Intelligence analysts are still mulling over the latest audio message from Osama bin Laden, looking for hidden meaning and messages in the terror leader's diatribe.
We've never claimed to fully understand bin Laden, and his most recent speech struck us as a bit strange. On the five-year anniversary of the Iraq War, the Al Qaida chieftain ignored that subject altogether, concentrating instead on the recent republication of cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed, by newspapers in Denmark.
The cartoons, which touched off a firestorm of controversy (and violence) when first published in 2006, were reprinted again last month. So far, the reaction from Muslims in Europe--and elsewhere--has been comparatively mild, at least by the standards of two years ago. Still, bin Laden threatened Europeans with a new "reckoning" for their misdeeds. As the AP reports:
Wednesday's audiotape from bin Laden was posted on a militant Web site that has carried al-Qaida statements in the past and bore the logo of the extremist group's media wing Al-Sahab.
"The response will be what you see and not what you hear and let our mothers bereave us if we do not make victorious our messenger of God," said a voice believed to be bin Laden's, without specifying what action would be taken.
He said the cartoons "came in the framework of a new Crusade in which the Pope of the Vatican has played a large, lengthy role," according to a transcript released by the SITE Institute, a U.S. group that monitors terror messages.
"You went overboard in your unbelief and freed yourselves of the etiquette's of dispute and fighting and went to the extent of publishing these insulting drawings," he said. "This is the greater and more serious tragedy, and reckoning for it will be more severe."
So, why did bin Laden ignore Iraq in favor of a "recycled" crisis? A few answers come to mind.
First, things are hardly going Al Qaida's way in Iraq. Since the troop surge began, Al Qaida and its local allies have suffered a series of staggering defeats, losing territory, support and influence. With the terror group Iraqi affiliate now a shadow of its former self, bin Laden can hardly chortle about the "defeats" being inflicted on the "crusaders."
And, as Rusty at the Jawa Report observes, there's the very real possibility that the latest bin Laden tape is simply a recycled product:
There is literally no doubt in my mind now. This is an old audio, probably from 2006, of bin Laden. As Sahab must have been embarrassed that they had nothing to offer the world on this the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, so they hurriedly released an old audio they had lying around. The fact that there was no accompanying banner is evidence that they threw this together last minute.
If Jawa's analysis is correct, that raises another question, namely why was Al Qaida's normally- astute propaganda arm unable to offer any new audio or video on the anniversary of the Iraq War? For starters, it is possible (as Jawa proposes) that bin Laden is now dead--although there's no compelling evidence to confirm that assertion.
A better explanation might be that the Al Qaida leader has moved deeper into the mountains of Waziristan, making it more difficult for his propaganda arm to create new products. Such a relocation would be in response to recent air strikes in the region that have killed several top Taliban officials.
Indeed, those attacks may have eliminated key figures in As Sabah, including Adam Gadahn, the American traitor who (in recent years) has played an increasingly important role in Al Qaida's propaganda machine. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Gadahn died in a 29 January airstrike on a terrorist safe house in Waziristan. But there is a problem with that theory, as the Long War Journal observed last month:
Al Qaeda would have capitalized on Gadahn's death, given his unique status as an American member of al Qaeda. "I would imagine that if Gadahn got knocked off they would have announced his death just as quickly as they did [Abu Laith al Libi's death]," said Nick Grace, who closely tracks al Qaeda's propaganda and activity at jihadi forums. "Having an American become a martyr would be a propaganda coup for them and I imagine that ultimately Gadahn will be more useful for al Qaeda dead than alive."
Grace noted that Gadahn plays a leading role in al Qaeda's propaganda apparatus. "He has a leading voice within As Sahab's management," Grace said. Gadahn has taken over a significant role in As Sahab since the summer of 2006, and the propaganda has become more "sophisticated" since Gadahn's direction.
But signs of Gadahn's absence have been seen with the latest release of the Yazid video, said Grace. Files were not properly uploaded in the correct sequence. "Since taking the reins of as-Sahab, Gadahn instituted standards and practices that have been closely followed over the past year," Grace noted. "This is the first technical mistake that I have seen them make since the events back in September 2007," when the Osama bin Laden videotape was improperly handled.
Al Qaida's odd reaction to the five-year anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom may led more credence to reports of Gadahn's death. Some of the terror group's propaganda efforts have grown clumsy in recent months, lacking their past focus on U.S. audiences and themes. That may indicate Al Qaida's highest-ranking American may no longer control the media show, because he became "one with the cosmos" a few weeks back.
And that would be welcome news, indeed.