Tape keeps bin Laden in spotlight

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CAIRO, Egypt – His message seemed aimed at moderate Arabs, a call to arms that they should support al-Qaida in fighting what he calls a war against Islam.

But even another militant group, Hamas, tried to distance itself after Osama bin Laden’s latest audiotape of threats was aired Sunday on Arab television. Independent analysts said it appears bin Laden has begun timing such appeals to ensure he stays relevant and in the spotlight.

“If you look back at what’s been happening with bin Laden tapes in the past, it’s when people have kind of forgotten about him, when he’s not been on the news, that the tapes emerge,” said Bob Ayers, a security expert with the Chatham House think tank in London. “It’s kind of his way of thumbing his nose at the U.S. and saying, ‘Hey, I’m still out here.”‘

Yet those who say the connection between bin Laden’s tapes and actual attacks has ebbed still view them as ominous warnings of al-Qaida’s overall strategy.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said al-Qaida’s propaganda techniques “would make a politician proud.

“It recognizes that much of this war, this battle that we’re fighting, is about winning the hearts and the minds of moderate Islam, and they are focused on that,” Hoekstra said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We need to be focused on it.”

In the tape, broadcast on Al-Jazeera television, bin Laden accused average Westerners of supporting a war on Islam and urged his followers to go to Sudan – his former base – to fight a proposed U.N. peacekeeping force.

His words, the first new message in three months, seemed designed to justify potential attacks on civilians – something al-Qaida has been criticized for even by Arab supporters. He also appeared to be trying to drum up support among Arabs by accusing the West of targeting Hamas, a militant group that fights against Israel and now heads the Palestinian government.

Citing the West’s decision to cut off aid to the Hamas-led government, the al-Qaida leader said Washington and Europe were conducting “a Zionist, crusaders’ war on Islam.”

Al-Qaida is believed to have no direct links to Hamas, which is an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood. And a Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, was quick to distance the group, declaring Sunday that “the ideology of Hamas is totally different from the ideology of Sheik bin Laden.”

The groups do, however, share an anti-Israel ideology that calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. And recent reports in the Middle East media have said al-Qaida is trying to build cells in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and Sudan. Israel has indicted two West Bank militants for al-Qaida membership.

Israeli government spokesman Raanan Gissin said it appeared bin Laden had decided to issue the verbal assault to deflect growing Arab animosity toward al-Qaida.

That criticism came to a peak last December when the leader of the al-Qaida in Iraq group claimed responsibility for bombings of Jordan hotels that killed many Arabs.

“This is something the Arab world can agree upon,” Gissin said. “He has been criticized for the destruction and carnage he’s causing the Muslim nation. He’s looking for another justification … . Criticizing Israel sounds more politically correct.”

The voice on the tape sounded strong and appeared the same as that on other recordings attributed to bin Laden. But independent verification was not immediately possible.

Bin Laden’s remarks, which appeared to have been heavily edited by Al-Jazeera, ranged across the spectrum of issues that anger even moderate Arabs. Many of them see a renewal of a Christian- and Jewish-inspired Western “crusade” to dominate the Islamic world and to confiscate Muslim lands and resources – oil in particular.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad downplayed the significance of the message in an interview with CNN’s “Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer.”

“He wants to be relevant to the situation,” Khalilzad said. “(He) wants to get attention, (to show) that he still is a player and that this is unfinished business that we still have to deal with.”

Kevin Rosser, a senior analyst with Control Risks Group, a risk assessment consultancy, said such tapes “used to be seen as significant because they were thought to contain coded messages or warn of imminent attacks. ….As time has gone on, that connection has loosened to the point where these messages are (now) seen as an attempt to reinsert himself into the debate.”

On Sudan, bin Laden called on his supporters “to prepare for a long war against the crusader plunderers in Western Sudan. Our goal is not defending the Khartoum government but to defend Islam, its land and its people,” he said.

“I urge holy warriors to be acquainted with the land and the tribes in Darfur,” he said, adding they should be aware that the rainy season approaches and that will hamper their movement.

Al-Qaida has targeted Western military forces in Africa before – including its attacks against U.S. troops trying to bring peace to Somalia in 1993.

The fighting in Darfur began when rebels from black African tribes took up arms in February 2003, complaining of discrimination and oppression by Sudan’s Arab-dominated government.

The government has been accused of unleashing Arab tribal militia known as the Janjaweed against civilians in a campaign of murder, rape and arson. At least 180,000 people have died – many from hunger and disease – and 2 million people have been displaced in the vast, arid region of western Sudan and as refuges in neighboring Chad.

The U.S. and other Western countries are pushing for the United Nations to send a peacekeeping force to the ravaged region.

Bin Laden also a personal background in Sudan – the Saudi-born al-Qaida leader set up headquarters there after he was forced to leave his homeland. Sudan then expelled him under threats from the United States. Bin Laden then moved to Afghanistan where he trained fighters and organized the Sept. 11 attacks.

He is now believed hiding in the rugged mountains on the Pakistani side of that country’s long border with Afghanistan.

In Washington, U.S. intelligence officials said bin Laden was now living separately from his top deputy and, in a sign he has to be careful about whom he trusts, surrounded by fellow Arabs.

His No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, is hiding in a more settled area along the border, also surrounded by al-Qaida operatives who share his Egyptian nationality, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

The al-Qaida chieftain, who last issued a message broadcast by Al-Jazeera on Jan. 19, also made a point of trying to justify attacks on civilians. He said citizens of Western countries were equally responsible with their governments for what he termed the “war on Islam.”

“I say that this war is the joint responsibility of the people and the governments. While the war continues, the people renew their allegiance to their rulers and politicians and continue to send their sons to our countries to fight us,” bin Laden said.

In his last message, bin Laden offered the United States a long-term truce but warned al-Qaida would soon launch a fresh attack on American soil. There have been no new attacks on the United States in the three months since, however.

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