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Is Bin Laden moving on from Iraq?

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent BBC News website

Osama Bin Laden - still by as-Sahab Media
Osama Bin Laden's latest messages concentrate on Palestinians

The two latest messages believed to be from Osama Bin Laden emphasise the centrality of a struggle against Israel and raise the question as to why he did not concentrate on Iraq.

In the first statement, posted on the internet on 16 May, he said: "My talk to you addresses the main root of conflict... namely, the Palestinian question. This conflict is escalating due to your [the West's] current policies. I would like to stress here that the Palestinian question is my nation's top issue."

In the second, on 18 May, he attacked Arab leaders for not doing more to help: "Every day, the herd wishes the wolves would stop preying on it. Those kings and leaders sacrificed Palestine and Al-Aqsa [the mosque in Jerusalem] to keep their crowns. ... But we will not be relieved of this responsibility."

The reference to the Palestinians has always been present in the al-Qaeda leader's statements over the years, but it has often been sidelined by other tactical and strategic interests, from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan to the Danish cartoons. Iraq has been one of the most prominent issues for him.

Waking from slumber

The two new statements contrast with the importance given to Iraq in another message in March: "Iraq is the perfect base to set up the jihad to liberate Palestine. Palestine will be restored to us, with God's permission, when we wake up from our slumber."

The word "slumber" (and his criticism of Arab rulers) gives a clue to Bin Laden's thinking. He wants more to be done.

Hence perhaps the shift from Iraq, which has come to mean difficulties, to the "Palestinian question", which can attract support.

This has led to a theory among some western intelligence analysts that al-Qaeda accepts that it is in trouble in Iraq.

No-brainer

Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said: "In reality al-Qaeda has not done much against Israel. It is hard to do so. Through its now dead agent in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, it hoped to attack Israel after establishing a base in Iraq, but the hope of establishing that base has probably failed.

Ayman al-Zawahiri
Ayman al-Zawahiri: was questioned about Muslim casualties

"Al Qaeda could now be preparing its followers for a strategic failure in Iraq. It therefore needs a rallying cry and Palestine is a no-brainer."

Mr Inkster, formerly deputy head of Britain's foreign intelligence agency MI6, adds that one reason for this possible shift is the number of complaints about Muslims killed in Iraq and elsewhere.

"Al-Qaeda's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is like the chief executive officer to Bin Laden's chairmanship, recently held an open day of questions on the internet," he said.

"The issue of Muslim casualties was the biggest issue. Al-Qaeda recognises this is a not a good story and needs to rebrand. Hence this apparent move away from talking about Iraq."

In that internet session, al-Zawahiri was forced to defend killing Muslim bystanders, who, he said, had died because of "unintentional error" or had been used as "shields" by al-Qaeda's enemies.

Of course, Osama Bin Laden can easily return to the theme of Iraq, and events there might prove the theory wrong, but the assessment that al-Qaeda is suffering from the reduction of its forces there is reflected in a wider concept about the current strengths and weakness of the organisation.

There is a lively debate at the moment about whether what is called "al-Qaeda Central" - the leadership probably based in the tribal areas of Pakistan - is in control or whether the group is now kept going by autonomous cells which form spontaneously.

Leaderless jihad

Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer and now writer on international security issues, is the leading proponent of what he calls "leaderless jihad" (the title of his latest book).

In an article in Foreign Policy magazine in April he argued that young, self-recruited activists constituted the latest wave of global jihad.

Al-Qaeda could now be preparing its followers for a strategic failure in Iraq
Nigel Inkster IISS

In a question and answer session following publication he said: "In the past three years, because of decreasing Pakistani military pressure in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan... some al Qaeda leaders have been able to regroup. They definitely try to plot against the West and the United States, but they have been unable to project their capability outside Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"But unlike [in] the years prior to September 11, al-Qaeda no longer seems to have the luxury of coordinating large transnational attacks without being detected. The difference has been the international community's success in containing the threat in the past six years... Having said this, as long as al-Qaeda leaders exist, there is still a threat that cannot be ignored."

One might take issue, in London and Madrid, with the claim that the threat has been contained, but the argument is clear: al-Qaeda has broken up into groups that are inspired by the leadership but not necessarily controlled by "al-Qaeda Central". It gives them strength, in that they proliferate in unknown cells, but it also leaves them vulnerable to being isolated.

Nigel Inkster agrees up to a point: "Many people on the books of intelligence agencies have no real connection with al-Qaeda Central. But western agencies think that al-Qaeda Central still seeks command and control."

Assessment

He offered this overall assessment: "It is difficult to be categorical. Intelligence agencies are very worried about al-Qaeda in North West Pakistan. Yemen is a worrying trend, as is Somalia and North Africa.

"There is some evidence that support for Osama Bin Laden has been dropping in the Arab world because of revulsion about al-Qaeda behaviour and especially the killing of Muslims.

"On the other hand, there is still an appetite and ambition to engage in terrorism spectaculars in western Europe and US, though the capacity might not match the ambition.

"But they only have to be lucky once."

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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