Petraeus Report: Under bin Laden Backdrop

As General David Petraeus heads into a hostile US Congress this week to defend the troop surge in Iraq, the reappearance of Osama bin Laden in an internet video has ignited fresh allegations that the Bush administration has dropped the ball on counterterrorism and homeland security to focus on the war in Iraq.

The bin Laden video surfaced on the internet on Friday, in the lead up to the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the US. The 26-minute speech refers to the “vulnerability” of the United States , the “unjust” war in Iraq and the “reeling of many of you under the burden of interest-related debts, insane taxes and real estate mortgages.” He also blamed “global warming and its woes” on “emissions of the factories the major corporations”, and repeatedly urged Americans to embrace Islam.

A voice analysis conducted by the CIA confirmed that the speaker is definitely bin Laden. His references to the election of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the appointment of Gordon Brown as British Prime Minister further convinced intelligence officials that the tape was made within the last few months.

The White House immediately dismissed bin Laden as ‘virtually impotent’ and the tape itself as ‘propaganda’. Homeland security advisor Fran Townsend told Fox News Sunday, “This is a man on the run from a cave who is virtually impotent other than these tapes.”

However, this assessment is not accurate according to an investigative report published on Saturday in the Washington Post which claims that bin Laden is still a central figure in the leadership of al Qaeda. “Today, al Qaeda operates much the way it did before 2001,” says the report. “The network is governed by a shura, or leadership council, that meets regularly and reports to bin Laden, who continues to approve some major decisions, according to a senior US intelligence official.” Another official said, “They do appear to meet with a frequency that enables them to act as an organization and not just as a loose bunch of guys.”

Following the US military strikes in Afghanistan in late 2001, al Qaeda moved its activities across the Pakistani border into the dusty frontier town of Peshawar. There the al Qaeda leadership rebuilt the organization’s operational capacity through fundraising, recruiting and training. Meanwhile, it also “expanded its media arm into perhaps the most effective propaganda machine ever assembled by a terrorist or insurgent network.”

Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who led the intelligence team that tracked bin Laden, believes that al Qaeda’s leadership remains robust, adaptive and dangerously relevant. “All this business about them being isolated or cut off is whistling past the graveyard,” he said. “We’re looking at an organization that is extraordinarily adept at succession planning.”

Opponents of the war in Iraq have long disputed the Bush administration’s claim that the war is necessary to advance counterterrorism and protect the US homeland. The new bin Laden video has drawn a fresh backlash from the war’s most vocal critics.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who voted against the joint resolution in 2002 to invade Iraq, told CNN on Sunday: “Every time I see that fugitive terrorist on television taunting America I think of how wrong this president was in turning away from going after that murderer, who murdered our citizens, and moving into Iraq and not having any way of getting us out.”

Meanwhile, the chair and vice-chair of the 9/11 Commission warn that the war in Iraq continues to drain US counterterrorism and homeland security resources while boosting recruitment and training opportunities for al Qaeda. In their joint opinion piece published in this weekend’s Washington Post, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton wrote, “No conflict drains more time, attention, blood, treasure and support from our worldwide counterterrorism efforts than the war in Iraq. It has become a powerful recruiting and training tool for al Qaeda … We have become distracted and complacent.”

Responding on Fox News, Ms Townsend hit back, “It is not a distraction. It is an integral part of the war [on terror] effort.”

Discussing the new bin Laden video, Ms Townsend said, “We do take the tapes seriously. Look at the activities recently in Germany and Denmark. So we know that al Qaeda is still determined to attack, and we take it seriously. But this tape looks — appears to be nothing more than threats. It’s propaganda on their part.”

On the other hand, CIA Director Michael Hayden recently issued this warning: “Our analysts assess with high confidence that al Qaeda’s central leadership is planning high-impact plots against the American homeland.”

Political analysts are still pouring over the new bin Laden video. Citing the absence of any direct threats, some experts say the speech seems to be little more than a morale boost for al Qaeda followers; however, others believe the message has a much greater significance.

Rohan Gunaratna, an international terrorism expert and author of the book Inside Al Qaeda, told Reuters, “Osama’s call to the Americans to convert to Islam is indicative of an al Qaeda attack on US targets. Before the Prophet (Mohammad) attacked his enemies he urged his opponents to embrace Islam. Osama is presenting Koranic injunctions before planning to attack.”

Khalid al-Dakhil, a professor of political science at King Saud University, agrees that there is an implicit threat. “There was a US report warning of a possible attack, then came this,” he said. “The whole message is focused on the United States … this suggests that there is a threat. The more important thing is the message that leaving Iraq will not solve the problem.”

Meanwhile, President Bush seized on bin Laden’s reference to Iraq to reinforce his case for continuing the war. “I found it interesting that, on the tape, Iraq was mentioned, which is a reminder that Iraq is a part of this war against extremists,” said Mr Bush. “If al Qaeda bothers to mention Iraq, it is because they want to achieve their objectives in Iraq, which is to drive us out and to develop a safe haven.”

Those who read more into the message are cautioning that bin Laden’s focus seems far from Iraq. “The message is much more threatening this time,” said Mohamed El-Sayed, Deputy Director of the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “It’s confident, it uses iconic language that suggests, ‘I’m commissioned to wage an unending war against you, and the only way to get peace is to convert to Islam.’ It’s very clear that he took care to give the impression that he’s at ease, he’s on the offensive and he controls the situation. He’s not a fugitive, he’s very comfortable … He’s saying ‘Now I can show you mercy or not.’”


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