. Over the years, those organizations evolved from violent militant groups into broader organizations with influential, widely accepted political wings.
Bin Laden faces significant obstacles in any attempt to appeal to a wider audience. For one, he is the world’s most wanted man, responsible for attacks across the globe and will always have to operate from hiding. U.S. officials also were skeptical that Al Qaeda would ever halt its terrorist activities, saying that the group was plotting attacks even now.
But, some former U.S. intelligence officials said Saturday, Bin Laden’s efforts already have met with some success among a broad spectrum of the global population, Muslims in particular.
John Brennan, director of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, appeared with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Saturday to discuss the tape. Brennan said various intelligence agencies were scrutinizing it to look for larger messages beyond possible hints of an attack.
“I think what he’s trying to do is to show, or to try to demonstrate, that Al Qaeda, as an organization, is still effective, even though they have not, in fact, been able to do something here in the States,” Brennan said of Bin Laden. “Now, are there other aspects of it that we have to better understand? That’s what we’re trying to do right now.”
On the tape, Bin Laden offers a harsh critique of U.S. foreign policy over the last few decades, especially during the administrations of President Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush. He says both administrations propped up corrupt Mideast regimes at the expense of the region’s Muslims.
Bin Laden has criticized U.S. leaders in the past. But the new tape, experts said, marks a departure in that he suggests to Americans that they have the power to stop Al Qaeda attacks by rejecting candidates who attack the terrorist organization or who cause harm to Muslims here and overseas.
“Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or Al Qaeda,” Bin Laden said, addressing Americans. “Your security is in your own hands.”
Roger W. Cressey, a senior counter-terrorism official in the Bush and Clinton administrations, said Bin Laden began his shift this year, when he tried to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies over the invasion of Iraq.
Al Qaeda criticism of Spain’s role in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq is believed to have contributed to the Madrid train bombings in March, in which at least 191 people were killed.
Then, in mid-April, Bin Laden offered a cease-fire to other European nations with a presence in Iraq, saying Al Qaeda would not attack them if they withdrew their troops. The offer was rejected, but authorities said the success of the Madrid bombings emboldened Bin Laden into believing that Muslims worldwide would actively support such efforts.
“He has injected a political element into his work and has tried to appeal almost on an intellectual level,” said Cressey, now a counter-terrorism consultant. “He’s saying, ‘I’m here and you better factor me into your calculations, political and otherwise.’ ”
“If people are concerned that he is evolving into more of a political figure, to a certain extent he already has,” Cressey said. U.S. authorities, he added, “should be concerned if [Bin Laden’s] message resonates with a broader portion of the Muslim world than his narrower messages of the past, in that he was declaring war. And only time will tell if that’s the case.”
Lee Strickland, who recently retired after 30 years at the CIA, said Bin Laden already had made inroads in some respects.
“He and his organization have matured and become more subtle and more effective in delivering their message and their policy,” Strickland said.
In his most recent tape, Bin Laden “shows a great sophistication in thinking, in planning and in communication. It makes him much more dangerous,” Strickland said.